Hope for Celtic Studies in N America

Is there hope for Celtic Studies in North America? In its current formulation, I think not. This blog entry is a summary of this topic as explained in the Introduction to the volume Celts in the Americas, which offers an alternative course of development to the North American academy’s current approach.

Fellow academics are likely assume that Celtic Studies is merely another bastion of white, Eurocentric privilege relishing its place in the “Western” canon. The irony – obvious to anyone who’s been trained in the field – is that the very marginal status of Celtic Studies and its sad under-development is exactly due to its long exclusion from these categories. Most of what little activity in Celtic Studies exists in North America is focused on medieval Europe. It rarely gets around to exploring the themes dominant in the academy on this continent – critiques of power, privilege and exclusion – nor does it invest much effort in the stories specific to this continent, stories which no one else will tell if we don’t.

Celtic Studies is too broad a field. In its full scope, it covers some 3,000 years and much of Europe, including the languages, cultures and histories of people who had centuries and centuries of independent development (in the medieval and modern period, these are the Bretons, Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scots Gaels, and Welsh). An analogy would be replacing English Departments with Germanic Departments which would cover all branches of the Germanic languages over a 3,000 year span (Proto-Germanic, Frankish, Saxon, Norse, Gothic, Dutch, etc.), the histories of all of the people who spoke those languages, and all of their cultural expressions. It would be far too unwieldy and complex of a set of subjects, yet this is the situation in which Celtic Studies finds itself.

This dizzying array of material is simplified in the European Celtic homelands by covering common and prominent subjects but specializing in depth in the language and culture of the area itself: so, Celtic Studies in Brittany concentrates on the Breton language and culture, for example, but students who might want to learn Welsh in detail would go to a Welsh university to study it.

Whether one loves or loathes the nation-state, we cannot avoid the fact that aspects of history and culture which relate directly to the narrative of the nation get special attention and priority. Some privileged group is represented as the core of the nation and their identity, their culture and their (presumed) values are enshrined as national touchstones. Because political and economic power in the British Isles was monopolized by aggressively expansionist and self-triumphant anglophones, “Anglo-Saxonist” myths prevailed over those of the indigenous Celts, who were dismissed as primitive barbarians of a bygone age.

Despite racialized inferiority (which was quite strong in the 19th and early 20th centuries), Celts had the ability to access power and privilege in the growing empire – so long as they did so as honorary Anglo-Saxons, speaking its language, assimilating to its culture, and complying with its agenda of domination and exploitation. However, the subjugation of Celtic cultures and identities is exactly why the Celtic language family has been driven to the verge of extinction – the only Indo-European language family to find itself poised above the abyss of annihilation since the early medieval period.

The strategies and institutions created to conquer and dominate Celtic regions informed the precedents and paradigms that were instrumental in conquering and dominating other indigenous people in the formation of the British Empire. These historical experiences have important implications for understanding the history of the United States and Canada. Taking these facts into consideration will be equally important if Celtic Studies is going to have something to contribute to the reinvigoration and decolonization of the living Celtic communities that remain.

The exclusion of the roles of Celtic peoples in the deep history of Europe allows the false impression that Europe was far more homogenous than it really was, and more reliant upon the ingenuity of the Roman Empire and Germanic peoples than it really was. This problem of exclusion is even more vexed when looking at the history of the British Isles, usually assumed to be the main source of “modernity” in those survey courses about “Western” Civilization, “British” literature, etc.

All too often, “British” simply means “English,” and Celtic peoples, their literatures, languages, law systems, and other cultural expressions – ones that were substantial and influential in their times – are simply ignored. Although the North American academy has taken a decidedly critical stance when it comes to the exclusion of women and people of colour from historical consideration, Celts are rarely granted the benefits of such intellectual allies.

A new agenda needs to be set for Celtic Studies in the North American academy, one that will actually give it traction on this continent, rather than allowing it to remain an esoteric and irrelevant footnote that will dissipate as the last generation of tenured professors retires.

I would suggest that this new agenda incorporate the following issues:

  • Rather than remaining framed solely in medieval Europe, Celtic Studies as practiced in the North American academy needs to prioritize those cultural remains and expressions that are unique to this continent. Just as each Celtic homeland highlights what is unique to it and should be nurtured by its institutions, so does the United States and Canada have distinctive resources and narratives that are worthy of scrutinity.
  • North American Celtic Studies needs to push at the weak points of the imperial facades that are relied upon for the post-colonial counter-narrative. In many other fields, terms like “British,” “white,” “Eurocentric,” and “Western” are monolithic reference points that scholars of Celtic Studies are uniquely positioned to challenge, critique, disentangle and nuance.
  • North American Celtic Studies scholars need to pool their research and resources to provide coursebooks and readers that can be used by the non-specialist in survey courses that clearly articulate the accomplishments and experiences of Celtic peoples in ways that address the common concerns of the North American academy (power, privilege, exclusion, imperialism, colonialism, identity politics, etc.).

The humanities in general are under siege in the academy, and Celtic Studies occupies a rather vulnerable and marginal position in that contested ground. Unless scholars of Celtic Studies think more strategically about the formulation and emphases of the field in relation to the rest of the North American academy, it is likely to fall to more aggressive and strategic competitors, despite the legitimacy of fields developing knowledge about other subordinated peoples.

PS. [17 Nov 2013] To put it in the simplest and starkest terms, there is no recognizable community in the US which is Celtic in any meaningful way, let alone been effective in maintaining its Celticity through socio-political mechanisms (policies and institutions which would protect its language and culture) and education (institutions and practices that would ensure that its language, culture and history were taught, researched and developed). Even in Canada, the only community that would come close to qualifying is eastern Nova Scotia, and even that case is a very limited and restricted one. The marginalization of Celtic communities in their European homelands has further stymied favorable developments of this nature. Without a social and political context, it is hard to see how patronage for Celtic Studies could be stable and sufficient to thrive in North America.

Selected Bibliography

Michael Newton. “ ‘Western Civilization’ as seen by the Celtic West.” 2011.

Michael Newton, Robert Dunbar, Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin and Daniel Williams. “Introduction: The Past and Future Celt.” In Celts in the Americas, edited by Michael Newton, 5-17. Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

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