A HISTORY of whispers and forgetfulness

I am reading a history of ‘Celtic Britain’ by Alistair Moffat. It is beautifully written and has me thinking of parallels with a Maori history of New Zealand. If you read these segments from the introductory chapter, you will see why:

“THIS IS A HISTORY of whispers and forgetfulness, a story of how the memories and understandings of the Celtic peoples of Britain and Ireland almost faded into inconsequence. It is also a story of the struggle for control of these islands, of those who lost it, and how they continued to interact with the eventual winners, the English and the British. It attempts a lengthy definition of what it means and meant to be Celtic, to think and behave in ways that are different from the British habits of mind – “and also often different from the simply Welsh, Irish, Scots, Manx, Cornish and English traditions. With the creation of parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is timely to draw up a catalogue of cultural difference, a list of half-forgotten reasons for some of the tensions which have led to the break-up of Britain, the creation of a new and evolving union between England and her old Celtic colonies, and new relationships between those regions.
Two thousand years ago these tensions lay in the future. The farms, fortresses and harbours of these islands echoed to the speech of Celts who recited their history….” (p.1)

“…even though politics continually pressed the autonomous Welsh and Gaelic speech communities ever farther westwards, they have survived. The languages which described Britain and Ireland more than 2,500 years ago still describe these places now, in a continuity unique in western Europe. As much as the decline of Celtic languages is to be regretted, their resilience ought to be marvelled at too. But it is not the languages themselves that matter, although to my ear their lyrical beauty is unmatched: it is the culture that they embody, the way of thinking about the world that they shape, and the stories they hold inside them that are crucial. These stories are beginning to slip quickly away into silence, and, worse, into a sickly mixture of cliché, quaintness, myth-history and something known as ‘local colour’. Soon, perhaps by the middle of the twenty-first century, the history of Britain might depend so heavily on translation as to lose much of its texture, and become a thing seen through glass.” (p.2)

“Looking back over the immense sweep of all that has happened in these islands, a constant theme insists on its place. For a multitude of reasons, some of them accidental, the story of the Celtic peoples is the story of the war for Britain, and of those who lost it, again and again. The Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans, the English and the British (including many Scots, Welsh and Irish Britons) won that war, and by the eighteenth century had colonized all of these islands. Their version of history was bound to dominate and be believed – even by the defeated. And because the Celtic peoples of Britain and Ireland had comparatively little written culture until recently, an alternative version of events can be difficult to find. This book is not an exhaustive and wearying recital of defeat, or a tear-stained harking back to a black list of injustices, but rather a journey through what remains and a search for another way of seeing the past. The story of the Celts of Britain and Ireland is still whispered, can still just be heard if we push aside our misconceptions, look again at the map of Britain, and see it differently. For too long our history has consisted of London talking to Britain, and the inevitable outcome is that the United Kingdom is too readily seen as a natural point towards which all narratives should flow. Celtic Britain did not die when the Angles, Saxons and other Germanic tribes invaded and settled most of what is now England and lowland Scotland: it was only defeated, marginalized and ignored.” (p.4)

In order to understand better why British history has been skewed in this way, we should never forget that the early Celtic society of Britain was non-literate, not illiterate (for that implies something deficient) and that it relied on memory and recital. For a hundred generations, stories were told in the circle of firelight: the early peoples of Britain listened to their history. Spoken and heard rather than written and read, many of the stories of the men and women who were here before the English have disappeared into the night air. The tales of Celtic Britain, of the west, seem now to be of the twilight, of dying languages and minorities, of emigration and loss, of quaintness and yesterday.” (p.4)

“But in Scotland, Ireland, Man, Wales and Cornwall a new future is dawning. The old imperial monolith of the United Kingdom is rapidly crumbling as England’s first colonies rediscover what they were and realize what they might become once the corrosive habit of blaming the English for everything has withered into disuse. There is a new hunger for a different history, one which is not refracted through a metrocentric prism, and seeks a new telling of the stories of old places. … With at least a millennium of resentment to draw on, the Celts of Britain… have wasted much time in defining themselves primarily as un- or anti-British.
Better surely to seek out and piece together the stories of this largely non-literate, politically marginalized society. Power passed to those who wrote down their history and had an interest in ignoring the stories of the Celts or changing them into a new shape to fit their purposes, or condemning them to a minor posterity. Because it is difficult to read about the history of the west of Britain, we need to listen hard for its whispers, intuit connections and try to remember what has almost been forgotten. In a translation of a Gaelic phrase, we should listen for the music of the thing as it happened.” (p.5)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Alistair Moffat (2001) The Sea Kingdoms: The Story of Celtic Britain and Ireland. HarperCollins Publishers: London


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Bilingual Learning, Mono- Bi- and Multi-culturalism, social and political contexts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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