Literary Traditions

About Celtic Poetic Traditions

Although there are many intersections, each of the different Celtic languages – Breton, Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh – has its own distinctive histories and this is true of their literary pedigrees and traditions as well. In general, it is useful to group the P-Celtic languages (Breton, Cornish and Welsh) and Q-Celtic languages (Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic) together for literary purposes, given that language is significant for poetic features (alliteration, emphasis, rhyme…) and is indicative of cultural practices and institutions.

The closest links between any two languages are those between Gaelic Scotland and Ireland, which, until the 17th century, were linked by a literary form of Gaelic (often called “Classical Gaelic”), by dynastic intermarriage, and by the exchange of professional Gaelic scholars, poets, churchmen, lawyers, and warriors. These bonds were broken politically, culturally, and economically by the English-speaking world and Gaelic lost the crucial infrastructure and patronage it needed to ensure its development and survival at an elite level. Regardless, literary production in vernacular tradition in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic was greatly enriched and influenced by this Classical tradition.

For references to further scholarship, see the Sources page.

Scottish Gaelic (by Michael Newton)

Immigrant communities of Scottish Gaels in North America began in the 1730s, although large numbers didn’t arrive until the 1760s. Highland communities and their immigrant counterparts remained strongly Gaelic speaking to the late 19th century, when large numbers of Gaels could be found in most urban centres as well as in rural clusters across North America. Small numbers of native Gaelic speakers still exist in Nova Scotia, but some learners of Gaelic in varied locales have achieved fluency and are enthusiastic composers of song-poetry.

Gaels who came to North America still had a strong sense of belonging to a culture with a rich literary tradition. The Gaelic poetic tradition was a conservative one that directly derived from medieval practice. Continuity from the professional literati is evident in numerous immigrant poets. Not only did poets like Iain MacGilleain and Lachlann MacMhuirich bring an “oral canon” and set of literary conventions with them, a few also brought Gaelic manuscripts (and other cultural relics). Gaels composed new songs about their experiences in North America by leveraging the literary precedents and symbolic potential of their native traditions. They no longer enjoyed patronage from the nobility, however, but wrote in praise (or dispraise) of politicans, churchmen, local leaders and each other.

The work of hundreds of poets and prose writers in North America demonstrates that Gaelic tradition is rich, durable, and adaptable, describing relationships with indigenous peoples and fellow immigrants, stunning natural features of the landscape (such as Niagara Falls), new animals encountered (bears were a favourite topic), and technological innovations (the train, car, and radio). As the symbolism and practices of panegyric (praise and satire) pervade the literary tradition, one obvious means of extending to new topics has been to personify the subject even if it is an animal or inanimate object.

Until the early part of the 20th century, all Gaelic poetry was by definition intended to be sung, and due to anti-Gaelic prejudices in the educational system, rates of literacy were very low. A great deal of Gaelic literary material was thus lost because it was never committed to print. Despite this, it is safe to estimate that well over a thousand items from North America remain, between manuscripts, periodicals, books and field-work recordings. Many items were printed the longest-lived all Gaelic newspaper in the world, Mac-Talla, printed 1892-1904 in Sydney, Cape Breton.

Welsh (by Robert Humphries)

Although Welsh speakers were present in North America in the colonial period, most notably in the Quaker “Welsh Tract” of eastern Pennsylvania, it was not until the nineteenth century that they emigrated in large enough numbers to sustain a Welsh-language literary culture. Attracted mainly to the United States by both agricultural and industrial opportunities, the Welsh had settled in significant numbers across the north by the middle of the century, particularly in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

1893 Poster of Welsh-American poets (Great Plains Welsh Heritage Project)

Thanks to a tradition of religious education, the Welsh enjoyed a high level of basic literacy. Welsh-language magazines and newspapers, frequently tied to religious denominations, provided valuable information for settlers and assisted in the process of migration. They also comprise the most prolific source of North American poetry composed in Welsh, far greater than the small number of poetry collections in book form. In addition, Welsh settlers brought the eisteddfod, a bardic competition, to North America, and regular eisteddfodau were held, usually at Christmas time, in many immigrant communities.

Welsh-language poetry is deeply rooted in medieval traditions. Cynghanedd, a technique of intra-lineal rhyme and alliteration, is a key element, and strict-meter canu caeth is considered the most prestigious art form. Perhaps the most common poetic form in North American publications is the four-line englyn, which originated in the ninth century. Englynion were often submitted to periodicals to celebrate a special occasion such as a marriage or eulogize the deceased. Admittedly, much nineteenth-century Welsh-American poetry is noteworthy for its content rather than its craft. In addition to personal tributes and elegies, many poems offer commentary on political and social issues, such as slavery, temperance and partisan politics, often suffused with Calvinistic piety.

The high-water mark of Welsh-language culture in North America was the eisteddfod held at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, which drew upon talent from both sides of the Atlantic and attracted much curiosity in the American press. Nevertheless, even as the North American Welsh celebrated a cultural triumph, use of the Welsh language was beginning to decline. By the early twentieth century, American eisteddfodau were shifting their focus from poetry to music, and Welsh-language publications ceased or switched to English. These trends mirrored the demographic decline in Welsh speakers and a dwindling stream of immigrants from Wales. Most significantly, descendants of earlier immigrants no longer saw the language as essential to their identity as Americans (or Canadians) of Welsh ancestry.

Welsh speakers still migrate to North America and heritage organizations offer language courses. The North American Festival of Wales and other groups continue to hold eisteddfodau at which Welsh-language music and poetry is shared, including, on occasion, new compositions.