Happy St. Patrick’s Day: “Race” and the “True Celt”

March 17, 2014 § 2 Comments

I’m currently finishing off my Griffintown manuscript, and continuing the endless revisions of the PhD dissertation it was based on.  By this point, “based on” is loose, like when movies claim to be based on a book, but you can’t really see the book in the movie.  Anyway, right now I’m revising the sections on Irish nationalist sentiment amongst the Irish-Catholics of Griff in the early 20th century.  And so, I’m reading Robert McLaughlin’s Irish Canadian Conflict and the Struggle for Irish Independence, 1912-1925. McLaughlin’s work, like mine, is part of a growing movement amongst historians to challenge a decades-old belief amongst Canadian historians that Irish Catholics in Canada couldn’t care less about what happened in Ireland.  This is a refreshing change.

McLaughlin, unlike most of us who study the Irish in Canada, focuses on both sides of the divide, looking at both Catholics and Protestants.  This is what makes his book so valuable.  Off the top of my head, McLaughlin’s is the only book-length study to look at the Protestant Irish response to agitations for Home Rule and outright independence for Ireland in Canada.

As such, McLaughlin spends a fair amount of time discussing Sir Edward Carson, the leader of the Ulster Unionists in Ireland.  I talked about Carson in class the other week in discussing Home Rule and Unionism.  I had a picture of him up on the screen, blown up behind me.  When I turned around, I kind of jumped, not really expecting Sir Edward to be so big and glaring at me.  The picture, however, is beautiful.  Sir Edward looks out contemptuously at his audience, his lips pursed into a sour look, as if he had just smelled some Catholics.  His jawbone is fierce, and his hair slicked back.  He looks for all the world like a hard man. But, of course, he wasn’t.  He was a knighted politician.  But he was also the perfect avenue into discussing the “manliness problem” of the late Victorian/Edwardian British Empire, and the response, created by Lord Baden-Powell of the Boy Scouts, “muscular Christianity.”  Sir Edward looks like he could tear you a new one as easily as argue the merits of Unionism versus Home Rule.  And, in turn, this allowed me a direct entré into the Gaelic Athletic Association’s concept of “muscular Catholicism,” which turned muscular Christianity on its ear for Catholic Irish purposes.

At any rate, back to McLaughlin and his quoting of Sir Edward.  Sir Edward wrote to his former Conservative Party colleague, Sir John Marriott in 1933, long after Irish independence and the partitioning of Ireland:

The Celts have done nothing in Ireland but create trouble and disorder.  Irishmen who have turned out successful are not in any case that I know of true Celtic origin.

I find this humourous.  See, by Sir Edward’s day, there was no such thing as a “true Celt” (not that Irish nationalists didn’t speak this same language).  By the 18th and 19th centuries, the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant, were a wonderful mixture of Celtic Irish, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Spanish, English, Welsh, Scots, and so on that no one was a “pure Celt” or pure anything.  But, of course, that myth persisted and still persists today.

I still have people come up to me today, in the early years of the 21st century, and want to discuss the “real Irish” or the “pure Irish” or the “real Celts” in Ireland.  After disabusing them of the notion that there is such a thing (anywhere in the world, quite frankly, we’re all mutts, no matter our various ethnic heritages), I am left to just shake my head.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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§ 2 Responses to Happy St. Patrick’s Day: “Race” and the “True Celt”

  • Brian Bixby says:

    Being a mongrel with both Irish and Scotch-Irish ancestry, among other things, I appreciate disabusing people of the notion of the pure Irish . . . who even according to their own legends weren’t very pure. Though does having fairy folk or Fomorians in your ancestry count?

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