Beyond the fringe

The Last of the Celts

Marcus Tanner <em>Yale University Press, 398pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0300104642

This is a good, big, sad book about a tremendous historical progression - the gradual elimination, over several centuries, of the Celtic languages and cultures of Europe. Near the end, Marcus Tanner quotes Matthew Arnold's heart-rending "Dover Beach", about the decline of faith in his time, and the analogy is just: there is to the fate of Celticness, too, an echo of that "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,/Retreating, to the breath/ Of the night-wind . . ."

I say "Celticness", but I am not altogether sure what I mean. Are we thinking of languages, or nationalities, or ethnicities, or pronunciations, or what? As a Welsh patriot, I long ago came to view the whole Celtic business with a cynical eye. The idea of a Celtic alliance of nation states seems to me chimerical. The Celtic Fringe is hardly more than a political cliche. Celtic mists died with Yeats. When I hear Celticness mentioned nowadays I don't reach for my revolver, but I do hide away my purse: the word's connotations of squiggly greeting cards, torque brooches, love spoons, line dancing, nasal folk singers and relentless fiddlers of Galway or Cape Breton are far more often commercial than cultural.

It is language, though, that is the one measurable badge of a culture, neither commercially exploitable nor definable by frontiers. The Celtic languages divided long ago into two branches, and there are several places on the shores of the Atlantic where one or the other survives. In Europe there are Brittany, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland and Wales; in the Americas, Nova Scotia and two Welsh settlements in Argentina. Tanner visits them all in the course of this book. He likens them to pools waiting to become puddles, and describes their Celtic-speaking communities vividly, compassionately, learnedly and, just occasionally, hopefully.

Only occasionally, because there is no denying that most of them are on the way out. Not often does the tide seem to be turning. It is hard to imagine Cornish or Manx ever being spoken generally again. In Nova Scotia the Gaelic of transplanted Highlanders is more or less dead, despite the tourist brochures and the fiddlers. In Patagonia the Welsh settlers of a century ago are inevitably being Hispanicised. In Brittany, the speakers of Breton are nearly all elder- ly. In Ireland, even the constitutionally Gaelic pockets of the Gaeltacht are being invaded by English monoglots. And in Scotland only about 1 per cent of the population speaks Gaelic.

Closest to home for the English, whose language has been an insolent scourge of the Celtic tongues down the centuries, is Wales, and the story of Cymraeg - Welsh - is representative of them all. It was forced into its western enclaves by invaders of alien speech. It was identified first with paganism, then with its own forms of Christianity. It has been enmeshed in political nationalism and it faces nemesis now not from military conquest, but by the infiltration of more insidious influences, both economic and cultural - by globalisation in its most potent kinds, mostly impervious to decree.

They are influences that threaten all the surviving Celtic places. The blight of tourism is one. The plague of second homes is another - for the Celtic lands, by and large, are very desirable territories for estate agents. Television and radio can be defensive tools for a language, but they can be fatally destructive, too. Urban development, ease of transport, corporational power, more money about, the decline of religion, political correctness, electoral tactics, inherited prejudices and wider ambitions - every one of these threatens those ancient tongues and cultures. Some governments have subsidised attempts to save them, usually with decidedly mixed motives, but in general the world's odds are heavily against the Celts.

There are flickers of hope in the eagerness of people around the Celtic world to revive their heritages. After all, desolated languages have been reborn in the past - think of Latvian or Slovenian; think even of Hebrew. Even Cornish, whose death was pronounced a century ago, has so far come to life again that there are now three rival versions of it. Even Manx has a national anthem. And when the queen of England attended the opening of the new Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff in November last year, the festivities ended not with "God Save the Queen", but with "Hen Wlad fy Nhadau" - "Land of My Fathers" - which prays not for the well-being of a sovereign, but for the survival of the Welsh language.

But then Wales, Tanner tells us, is now the true champion of the Celtic tongues. Only about one in five of the Welsh population speaks Cymraeg, but 400,000 people do, and it is sheer love of the language and its culture that has carried it through, now subsiding, now reawakening, never giving up. Tanner writes that, in some of the Celtic countries, people are still ashamed of their indigenous tongues. Not in Wales. I have never heard any Welsh person, whether they speak Welsh or not, say ill of yr hen iaith, the old language, or fail to regret its decline, and in the north my neighbours of all ages use it as a matter of course. It is still natural to them, un-self-conscious, organic. Tanner says the first sign he had that Welsh was not doomed to extinction in his lifetime was hearing a crowd of yobs in a Caernarfon supermarket being yobbish in Welsh.

It is among the Welsh of Patagonia, too, that a Celtic vernacular is inexorably fading out not with self-pity, but with a certain panache. There are people in that land whose first language is already Spanish, but who face the likely demise of their ancestral tongue with dignified affection - proud to be Welsh, if only in part, proud of their old language whatever happens to it, and happy to think themselves related to that greater Celtic community across the ocean, where Cymraeg fights so bravely on, and time and again the tide comes rippling up the shingle.

Jan Morris's A Writer's World: travels 1950-2000 is out in paperback (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 01 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, We punish the man, but protect a corrupt system