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Celtic Conservatism by Charles A. Coulombe

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Celtic Conservatism

Joseph of Arimathea supporting Christ in "The Descent from the Cross" (ca. 1435), a 220 × 262 cm oil on oak panel by Rogier van der Weyden, located in the Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The month of March opens with the feast of St. David, patron Saint of Wales. March 5th is the feast of St. Piran, Cornwall’s patron. As all the world knows—or at least the whole Anglosphere—March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day; but amidst all the Hibernianism, both fake and authentic, it is often forgotten that, in the traditional Roman calendar, March 17th also marks the feast day of St. Joseph of Arimathea, whose burial of Christ and guardianship of the grail is central to many Glastonbury legends. In an era when various ethnic groups and sexual ‘orientations’ contend for recognition via months in their honour, March would seem a fair candidate for ‘Celtic History Month.’

But just what is a Celt? For the historian, Celts are a warlike people who sweep out of what is now Ukraine all the way to Ireland, conquering and absorbing various other tribes, and ranging as far south as Spain and Turkey (Galatia), even giving the jaded Romans a turn. For the archaeologist, they are the cultures typified by finds at La Tene and Hallstatt. The linguist would confine the term to speakers of the six surviving Celtic languages: Welsh, Breton, Cornish, and Irish, Scots, and Manx Gaelic. The geneticist would seek them in various haplogroups. Musicologists will look for harps and bagpipes from Egypt to Ireland. Folklorists seek out remote populations replete with tales of fairies, elves, and witches.

Whichever criteria one cares to use, the Celts are a powerful if ambiguous presence in the modern Western mind. Both Presbyterians and Anglicans like to imagine themselves as part of a tradition of ‘Celtic Christianity’ which was far nicer and more eco-friendly than that nasty Papist stuff. Neo-Druids, Wiccans, New Agers, and mystic types will take it a step further and speak of a ‘Celtic spirituality’ encompassing both Celtic Christianity and a sanitised Celtic paganism–conveniently forgetting the role human sacrifice played in Druid ritual. Parallel distortions of heritage occur in the political sphere, various Celtic nationalist groups (Sinn Fein, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and others) having grafted greater or lesser degrees of secularism and Marxism upon Celtic identity.

The reality is quite different. It may be difficult to define the Celtic regions outside of language, but the areas that identify themselves as such in continental Europe do have a great deal in common with each other and with the marginal regions of the British Isles. Moreover, they all manifest an historic conservatism, religiously, culturally, and politically. All are a bit out of the way, and rather–for want of a better word—enchanting.

Let us start with the ‘Celtic fringe’ of the British Isles: Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, the Gaeltacht of Ireland, Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, and to some degree the north and west of England. All of these areas were hives of opposition to the Protestant Revolt: the Pilgrimage of Grace, the Risings in the West and in the North, the travails of Mary Queen of Scots, and the Nine Years War in Ireland were all partly religious and partly cultural in nature. So it was with the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and the Jacobite Wars; and the 19th century revival of Scots, Welsh, Manx, and Cornish nationalisms initially took place alongside, and in connexion with, a Neo-Jacobite Revival, with stalwarts like Henry Jenner, Erskine of Mar, and Theodore Napier joining the Jacobite Order of the White Rose, and later co-founding organisations which were the predecessors of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, before they became the ‘progressive’ parties we are familiar with to-day. 

Modern Irish Nationalism was a product of the French Revolution; but, in the Rebellion of 1798, one might say the old Ireland and the new came into conflict. Munster rebelled against the Rebellion, being in the words of Seumas MacManus: “too Jacobite ever to be Jacobin.” Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, remained a staunch monarchist, despite supporting both Catholic Emancipation and the repeal of the 1802 Union between Ireland and Great Britain (initially supported by Catholics in hope of relief from the Protestant Parliament in Dublin). O’Connell’s uncle had been in the Irish Brigade in the service of King Louis XVI, and he himself had been present at the Bastille. Indeed, the Irish situation would be filled with all sorts of contradictions—from Catholic Unionists to Protestant Gaelic Revivalists–until the Irish Republican Army became Marxist. Whatever one makes of 1916, it is hard to imagine Padraig Pearse celebrating the secular, perverse, and infanticidal state that calls itself Ireland to-day, or Sir Edward Carson appreciating Sinn Fein’s support for the British imposition of abortion on the North. 

Across the channel, even after joining the Kingdom of France (through marriage, not conquest), the Celtic refuge of Brittany retained its unique laws and institutions until the French Revolution. Indeed, Bretons would be among the foremost in the counter-revolutionary Chouannerie and, despite the rise of 20th century Marxist Celticism, Brittany remains a stronghold of Royalist and Catholic sympathy. It has also retained its Celtic tongue, as well as bagpipes and an uncanny folklore.

Other areas of France, though wholly latinised in language, still consider themselves Celtic, especially Poitou, Auvergne, and Savoie; and what they lack in language they make up in lore and legend. The western half of Poitou is, of course, the famous Vendée region, whose counter-revolutionary struggle needs little introduction to those familiar with French history. But the Revolution was also fought intensely in Auvergne, which, as with Brittany and the Vendée, has maintained its reputation for conservatism. The same is true of Savoie, which, when the Revolution broke out, was actually part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, ruled by the House of Savoy. Because the locals spoke French it was presumed by the French Republicans that they would be received with open arms. Instead they faced guerilla warfare. Despite having been definitively ceded to France in 1859, Savoie remains both religiously and culturally closer to its past than to the Paris-approved present.

In Italy itself, green and lovely Piemonte played host to the Massa Cristiana rising against the French in 1799; and the neighbouring Val d’Aosta—French in language but just as Celtic in culture and lore—was equally opposed to the invaders. Both areas retained their loyalty to the Church and the House of Savoy deep into the 20th century. Meanwhile, long after its conquest by Garibaldi in 1860, Abruzzo—once in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and replete with the usual lore of obscure Saints, holy wells, fairies, and bagpipes–remained loyal to its Bourbon Kings, just as it did to Umberto II in 1946.

The Alps, too, were long a Celtic refuge. Divided between Austria and Italy since 1918, the Tyrol hosts a German version of the folkloric ethos that dominates Celtdom. Ever loyal both to the Catholic Faith and the House of Habsburg, its folk hero is Andreas Hofer, who, under the banner of the Sacred Heart, led his countrymen against the Bavarians during the Napoleonic War. To this day, on either side of the border, local militias keep alive the traditions of the ‘Kaiserjaeger’ troops of the Old Empire; in June, the fires of the Sacred Heart illumine the night sky. Similarly, the depths of the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France shelter legends, a deep Catholic Faith, and the memory of the Peasants’ War against the Jacobins.

The northern Spanish regions of Asturias, Cantabria, and especially Galicia also show conservative trends, in religion, folklore, and politics. The centre of the 800 year resistance to the Moors, in many ways these provinces were the cradle of the Spanish nationality. During the three Carlist Wars, and the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, they remained advocates of the senior branch of the Spanish Royal Family, the place of Catholicism in national life, and the ancient provincial liberties of the country. So, to great degree, do they remain. Traz-Os-Montes and Entre Douro-e-Minho in Northern Portugal are likewise renowned for their magical ambience and political conservatism, being the heart of the Miguelist movement during the Liberal War of the 1830s, and the site of the counter-revolutionary Northern Kingdom in 1919.

Each of these regions is worth exploring in detail. But it is what they have in common that concerns us here. Each is remote from the centres of power; accidents of history have pushed the Celts into peninsulas, islands, high mountain ranges, and deep forests. The striking landscapes that make up these places cannot help but work on the imagination, even as the difficulty of making a living in them confers strength on those who do so. Distance from higher authorities has led to a habit of solving problems in-house, as it were, while a deeply remembered history of courage and defeat has fostered the resolve to defend their patrimony against all comers. This patrimony includes the Faith of their fathers, and loyalty to the old leaders, be they kings or chiefs.

To be sure, this heritage has been much eroded by modernity’s moral degradations; but it has not yet disappeared, and survives even in the Celtic diaspora of the Americas, Australasia, and South Africa. Moreover, if globalism has cheapened and homogenised, to some extent it allows us to sample the treasures of formerly inaccessible cultures. Regardless of one’s own DNA, the ethereal sadness, wild gaiety, and fierce militancy of Celtic folksong grips the heart in ways that the tunes of few other cultures do.

What Celtic conservatives in their many manifestations have always fought for is their right to remain who they are, against those who would remake them in an alien image. It has often been said that conservatism is simply the defence of reality over made-to-order fantasy. If that is true, despite the otherworldly imagination for which the Celtic people are famed, theirs has been a conservative resistance: a defence of the real. Even that imagination, bizarre as its denizens may be, is analogous to, and rooted in, the truths of nature and divinity. Whether or not the banshee cries or the fairies dance, Saints do perform Miracles, and God Himself comes daily to earth at the Mass. 

From the Boyne to Bergisel, the Celts fought beyond hope for the sake of various traditionalist causes. We who have similar convictions today should study their struggles, both for inspiration and instruction. The crisis of our time is too serious to admit of casual commitment; as with those long-ago Celts, quite literally all we hold dear in Church, State, Culture, and Society is under siege. We should rejoice in what we are fighting for, love our comrades, and see our own efforts as part of the quest for a better world in this life and the next. It might well be argued that most of the Celtic causes went down to defeat; but their beliefs and values survived, and their songs and stories inspire their countrymen to this day. When discouraged by events in the here and now, we should remember that “not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time.”

Charles A. Coulombe is a columnist for the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy (TAN Books, 2020). It was reviewed in our Winter 2020/2021 print edition. He is also a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative.