Oral excess

The Sea Kingdoms: The story of Celtic Britain and Ireland

Alistair Moffat <em>HarperCollins, 316pp

Give England back to the Welsh may not be a realistic rallying cry in these devolved times, but historically it has a ring of legitimacy to it. The victors may write history, but the vanquished remember theirs, and in some ways we are all homogenised Celts now. Whether by blood, marriage or drinking habits, there are few of us who cannot invoke a Celtic allegiance, if the craic demands. That it was not always so in Britain over the past two millennia is addressed by Alistair Moffat in his attempt to reclaim Celtic history from the Mind, Body and Spirit shelves of bookshops and put it in its rightful place. In the Fantasy section? Only joking, Alistair.

Moffat briskly establishes how the non-literacy of early Celtic peoples gave rise to an oral tradition of recording history in verse and song, thus contributing to its woeful neglect by academics with eyes only for literature, and ears of cloth. For the onomatopoeic nuances of the Gaelic language, measured against the indolent English tongue, perhaps The Sea Kingdoms would be most persuasive as an audio book. Despite this, Moffat's resolve and learning catalyses this "history of whispers and forgetfulness" into an enlightening narrative, as he seeks to scratch the palimpsest of our isles' history and reveals older, overwritten tales.

'Obby'Oss is one beast in Padstow not cooked up by Rick Stein. On May Day every year, a masked man dressed in a peculiar skirted costume emerges from the Golden Lion pub to perform an ancient fertility dance. Like most surviving festival days, instead of fertility, it is an opportunity for drunken excess, and Moffat admits to an unpleasant encounter with a drunken Cornish youth clutching a bottle of American lager: "Fuck off! Why don't you people fuck off out of here? We don't want you. This is our day. This is our thing." The language may be more Anglo-Saxon, but the spirit is affirmedly Celtic. We are introduced not only to poetry and politics, but also, in violent contrast, to some of the most calculatedly torturous murder techniques of the Vikings and English. Pitch-capping, or "blood-eagling", was the fate of King Edmund of East Anglia, who was tied face first to a stake for his ribs to be hacked away from his spine with a sword, pulled outwards like wings, before his lungs were ripped out. Gruesome, certainly, but oddly beautiful, and reminiscent of the darker inventions of Thomas Harris, creator of Hannibal Lecter.

Moffat certainly displays the Celtic qualities of memory, eloquence and communion with the natural world, but perhaps, for a book on a "speech community", he gives too little room to the thoughts and feelings of those at present occupying the western landscapes he so convincingly evokes. An interview with a modern-day currach builder in Cork leaves one tantalised for more. However, a good story can always stand retelling, and this impressive book is in sympathy with the work of Lewis Spence and Byron Rogers, or even with Robert Flaherty's astonishing 1934 documentary, Man of Aran. It is also a useful antidote to the mirthless laughs raised by the cheap anti-Celtic jibes of the likes of Anne Robinson and A A Gill. At such times, the Celtic cross is borne as heavily as it ever was.