Volume 92, Issue 89

Wednesday, March 17, 1999


It ain't easy being green

Waking a devine culture: The Celtic resurgence

Rocking the house...Irish style

Waking a devine culture: The Celtic resurgence

By Ciara Rickard
Gazette Staff

The fighting Irish have invaded. However, this time it's a welcome invasion and their weapons are harps, Claddagh rings and fancy footwork. Celtic culture is taking the rest of the world by storm and showing off the fruits of centuries of creativity.

After years of oppression, famine and poverty, the Irish economy is finally booming and fostering the characteristic Irish cultural pride more than ever. Their influence is apparent in mainstream film, theatre, music – even jewelry and fashion.

One of the biggest reasons for this resurgence in Celtic culture is people want to find and get back to their roots, says Tony O'Callahan, a native of Ireland and owner of Studio Celtia, a store featuring Celtic cultural items in downtown London.

"We're all looking for roots that help take from the pressure of modern day living," he says.

Many people in Canada and the United States are of Irish descent. In fact, Canada has more people per capita of Celtic origin than any other country in the world, O'Callahan says. And while Ireland itself has a population of only about three and a half million, there are about 42 million potential Irish (immigrants, children and grandchildren of immigrants) in the United States.

Gary Owens, professor of history who specializes in Irish history at Huron College, agrees.

"In a way, it's a whole generational search for roots. People want to trace their Irish heritage back from their great grandparents," he says. "It's something going on in pop culture, like something mystical happened."

Part of the reason Celtic culture has become so popular is Ireland has strongly maintained their cultural identity, Owens says. He adds British oppression and years of hardship only served to foster a greater sense of cultural identity and a desire to maintain it.

"It's like if you say that drugs are illegal, then everybody wants them," O'Callahan says. "It was the same thing with Ireland. They were told they couldn't have culture and education, so the British created a sophisticated and intelligent culture."

This is a phenomenon which has been noted in academic circles as well, Owens says.

"Ireland has always been resistant to England and that has created more identity," he says. "Culture has always been very important there. It's more distinct. Music and poetry are used every day in culture."

Irish culture has also pervaded North American markets. Productions such as River Dance and Lord of the Dance have been huge hits not only in the western world, but their recent debut in China was met with rave reviews, Owens says.

In addition, there are many popular films coming out of Ireland, all cast with a certain flavour to play up the novelty of the Irish charm. Waking Ned Devine, Circle of Friends and The Matchmaker all display the characteristic Irish wit and banter.

"It's a big selling point," Owens says, of the warmth and charm of the Irish as well as the legends surrounding their existence. "Leprechauns, shamrocks, the typical Irish Paddy, always good for a joke or good for a drink – it all figures into the legend."

Tourism in Ireland has also increased, helping bring Irish culture to the forefront of people's minds, Owens says. Maintaining Gaelic, Ireland's ancient mother tongue and making it the official language of Ireland has helped lend to the legends, old buildings, rolling hills and Celtic myths.

"One thing I've noticed is in our community, the DJs get a lot of requests for Celtic music," says Warren Robinson, organizer of a Celtic festival in Goderich, Ontario every summer as well as the Celtic College, which offers courses on various aspects of Celtic culture.

"The music itself is the primary hook. Popular music has gotten so far from melody, like rap music," Robinson says. "Celtic music stresses beautiful melodies," he adds, noting its popularity in particular at the recent Juno awards.

O'Callahan cites a renewed interest in tribalism as another key role in the revival of Celtic culture. The Celts were the last tribal culture in Europe and bear certain similarities to native North Americans whose culture has also been receiving more attention and acknowledgement for its artistic achievements.

The artwork of both cultures have similar abstract images and design which also tell a story. Both cultures had a symbiotic relationship with nature and oral traditions, O'Callahan says.

So why now? If Celtic culture has been so great for so many centuries, why did it take the rest of the world so long to catch on?

"They needed time to re-build," O'Callahan says. "A nation that had broken away, lost many people to immigration and famine. Now the economy has picked up. It the first time they've been booming."

Some of the more endearing aspects of Irish charm are a sense of humour, eloquence of speech and "poignant little sayings," O'Callahan says.

"I think it's very much for the good. A hundred years ago, people would change their names [so they wouldn't sound Irish] because they couldn't get a job," he says. "It's not a fad. It's a renaissance."

Chris Rickard/Gazette

WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING, THIS IS WHAT THEY SEE. Western Ireland is legendary for its rolling green hills and fairy-tale beauty – that pot o' gold must be here somewhere...

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Copyright The Gazette 1999