The Celtic Church — Myth and Reality

For many people — practicing, nominal, and non-Catholic alike — in the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, St. Patrick’s day is welcome relief from the rigours (if any) of Lent, or at the very least a mid-spring party. Shamrocks abound as do green clothes of all varieties; the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, Emerald Society, and suchlike bodies parade — these days not always without controversy — in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and the many other centres of the Irish diaspora. Even taco stands and Chinese restaurants sometimes feature variations on the omnipresent corned beef and cabbage. And there is booze. Oceans of booze. Jamesons, Bushmills, Guinness, and a hundred other brands of whiskey and beer are dispensed not only from Irish but Scots and English pubs across America to legions of thirsty revellers. You’ll see them waving Irish tricolours and Green Harp flags, but not the Cross of St. Patrick.

In the Emerald Isle itself, the day was primarily a strictly religious and civic one until about 20 years ago when Dublin and some other locales began putting on American style fiestas. Even Belfast has a large parade, although this is one occasion upon which both the Orange Order and the Royal Black Institution are not seen. Nevertheless, if such Patrician pilgrimage sites such as Lough Derg and Croagh Patrick are closed awaiting warmer weather, Catholics and Anglicans alike offer rites in St. Patrick’s memory at his grave in Downpatrick, his headquarters at Armagh, the Hill of Slane, and other places associated with him. If the now-defunct knightly Order of St. Patrick no longer attends services at St. Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral and waits upon the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at his ball in Dublin Castle, the current republican authorities still mark the day in a dignified manner. The President attends Mass at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, and offers a suitably uplifting speech at his residence. In England, the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards mount parades and celebrative dinners: in the latter case, members of the Royal Family — in days gone by, the Queen Mother, now either or both the Prince of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attend. This has been the case since long before the Queen and the President of Ireland made their mutual visits of reconciliation.

Now the Irish — Catholic or Protestant — think of themselves as a Celtic people. We’ll come back to what that may mean presently. But in addition to the Irish, there are five other peoples that also identify themselves as Celts. They are the Scots , the Manx, the Welsh, the Cornish, and the Bretons. In many ways, the month of March is THE Celtic Month. March 1 is the feast of the monk St. David, patron saint of Wales and is celebrated as the country’s national day. His shrine (destroyed at the Reformation) has recently been re-erected and his retrieved relics placed therein. Thus, as at St. Mungo’s tomb in Glasgow, you may venerate a Catholic saint in a Protestant Church — albeit one we once owned. Welshmen wear either or both leeks and daffodils on this day, and across the globe, their diaspora celebrates St. David as do Irishmen in foreign climes St. Patrick. Being far less widespread, of course, they don’t make the same splash as the Irish — but in particular locales from Philadelphia to Patagonia you will see the Red Dragon of Wales waving on the First of March. St. David Societies abound.

A few days later is the feast of St. Piran, patron of Cornwall. Now in the 20th Century Ireland went from being an integral part of the United Kingdom (having given up its nominal independence as a Kingdom in 1800) to being autonomous in the North, and first a Dominion and then an independent Republic in the South. Wales is a Principality (complete with its own regalia), and now has its own Assembly and Executive. Irish Gaelic and Welsh are holding their own to some degree against the onslaught of English. But poor Cornwall has only a County Council as an English shire (although the Prince of Wales is Duke of Cornwall) and the language became extinct in the 18th century. Nevertheless, the Cornish retain a great sense of cultural awareness; St. Piran’s day too has become a rallying point — not just in Cornwall but in places as far apart as Australia and California. His shrine is resorted to then. Cornish has been revived, and there is some call to bring back the old Stannary Parliament.

On St. Patrick’s Day itself there is another Saint celebrated — St. Joseph of Arimathea, he who donated his own tomb so that Jesus might have a fitting Sepulchre. Now that by itself would been enough to gain him undying fame, as it has given him the patronage of undertakers (I know of a French-Canadian in New England who wears black to work ever y St. Patrick’s day, smilingly informing his co-workers that he is celebrating St. Joseph of Arimathea, and blandly asking if there is some other celebration that day!). But legend — and I for one never discount legend unless it has been actually disproved — claims that his wealth was based on owning tin mines in Roman Britain; it has been further claimed by some that he was Jesus’ uncle, and took the boy to Britain once. This notion led to William Blake writing his hymn Jerusalem, which is incomprehensible without that background. This seems odd at first glance, but travel within the Empire was far commoner in those days than is usually realised. The belief that St. Paul visited Britain during his journeys led to the English delegation being given pride of place at the Council of Constance, London’s cathedral being named after the Apostle, and the Kings of England having very close relations with St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, among other things.

In any case, it is said St. Joseph gathered up some of the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side — and possibly the cup Our Lord had used at the Last Supper — and fled to an island in the marshes of what is now Somerset; the Isle of Avalon, now Glastonbury. When he arrived at a place there called Wearyall Hill, he stuck his staff in the ground and it burst into flowers. The Glastonbury Thorn, as it is called, bloomed at Christmas; cut down by Cromwell’s Puritans, cuttings were saved and replanted. These continue their Yuletide blossoming, and every year at Christmas a few flowers are sent to the Queen at Sandringham — you can sometimes see them in her Christmas broadcasts. St. Joseph built there a church, said to be the oldest in Britain, which became the nucleus of Glastonbury Abbey. Both he and the Abbey figured largely in tales of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, and all sorts of local landmarks — the Tor, Chalice Well, the White Spring, and others — claim some link to him. As we shall see, Celtic Britain was overwhelmed by the invading Anglo-Saxons; but St. Joseph is a contender for patron of those of its bits and pieces that survived the wreck. Glastonbury also treasures tales of a visit by St. Patrick.

The Apostle of Ireland also holds a place on the Isle of Man, tucked away in the Irish Sea. St. Maughold, the patron of the Island, was sent there by St. Patrick expressly to evangelise the Manx; his feast day is April 27. While their language has become extinct, like Cornish, it has also been revived. As with Cornwall also, the Manx have retained their unique folkore. Unlike Cornwall, however, the Isle of Man is in a sense independent — it is not part of the UK, although Parliament does make some of its laws. The Queen is Lord of Man in her own right (represented by a Lieutenant Governor), and the island has its own Parliament, the Tynwald, and rather odd-looking flag. Their diaspora are scattered around the US and the Commonwealth, encompassed by such organisations as the North American Manx Society. Probably the best known Manxman, however, was Fletcher Christian of H.M.S. Bounty fame — his descendants live on at Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands in the South Pacific.

On May 19 is the feast of Brittany’s patron, St. Yves of Chartres or Kermartin. Unlike the other heavenly guardians of the Celtic lands we have already looked at, St. Yves — and unlike many other Breton saints — did not live in the misty past, but died in 1303. The first compiler of Canon Law, he was the sole patron of lawyers until St. Thomas More joined him on the Church’s calendar. At his shrine at Treguier, an annual pardon — that uniquely Breton combination of liturgy, procession, and party — takes place on his feast. To this day the Bretons have a national church of their own in Rome named after him. The Bretons descend from those who fled the wreck of Celtic Britain at the hands of the Anglo-Saxons by crossing the sea. Their language still survives in the western part of the land. While Brittany was an independent Kingdom and then Duchy for centuries, after Anne of Brittany married King Charles VIII of France in 1491 the King of France was also Duke of Brittany. But the province retained separate Estates and institutions. Whereas the various Celtic nations in the British Isles managed to maintain some of their identity by retaining or reviving Medieval institutions, these were all swept away on the other side of the Channel by the French Revolution. The Province of Brittany was divided into five Departments, all directed by Paris-appointed prefects. When the region of Brittany was re-assembled in 1956, the area around Nantes was left out — an omission that still rankles. A sea-faring people, Breton descendants are to be found amongst the French-Canadians, and especially the Acadians of the Maritimes and their Cajun cousins in Louisiana.

June 22 is the feast of another Saint of phantom Celtic Britain — St. Alban, protomartyr of England. Back in 209, AD, when Britain was firmly in the hands of the Roman Empire, St. Alban hid a priest and took his place to be executed. His relics were preserved, and eventually the great Abbey of St. Albans grew up around his shrine. Throughout the Middle Ages this monastery disputed with Glastonbury the role of senior abbey in the Kingdom — until Henry VIII solved the issue by suppressing both houses. St. Alban’s shrine was destroyed and most of his relics — save a portion given a church in Cologne that bore his name — were burned. But in the late 20th century, the pieces of that shrine were discovered and re-erected in the Abbey church, now an Anglican cathedral: the rededication was attended by the Queen Mother. Meanwhile, St. Pantaleon, Cologne, home to the shrine of St. Alban after the church that bore his name there was bombed, returned a fragment of the relics to the revived shrine. It is interesting that, as with St. Joseph of Arimathea, a definitely Celtic saintly devotion has been rewoven into English tradition on a par with St. George.

Scotland’s patron is St. Andrew the Apostle. While the brother of St. Peter is also patron of Greece, Constantinople, the Basque Country, Romania, and Russia — with most of his relics in the cathedral at Amalfi and his head (formerly at the Vatican) now at the place he was martyred, Patras, Greece, a goodly number of them came to rest at what became the Cathedral of St. Andrews, north of Edinburgh and near both the University of the same name and the first Golf Course. Scots around the world are very devoted to St. Andrew; their flag is named after him, St. Andrew’s Societies in various places keep the tartan flame ablaze, and his feast is zestfully kept wherever the sons of Scotia can be found. The latter is usually observed with a dinner featuring thistles, bagpipes, haggis, Scotch whisky and a band of kilt-wearers; these scenes generally repeat themselves on January 25, Burns’ Night. There are Scottish games held across the globe, and folk of Scottish descent everywhere in the world are happy to lay claim to clan membership and wear whatever tartan they can consider themselves entitled to. The Scots have a parliament again, and despite the 1707 Act of Union with England maintained their own legal system, while the Queen has a parallel court in Scotland. Holyrood Palace, the Honours of Scotland, the Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland, the Court of the Lord Lyon (Scotland’s own heraldic authority, as opposed to England’s College of Arms) — all show the country’s unique identity, despite their recent refusal to secede from the United Kingdom. Scots regiments can be found in the armies of Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa — and even, for a time, New York! Most of the St. Andrew’s night revellers may not have much religious devotion to St.Andrew — perhaps excusable since the destruction of his Scottish shrine at the Reformation. But to-day the Catholic cathedral in Edinburgh keeps some of his relics enshrined and easily venerated.

But the Scots themselves are not entirely Celtic. When the Romans came to Britain, southern Scotland (which they added for a time to their domains) was inhabited by Britons whom they swiftly conquered. The north was held by a mysterious people called the Picts. When the Saxons arrived, they pushed the natives ever westward; in the end, as we have seen some fled over the sea and became the Bretons; other were pushed south-west and became the Cornish; still others due west into “wild Wales.” But in the north, the Angles pushed up into what is now the area around Edinburgh, called “Lothian.” The local Britons were pushed west into what was called either or both Stratchlyde or Cumbria — roughly north-west England and south-west Scotland on to-day’s map. At the same time, Irish pirates followed by settlers spilled over into the Islands and Highlands of north-west Scotland; these folk were called Scoti by chroniclers writing in Latin. Eventually their King conquered or inherited the lands of the Picts, Angles and Cumbrians; the language of the north became a Gaelic originally — like Manx — derived from the language of Ireland. Thanks to various wars and the Highland clearances, there are now more native speakers of Scots Gaelic in Canada than in Scotland. In the south, the language of the Angles — one day to be called “English” — pushed the Briton speech (related to Breton, Cornish, and Welsh) westward to oblivion: from that sort of English came the dialect of the lowlands of to-day: Scots. The north and east of the country were evangelised by Irish monastic saints: Columba from Iona and Aidan from Lindisfarne.

A Christian high cross at Monasterboice in Ireland , by Sitomon (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A Christian high cross at Monasterboice in Ireland , by Sitomon (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Stratnclyde-Cumbria, however received the Faith from the patron of this now defunct realm, the earlier mentioned St. Mungo (or Kentigern, as some name him). His feast is January 13, and as mentioned, he may be venerated at his intact shrine in Glasgow cathedral. Except for the manner of counting sheep employed by local shepherds, however, the local Briton — Cumbric — dialect has been extinct for a thousand years. Yet buoyed up by the success of Cornish and Manx, recently enthusiasts have attempted to revive it.

Now these six (or seven, if you count Cumbria) countries are collectively called the “Celtic fringe.” Of course, this relatively small area only represents a small fragment of the lands occupied by the Celtic peoples at their zenith: all of modern France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and southern Germany; parts of Spain, northern Italy, and even into the Balkans and Asia Minor (Galatia). At one time these warriors threatened even Rome — and might have taken the Eternal City, were it not for, quite literally, a gaggle of geese. But the subsequent Roman expansion and barbarian invasions submerged most of the Celts on the continent under two waves of assimilation. One major remnant of Celtic influence remains to-day in France, where the numbering system in French (soixante-dix for 70, quatre vingts — literally “four twenties” for 80, and quatre vingts-dix for 90, are used, rather than the septante, octante, and nonante one might suppose judging by the other Romance languages) echoes the old Gaulish method of counting. To this day, various areas on the Continent boast of Celtic heritage — Italy’s Piedmont, France’s Auvergne, and especially Spain’s Galicia, as examples. Despite certain haunting similarities in music and folklore, however, the term “Celtic” is usually reserved to the places we have looked at, where their languages continue to be spoken or else died out recently and have been revived.

But in addition to their linguistic connections, the six Celtic nations have much else in common — an Arthurian and fairy-ridden folklore; a deep love of music, dance and drink; and a combativeness born of millennia of resistance to outsiders — especially the English and (for Bretons) the French. As they were inevitably drawn in to the mainstream of the conquerors’ societies, their less assimilated populations tended historically to side with the more Conservative forces in the conflicts that engulfed their lands in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the British Civil Wars, the Catholic Irish, the Scottish Highlanders, the Welsh, the English West Country, and the Isle of Man all strongly backed the King against Cromwell. Later, the same areas were havens of support for the Jacobites in their various attempts to unseat the House of Hanover from the British thrones. The French Revolution found Brittany a hotbed of Chouans and Émigrés.

These political struggles were mirrored religiously; Ireland is of course famous for its tenacity in holding on to the old Faith, until modern native corruption did what English oppression could not. The Scottish Highlands supported the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots against John Knox, and the Highlands remained primarily Catholic until the Clearances — there are more Catholics of Scots descent in Canada than in the Mother country, but even today such places as some of the Southern Hebrides and Moidart, Morar, and the Enzie on the Mainland remain attached to the Faith. Wales had a similar tale to tell, and would probably have remained primarily Catholic had not the supply of Welsh-speaking priests failed in the late 17th Century, although even now there are native Catholics in places like the districts around Holywell and Llandeilo. Cornwall showed its attachment to the Old Religion in the Prayer Book Rising of 1549, but suffered a fate similar to that of Wales — though Lanherne House has remained a centre of the Faith in the county. Nevertheless, there were scores of Scots, Welsh, and Cornish martyrs to take their places beside those of Ireland.

Obviously, political and religious defeat in that era meant cultural assimilation in the early 19th century. But the rise of Romanticism, spearheaded by such as the Breton Chateaubriand and Sir Walter Scott led in turn to what is called the Celtic Revival in the mid-19th century and to Celtic Nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These developments in turn led to the revival of the languages, and to the recreation of things like the Welsh Eisteddfodd, the Cornish Gorsedh, the Breton Goursez, the Irish Oireachtas na Gaeilge, and the Scots Royal National Mod. In Ireland, while Protestants such as William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, and George Russell were prominent in the revival, so too were Catholics such as Edward Martyn and Patrick Pearse, whose cultural activism led in time to their call for political independence. In Brittany, those in the forefront of Breton cultural recovery tended to be (with some exceptions) both devoutly Catholic and Royalist. But in the other countries, where Protestantism had triumphed in every sense, early nationalists like the Scot Ruairdh Erskine, the Cornish Henry Jenner, and the Welshmen Saunders Lewis and H.W.J. Edwards often came to see recovery of their countries’ Catholicism as inextricably linked with revival of both language, culture, and political independence — some of these assisted in launching Neo-Jacobitism. After World War II, however, the nationalist parties — Sinn Fein, Plaid Cyrmu, the SNP, Mebyon Kernow, etc., — swallowed varying amounts of Marxism, presently exchanged for the kind of secularist social capitalism that has destroyed both morality and birth-rates in every western country.

But out of this welter of rediscovery also emerged some myths. Perhaps the furthest from reality was that of the “Celtic Church” — a Christianity independent from and purer than that of the Catholic Church centred at Rome. This notion has allowed Anglicans, Presbyterians, and New Age Christians alike to justify their separation. As Wendy Davies puts it in, “The Myth of the Celtic Church”, Nancy Edwards and Alan Lane, eds. The Early Church in Wales and the West: Recent Work in Early Christian Archaeology, History and Place Names, (Oxford: Oxbrow Books, 1992), 12: “They imagine that there were common beliefs, common religious practices, and common religious institutions in Celtic countries, and that these were distinct from beliefs, practice and institutions in England and on the continent. They also imagine that the church in Celtic countries was distinctly saintly and monastic; moreover, it was individual, unorganised and the very opposite of Roman.”

We shall examine this myth in depth in our next column!

[Click here for part two.]

  • M.

    Thank you, Mr. Coulombe. This in-depth article is excellent reading. I hope to pursue many, if not all, of the links you so generously included. I happily await the next column! God bless.

  • Bonifacius

    Thank you for this fine article! The Cornish were among the first immigrant groups to settle Wisconsin after the War of 1812. They came to work in the lead mines in the Driftless Area. Because the miners initially made their homes in tunnels they dug in hillsides, they were called badgers. Hence the state’s nickname, the Badger State. Both in Wisconsin and in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (another mining area) you’ll find Cornish pasties in the local cuisine. In Mineral Point, WI, they fly the Flag of St. Piran on the street to this day. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mineral_Point,_Wisconsin#/media/File:Commerce_Street_Mineral_Point_4848a.jpg