Celtic Myths

Lauren Hutton/PA Images/Getty Images
Leo Varadkar, the prime minister of Ireland, and his partner, Matthew Barrett, at an LGBTQ Pride festival, Dublin, June 2017

In June 2018, the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, made a formal apology to men who had been convicted under laws against homosexual acts that were finally repealed in 1993. In the course of his speech in parliament, he noted that “Aristotle wrote that the Celts openly approved of same-sex relationships.” The implication was that homophobic laws were not merely wrong, they were un-Celtic, and thus especially inexcusable in that most Celtic of countries, Ireland.

Varadkar was tapping into an assumption that has been common since the mid-nineteenth century. It is taken for granted not only that the Irish (along with the Scots, the Welsh, the Bretons, and the Galicians of northern Spain) are Celts, but that this Celticity carries with it a profound sense of difference, a sensibility fundamentally at odds with classical rationality. Aristotle, in the Politics, does indeed underline this sense of difference when, writing about female-dominated regimes, he adds, in parenthesis, “excluding the Celts and any others that openly honor sexual relations among males.” It is a lovely notion that the people of whom Aristotle was aware, the Central European tribes the Greeks called keltoi, are the forebears of today’s inhabitants of the Atlantic fringes of Europe—all the more so when these racial ancestors give their blessing across the millennia to contemporary Ireland’s enthusiastic embrace of liberal values.

But these Atlantic Celts are an oddly slippery people. The superbly refurbished Neues Museum in Berlin, which opened its doors in 2009 and surely reflects the most current views of early European history, is a case in point. There is an obvious anomaly in its depiction of the ethnic makeup of the islands of Britain and Ireland during and after the fall of the western Roman Empire. On the map showing the movement of the Germanic peoples in the fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian era, most of England is inhabited by Angeln and Sachsen—Angles and Saxons. Scotland, Cumbria, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Ireland are colored green and marked Kelten—Celts. However, the next map, showing Europe around 800, has Ireland inhabited by Iren (the Irish), Scotland by Pikten (Picts), and western England and Wales by Briten (British). So what happened to those occidental Celts in those four hundred years? How did they become merely Irish, Pictish, and British? Since we know of no great cataclysm that hit the western regions of the Atlantic archipelago in those centuries, the even more awkward question arises: Were the Celts ever there in the first place?

If we look to the commercial marketplace and to popular culture for an answer, they will tell us emphatically that Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have always been the Celtic homelands, and still are. The Irish…

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