The Celtic Consciousness edited by Robert O’Driscoll

The Celtic Consciousness is a collection of essays and lectures that the editor had put together from a Celtic symposium that took place in Canada in 1978. The authors of the essays ranged from the very well known to the obscure.

The editor tells us from the beginning that he is bringing these essays together and indeed helping to put together the symposium so that the information they had of the Celts at that time can be shared as well as encourage the development of programs that deal with the Celts as an entity of there own rather than as a part of the British culture.

The essays are grouped together based on content. The book is divided into six sections; section one is a touch on how the Celts relate to the Indo Europeans. The second section is about the beginnings of the Celtic world, namely archeology, linguistics, history and prehistory. Sections three and four are about mythology, literature, religion, folklore, music and art. Section five is about modern Celtic nationalism, which includes the literary and the political. The final section is about Celtic vision in contemporary thought and art.

The editor at the end of his introduction to the book tells us that the Celts are an inexhaustible source of study. He also tells us that the book concentrates on Ireland and Scotland mostly.
The editor chose to begin the collection of essays with a poem by Kinsella called Finistere. I believe this is a nod to the bards of the old traditions where poetry and storytelling played an important part in the lives of the Celts.

The first section of the book was made up of only one essay. This essay was an attempt by the editor to link the Celts with the Indo-European world. The author of the essay was comparing the Indian literature to that of the Grail tradition, which is a part of Celtic literature. I don’t think that was the ideal way to link India (as a representative of the Indo-Europeans world) and one of the Celtic cultures, then perhaps a comparison between the Brehon Laws and the Indian laws would have been better as well as a comparison between the social structure of the Indians and the Irish.
Section two of the book has five essays. Each essay dealt with pre-history, history or linguistics. The first essay was a very brief overview of the history of the Celts, starting from when they were first mentioned by the Greeks and Romans up until the arrival of Christianity. The next two essays dealt with the linguistics of the Celtic language. The first of the two essays tried to show the connection between the Near East and Africa to the Celts and the second talked about the structure of the Celtic language. The last two essays talk about what the Celts left behind in the matter of everyday life. The first of these two essays talk about a recreated village from the Pagan Celtic era and the discoveries made through recreating it and the second talks about the tombs the Celts of the West left behind. Taking the whole section together you get a somewhat complete study of the Celts mostly from the eras before Christianity. The editor gives you an overview of history, a look at language, and a view of what everyday life might have been like in the first century BCE. Then he ends the section with a look at what the pre-historic Celtic west might have believed about the afterlife.

The next two sections deal with mythology, literature, religion, folklore, music, and art. Both sections between them have twenty-one essays.

Section three starts with an essay on Celtic Art and who and what might have influenced it. The second essay is about early Irish Mythology. The best thing to take away from the essay is to read the myths but also to read about the time they were written in, to look for themes and styles in the myths and to look at what the author was trying to say. Essay three is about prophecy and how it is depicted in myths. The fourth essay is a depiction of heroes in myths and how they are seen, and the questions that the myths raised about the true heroic tradition. The fifth essay is about Celtic heritage. I think this essay has one major point and that was that the Celtic Church incorporated nature and sciences into its heritage as a way to understand what God wants of his flock. It didn’t think either was contrary to what God wanted. The final essay in the third section is about the Scottish Saints and their stories.

The fourth section begins with an essay by Ann Ross about material culture, myth and folk memory follow by an essay by Kevin Danaher about the Irish Calendar and Folk memory, they were both very good introductions to the subjects they covered. The next essay is about the different roles of the poets from paganism, through Christianity and the Norman incursions. Essay number four is about the role women played in resisting the Scottish clearances. This essay is then followed by a poem. The next essay in the fourth section deals with the Scottish Gaelic language and its poetry and how it developed across the ages. The seventh essay was a presentation of the Irish Gaelic love-poetry and the influences that produced them. Originally Irish love poetry is not concerned with love in its idealist form but rather it was very ironic, it was only when the European influence entered the scene in the middle ages did the poetry become more inline with what is today known as classic love poetry. Around the 17th century the poetry composed by the learned class receded to be replaced by folk love poetry. It is a sign of the history of the time, and all the turbulence in it. The next essay is a very short one, which talks about the nature of Irish music. The rest of Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth century had developed musically but not the Irish they continued to use the old Modal scale or the “natural” scale, it was used in folk music for a very long time and it is what gives us the “Irish melodies”. Ireland has the largest collection of folk music. In the ninth essay of section four the objective was to establish how the different kinds of poetic laments were musically preformed. The author did give examples of music in the essay unfortunately for someone who can’t read sheet music it meant nothing. For me the real objective of this essay was to learn about the different types of mourning techniques, when each one was used and by whom. This applies to both Ireland and Scotland. Apart from the sheet music, which went over my head, the essay was very informative and interesting. Essay number ten discusses the resemblance between Irish music and eastern music lies in the interpretation of the melody and ornamentation. This can be seen in music composed before the 1930s in Ireland, and not in anything after. However, with composers now turning back to eastern and Celtic traditional music things have changed. The next essay in the section is about the life story of Seán O Riada, who is considered to be the most outstanding artistic figure of post-war Ireland. He was part of the Gaelic renascence that came about in the 1960s and ended in the 1970s. He was a national composer; his commitment wasn’t just about the advancement of Irish music but also international music. The life story of Seán O Riada was followed by a collection of poems bidding farewell to him. These poems were composed after O Riada’s funeral; they showed the depth of the connection between Montague and O Riada. No discussion of Irish culture is complete without looking at the calligraphy displayed in books like the Book of Kells and the contribution of the Irish to the printing presses. The history of calligraphy from the pen to the printing press is recounted starting with Ogham, which according to legend is the earliest known writing system in Ireland. As with most Irish changes in Culture a major event (the coming of Christianity) brought with it writing in Latin alphabets and the great monastic era. The essay produced beautiful examples of the calligraphy of the times. Around 1550 the first Irish printing houses were established. And different types of prints were established. Here again the essay provides beautiful examples. A brief essay by Sorel Etrog discussing the achievements of Liam Miller’s Dolmen press is also included in this section. This press produced books that are part of the great Celtic traditions of book creation. The final essay of this section is on the Celtic contribution to science. The essay mentions all the great Celtic names like Robert Brown of fluid dynamics and Francis M’Clintock the arctic explorer and gives two specific examples; William Rowan Hamilton who developed the fundamental basis of theoretical mechanics and James Clark Maxwell who explained the electromagnetic theory. Then it also mentions the more “contemporary” names like J.C. Dooge and a few others.

Both sections three and four should have been combined into one section as they really discuss the same thing, Celtic mythology, literature and music. The exception being the three essays at the end of section four, two of which discussed calligraphy and printing and the one on the contribution to science. Looking at the two sections I can say that they gave an introduction to Celtic mythology, literature and music but nothing more. Much more is needed to really understand the Celtic mindset/culture.

Section five is about modern Celtic nationalism. The section contains sixteen essays. The first of these essays talks about where the routes of Irish nationalism may have come from. The author says that Ireland never hat to question its identity until it was confronted with the challenge of having to articulate the reason for its being, not just of its cultural and religious traditions, but also its system of law, and way of life. The next two essays talk about the literary revival of Ireland, and how it should be taken as part of the modern Celtic nationalistic movement of the time. The two essays complement each other in that they both explain about the work that took to make this revival and the people who both laid the foundation for it and the ones who fuelled it. Essays four and five should also be taken together because the second is a reply to the first. The author of essay number four has the view that the Irish revolution was not an extension of the ancient Irish culture but rather an extension of the French revolution and was directly effected by it. He goes on in his essay to discuss his theory and try to prove it. In the reply John Montague was in complete disagreement and taking the southern view to what happened in the North as being violent because it is in their nature. I do not understand fully the Irish civil wars yet enough to comment on these two essays, but it seems to me that the French revolution did have something to do with most revolutions that happened after it directly or indirectly, but that does not also mean that there was no historical extensions to it as well. Next comes a beautiful poem about the violence and the ideas behind them. The next two talks in the section were all about setting the record straight on the relationship between the Free Irish Republic and Canada, and when the Free Irish State was declared. I’m not really sure why that was included here. The ninth essay talks about the nationalism of Scotland and Wales and how different they are from Irish nationalism. The next two essays seem to me to be two views of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. He was a part of the Scottish literary movement. A poem in memory of Hugh MacDiarmid follows the essays about him. The twelfth essay is about AE, and the author’s experience with him. The thirteenth and fourteenth essays are about David Jones and his works. They talk about his background and how that may have influenced his works. The last two essays/poems are authored by Sorely Maclean. In the essay, Sorely discusses the Gaelic and non-Gaelic works that made the most impact. The poems are beautiful examples of Sorely’s work in the original format and translated. This section started out well and then totally deteriorated. I was lost most of the time because I really had no basic knowledge of who they authors were talking about and the lack of background information is a mistake on my part that needs to be remedied. Some of the essays I felt should not have been included in the section.

Section six of the books talks about the Celtic vision in modern writing and art. The section has eight essays. The section begins with an essay that has as one of its premises that the concept of the Celt is a made up concept. Not a great way to start, but it is a valid point to make as it was one of the phases that people who wrote about the Celts had gone through in modern times. In the same essay the author discusses the modern artists and writers on the scene and their ideas, he also discusses the Edinburgh Arts, which is, according to the author, intended to awaken interest in ancient cultures. The next essay in the section is not really an essay but rather a conversation between peers in two of the Edinburgh Arts journey. I often felt while reading these bits of conversations like I entered in the middle of one and got lost. They seem to be complicating things that have simple explanations at least to me. The permanence of the Spiritual is a very short essay that deals with modern art and using it to look at the Celtic world. The art that the author was talking about was a sculpture called “The Hill”, a temple that was to be built in India, and the Arthurian legends of the Island named after an apple. I was able to get from the essay that the Irish Tumuli is perhaps a shape that is natural for people to make. I’m not sure what the author was trying to tell us about the Celtic world as a whole. The next essay seemed to be lamenting the fact that modern artists seem to make their art to rest in museums and art galleries instead of being inspired from the world around them. Then it talks about an art project in Chicago that was a display of lights and how even though it was finished once the show was over, people still related to it and carried images of it in their psyche. I think this is a reference to the fact that people can surprise you and that art should speak to people rather then to be something aesthetic and pleasing in a certain setting. The French comic Aestrix is discussed in the next essay. It shows how the comics were used to tell the story of what is happening in modern world using old world values. The Romans were the social structure and modern industrialism and the Gauls were the human condition and nature. The next essay is about the Celts and Christianity. The author makes the point that the Celts were great on social structure (debatable), economy, or warfare but that had advanced spirituality. The only way to move forward in modern times is to define what it means to be Celtic, which is something I totally agree with, but then he goes on to say that to be a Celt means that you should be an esoteric Christian. This conclusion totally ruined the whole essay, which was short and very good until that part. The Rebirth of the Celtic Folk Soul is a very whimsical and extremely short essay about people going back to spirituality whether they call it Celtic or New Age. They are going back to the old sacred sites and restoring them and the stories around them. I think the most important thing that we can take from the final essay of the section is that history is cyclic. There are ups and downs for a civilization or culture and that nothing should be taken for granted, one little flutter somewhere can have an effect elsewhere. This section is not really what I expected. It had in it all the strains of thoughts that we have in our modern times, that is that the Celts are an invention no they are not, they are a spiritual people, and that they are the ones that lay the foundation for modern western culture, but it was also disappointing in that I was expecting more. I don’t know what exactly but just more…The Epilogue is about how people perceived the “Celtic Hero” A production from Yeats.

Well, I made it to the end of the book mainly because I hate not reading a book to the end. If the editor was intending to interest people in the Celtic Consciousness then he should have stuck to the first three sections of the book and not gone on. The rest just dragged on with essays that I could have done without. Perhaps I should have read this book after studying, mythology, literature and everything else on the Celtic scene, some of the essays just went way over my head.As to its importance to my study of Celtic culture, I think what I most got out of it is that culture should be divided into material (I’m going to include politics and social structure here), literature (this includes folklore, mythology and contemporary writings), art, and religion.


2 thoughts on “The Celtic Consciousness edited by Robert O’Driscoll

  1. Dafydd says:

    I noticed in your review you covered Seán O Riada and a sheet of music. I wonder if this music was the wonderful Mná na h-Éireann – the Women of Ireland. It’s a song I first heard in the film ‘Barry Lyndon’. The lyrics were based on an old 18th century Irish Gaelic poem by Peadar Ó Dornín, although Riada composed the music in the 20th century. Here’s one melancholy version of the song –

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