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What is Celtic Music?

Celtic music. Fanciful term which expresses a world-view or record-shelf category rather than actual links between music genres.
1. Indicates 'Irish' or 'Scottish' musics, but is increasingly used in Britain and the US to denote 'Irish', this suggesting discomfort with 'Irishness'. In Europe it may denote Breton or Galician music in addition to Irish, Scottish and Welsh. The music of Brittany is different to Irish music, but is within the playing and listening experience of many Irish traditional musicians. Isle of Man, England and Wales are connected cultures, but Scotland has particularly strong linguistic and music links with Ireland, as has the Scots-Irish diaspora in Canada (Cape Breton, Newfoundland, etc.)
2. More superficially the term 'Celtic' has come to apply to an easy-listening, 'mood' music with dreamy, non-specific but Irish/Scots flavour, marketed as 'relaxing', 'evocative', etc. Such albums are legion, and enjoy a large sale in the US where the Narada company produces many compilation and re-licensed collections—including the playing of such as Máire Ní Chathasaigh, John Whelan and Joanie Madden—while the Mercury label's 'Secret Garden' features Davy Spillane. Traditional players sometimes use the term also, probably to appeal to the pre-formed audience. (Seán O'Driscoll's solo album is titled Celtic Music, Shanachie's 90 per cent Irish song collection is Celtic Love Songs, Green Linnet's, with similar composition, is Celtic Women in Music and Song), but few players would describe themselves as playing anything other than 'traditional' or 'Irish' music.

    Fintan Vallely, ed.
    The Companion to Irish Traditional Music
    New York University Press, 1999
    pp. 64-65


The discussion consists of the following sections:


Ancient times

The definition of "Celtic" music must start with a definition of what a "Celt" is. The origin of the term goes back to the word keltoi, which was used by the ancient Greeks to refer to certain barbarian tribes. In modern terminology, "Celtic" is used to refer to a certain branch of the Indo-European language group. Some of the tribes called keltoi spoke Celtic languages. However, it is not certain that the Greeks applied keltoi only to Celtic-speaking tribes. (In general, the ancient Greeks considered languages other than Greek to be little more than childish babble, which is what their term barbaros indicates.)

During the first millenium BCE, Celtic-speaking people occupied a large part of central Europe including modern France, Switzerland, Austria and more. Their name for themselves often includes the sound "g-l", such as Gaels, Gauls and Galatians (a people living in what is now Turkey who remained there long enough for St. Paul to write a letter to them). These ancient Celts had a distinct culture, which we see now in their very beautiful art work. However, in many respects their culture was much like that of other non-Celtic-speaking tribes in northern Europe. (See, for example, Hilda Ellis Davidson, Myths and symbols in pagan Europe: early Scandinavian and Celtic religions) This might be taken as an indication that some of their culture had been adopted from the people who lived in Europe before they arrived there. (It's generally agreed that Indo-European speakers originally lived somewhere in the area of the Black Sea.) It's now thought that these migrations assimilated the previous population. It's unlikely that it was a sort of military invasion.

Aside from what can be learned from archaeology, we don't know a lot about these ancient Celts. Most of the written sources come from the Greeks and Romans, who were their enemies, so it's a bit like trying to reconstruct Lakota culture from the diaries of General Custer.

At some point around perhaps 300 BC or so, the Celtic language split into two branches. Part of the change was that the sound Q changed to the sound P, so the two branches are called P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. For example, modern Irish ceann ("head") corresponds to Welsh pen.

In any case, after 2000 more years of fairly turbulent history, we find Celtic speaking peoples living only in the British Isles and the western part of France. There are six Celtic languages. The Q-Celtic or Goidelic branch is represented by Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx, spoken in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man respectively. The P-Celtic or Brythonic branch consists of Welsh, Cornish and Breton, spoken in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany (Bretagne).

The last native speaker of Cornish died sometime in the 19th century; exactly when is a topic of debate. The last native speaker of Manx died in the 1970s. The other four languages are still alive, but threatened.

There are of course still people who can speak Cornish and Manx, but not as a first language.


19th century

If we pick up the story in the middle 19th century, we see very little concept of "Celticness". However, there is a knowledge of the relationships within each language branch, since each set of three languages is somewhat mutally understandable. We also see that all Celtic speakers were on the receiving end of political persecution from the English government, except for the Bretons, who were on the receiving end of political persecution from the French government. In particular, many of the special privileges they had received when their independent realm had been incorporated into the kingdom of France were abolished by the French Revolution.

At this point, changes in European society allowed a political force to arise in reaction to this persecution. This force is led by educated people. In the previous century or two, part of the persecution spoken of was denying access to education, so that the majority of Celtic speakers were illiterate peasants. But with education becoming more widespread with society in general, some of the underclass managed to get access to education. These educated people could read books about linguistics and discover the existence of the relationship between the two language branches. The emergence of Celtic speaking people as a political factor (or perhaps I should say re-emergence) together with this discovery leads in the late 19th century to an artistic movement called the Celtic Twilight. The best-known exponent of this movement today would probably be the poet William Butler Yeats (Note: rhymes with "plates"). Part of this movement was a kind of romantic notion of the old relationship between the Celtic peoples.

In this period it was common to attribute a moody, dreamy temperament to the Celts. To anyone who has met many Scots or Irish, for example, this concept seems a little odd. It's true that they are more interested in poetry and such than the English, but who isn't? (Okay, Americans, but other than that.) But of the traits that make up their national character, if such a thing can be said to exist, romantic introspection is not the first one that comes to mind.

To me this is reminiscent of the people in the same era who talked about the nobility of the North American Indians, while at the same time they were taking away their land, pushing them on to reservations and taking their children away from them to destroy their language and culture. There's the same assumption that these old cultures have to be cleared away to make room for the modern world.

So when Celtic people started asking why they couldn't have self-government or why their children weren't allowed to speak their own language in school, the response was often along the lines of "those moody Celts, they are charming but so impractical".


1970s

After the Celtic Twilight died down, people went back to being Irish, Welsh, Breton, etc. The next event in our story occurs in the 1970s where a kind of music emerged that combined traditional music with some ideas taken from the folk movement of the 1950s and even from 1960s rock music. These were bands such as Planxty, the Bothy Band, the Boys of the Lough, etc. One characteristic of these bands was that they often played music from both Ireland and Scotland, so you couldn't call them just "Irish" or "Scottish". The term "Celtic" came to be applied to such bands. This is actually not quite accurate, because if we are using a language term to describe a musical style, "Gaelic" would have been a much better word to choose. Irish and Scottish music actually share a number of characteristics, but Breton music, for example, is much different.

However, "Celtic" was the term that came to be used, and when Breton bands came along they were called "Celtic" as well. In fact, the Galicians (the ones from Spain, not the ones from Poland) started to call themselves Celtic as well, on the basis that they used to speak a Celtic language centuries ago, and were as entitled to be called Celtic as, say, the Cornish. Their Asturian neighbours have employed the same argument.

There's a big annual festival in Lorient, Brittany called the Festival Interceltique which is based on this assumption of a common modern Celtic culture. There are other Celtic festivals elsewhere, but I think this was one of the first. It seems to me that part of the underlying motivation for such festivals is that a solidarity among modern Celtic people would help them to fight their common problems, in particular marginalization of their culture and oppression of their language. So these inclusive festivals are mutually beneficial in celebrating and publicizing the richness of their cultures and bringing it to the attention of the dominant culture.


1990s

This was how matters stood until fairly recently. My use of the term "Celtic" in these pages is based on that understanding. However, since the incredible popularity of the Riverdance show, a language change has started to occur. The beginning of this probably started to happen around the time the television series The Celts (about the ancient Celts) appeared with new-agey theme music by Enya. However, Riverdance accelerated the process tremendously. The term "Celtic" is now starting to get applied to groups playing what used to be called "pub ballads", not to mention movie theme music (if it uses a whistle), new age music, and even classical music composed by anybody who lived for any length of time in Scotland, Ireland, etc. So far Handel's Messiah (which received its first performance in Dublin) has escaped this, but if a way can be found to add low whistle or uilleann pipes to his orchestration, who knows? I have even seen Haydn's and Beethoven's rather Germanic settings of Scottish songs being referred to as "Celtic"!

This changing terminology reminds me of how "folk" has come to refer to narcissistic pop singers who play acoustic guitars, or sometimes even electric guitars. What was once "folk music" then became "traditional". However, I sometimes see "traditional" applied to modern musical styles such as bluegrass, and if the trend continues there will have to be another word to replace "traditional". When I was growing up in Canada, the term "old-time" was often used to refer to traditional fiddling, but today this would imply Appalachian (minstrel) fiddling.

Some people who play Irish traditional music have an intense dislike of the term "Celtic". They say, correctly, that there is no such thing as a "Celtic" tradition, and that they've been Irish all their lives and don't want to change now, especially if it means they have to wear leather pants and carry on like Michael Flatley. I imagine you could find the same attitude amongst the Scots, Welsh, etc.

I'm now reconsidering the use of the term "Celtic" in these pages, but so far I haven't found another term that quite covers the same ground. For the same reason, I think that many performers apply this term to their own music, simply to ensure that the kid with the pierced tongue at Tower Records puts their CDs in the right bin.

After thinking this over for some time, I realized that there is actually a certain commonality to the Celtic cultures and their music. This has to do with the way that they have been pushed out of their own countries and forced to emigrate. This emigration is a different experience from that of other emigrants, because their culture is under attack at home. When an Italian or a Greek emigrates, he knows that back home in Greece or Italy his culture is still going on, and nowadays it is relatively easy to keep in touch and visit. When the Celtic emigrant returns home, he may well find it completely occupied by people of a different culture, speaking a different language.

These concerns manifest themselves in music, and in the social situations surrounding traditional music. The Celtic peoples recognize this in each other's music, and this generates a political and cultural solidarity that did not exist previously. This solidarity is not based on any historical relationship more recent than perhaps 1500 years ago, but instead on a consciousness of a similar historical experience and a shared linguistic origin. Of course, there are other, non-Celtic, cultures facing similar problems, and they frequently inspire sympathy and support in the Celtic countries. See, for example, European minority (or minoritized) languages.


How to pronounce "Celtic"

One last point is how the word "Celtic" should be pronounced. Apparently during the Celtic Twilight period both hard ("Keltic") and soft c ("Seltic") pronunciations were used. By coincidence, this was the same period that professional sports got underway, and both in Britain and the U.S., sports teams were named "Celtic". These are universally referred to with the soft c pronunciation. The modern convention is to keep the soft c pronunciation to refer only to sports teams. The use of the hard c version in cultural matters indicated, until recently, that the user was somewhat knowledgable in these matters. This has changed since Riverdance, Titanic, etc., and also the use of the term "Celtic Tigers" to refer to the improved economy of Ireland and Scotland. (It doesn't seem to me that the economy of the other four Celtic countries has improved all that much, aside from people from outside coming in and buying holiday homes.) I suppose the term "tiger" is a reference to similarly improved Asian economies.

I was amused to hear during my last trip to Ireland an announcer giving sports scores on the radio say "Keltic" and then correct himself!

In French the soft c pronunciation is standard for "Celtique", following standard French pronunciation rules. Irish ("Ceilteach") and Breton ("kelt" ethn., "keltiek" ling.) both use a hard c sound. Modern Breton also has a word "Keltia", meaning the Celtic world.


Offsite links:
  • Who were the Celts?. Alternate site.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica's entry on the Celts.
  • The study of Celtic languages, UC Berkeley
  • A Salon.com article, Celtic kitsch. Excerpt:
    For Irish traditional music, which has long been poised uneasily between the folk music and world music markets, the arrival of Celtomania has been a mixed blessing. It's undoubtedly easier for musicians to make and sell recordings these days, and longtime loyalists like the Chieftains or the Green Linnet label have surely benefited. But more often than not the commodity being sold in the Celtic section of your neighborhood Tower is some sort of nonspecific windswept spirituality -- Windham Hill-style tranquillity with a sexy accent. Once upon a time the musicians on Irish traditional albums were hairy guys in cable-knit jumpers with fiddles. Now Enya and the members of Clannad dress like extras in a college production of "Riders to the Sea," walk moodily along cliffs and make cryptic allusions to Molly Bloom, the Children of Lir, the Tuatha Dé Danann.


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