When I went to university, I was in a very lucky and privileged position. I had been encouraged by my parents to choose a degree course that I would enjoy, and not just one which may contribute to my career (which, at the time, I was certain would be in broadcasting). My first choice on my CAO form was Business through Irish, a course which I thought would combine my passion for the Irish language with a supposedly practical business degree. When I got my Leaving Cert results, however, I didn’t pass the minimum requirement in maths to get a place on that course, so I went with my second option of Arts at University College Dublin.
I knew that I would study Irish at third level, regardless of the other subjects I would study alongside it to make up my degree. Since I had been ten years old, the language had become a core part of my identity; I stopped using my English surname (Butler) by the time I was in secondary school, and De Buitléir has been on all government documentation since I turned eighteen, including tax documentation and my passport. I latched onto the language during those formative years, defining myself as an Irish-speaker before almost any other label I would use.
Connecting with Cymraeg
During my first year in my Arts degree, I needed to study two other subjects. French was a natural choice for one of those, as it was another language I enjoyed at school. The third choice? As part of its School of Irish, Celtic Studies, and Folklore, UCD also offered Welsh as a subject.
As an 18-year-old, I knew only a little about the Welsh language; that as a fellow Celtic language, it followed a similar grammatical structure to Irish, but its vocabulary and orthography were very different. I also knew that it was in a stronger position than Irish, as it had more speakers. Thinking that I’d at least be able to understand any quirks to Welsh because of my fluency in Irish, I thought it would be interesting to get an insight into another Celtic language and society.
Choosing Welsh became a hugely influential moment in my life, without really realising its import at the time. It added to another formative experience from my school days, when I went on a project trip to Copenhagen and learned about the power and impact small European states could have in the EU. In a similar way, I was learning about a Celtic country through its language, and in doing so, I was opened up to a culture, society, history and political landscape that had many similarities to my own. It became fascinating, and I loved my lecturer’s attitude to print off news articles from BBC Newyddion to use my interest in the media as context for my language studies.
By the end of my first year in college, I needed to drop one of my three subjects and decide which would be my major and minor. Irish would absolutely be my major, I had no doubt of that. Welsh, although an unplanned choice, was quickly becoming a fascinating subject to me. French, however, lost its importance in my mind, a result that wasn’t helped by some condescending lecturers at the time. With the decision to study Irish and Welsh as joint majors, my Arts degree effectively became a Celtic Studies degree in all but name. In my second and third years, I had learned some Scottish Gaelic and Breton; I spent a week at Bangor University in North Wales, and spent time in the Kerry Gaeltacht.
A Political (Delayed) Reaction
During my college years, many friends at the time were members of the Labour Party, but I was still trying to break into the media industry in Ireland, and considered it a duty for broadcasters and journalists to be politically neutral. I also thought that I could contribute to society and political debate through my column writing or journalistic pieces, which typically focused on human interest or civil rights stories. It wasn’t until I was 27 – five years after leaving college – that I left broadcasting altogether, and by then, I was preparing to move to the UK. I reached out to the Nottingham branch of the (British) Labour Party, but I received no word back from them. Feeling dejected, I decided not to bother becoming active in politics again until I returned to Ireland, where I eventually joined the Social Democrats.
What makes the political angle interesting to me now is that since leaving college (and especially since leaving my media career behind) I paid less attention to my once-core interests of Celtic languages (other than Irish) and awareness of the Celtic countries in general. Since moving into marketing and after leaving Ireland in 2015, I started to think of my college education as the pursuit of a naïve and carefree kid, who could afford to just learn languages for the sake of it. Now, I see that such an attitude towards myself is deeply unfair, because those experiences shaped my view on the world to this day.
A Renewed Celtic Society?
Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Brittany are four of the six modern Celtic countries which maintain their heritage, language, and sense of identity on varying levels. Smaller Celtic countries like the Isle of Man and Cornwall are obviously much smaller, but while the former enjoys a certain level of autonomy from the British state, Cornwall has become a county of England, with its language enjoying no legal status in the UK. I have been of the opinion for many years, however, that the Celtic nations should work together in a similar way to Nordic countries, where social and political cooperation exists on various levels, not least of which being through the Nordic Council and wider-reaching Arctic Council.
A Celtic council, consisting of politicians from the six Celtic nations, could be very possible, however it would potentially go into competition with the British-Irish Council, despite excluding Brittany. Nevertheless, a closer Celtic connection in a post-Brexit world could establish the Celtic countries as no longer being a fringe to the likes of England or France, but a collaborative community in itself.
Elected politicians don’t need to be the only ones to reach out across the Irish or Celtic Seas. While nationalist parties like the SNP, Sinn Féin, and Plaid Cymru have collaborated on events in the past, there’s nothing to stop other parties of aligning affiliations from making connections. The Celtic League, an organisation which works with the likes of Conradh na Gaeilge and Misneach in Ireland or Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg in Wales, recently announced a Celtic Charter for Housing, calling on better rent control, restrictions on holiday home ownership in minority language communities, and improved strategies for public ownership of social housing. However, while advocacy groups like Cymdeithas, or activist groups like Misneach, are worthwhile to hold politicians to account and scrutiny, it seems unusual for the broader public discussion to be put into a Celtic context, yet socio-political issues in the Nordic region are often compared with and contrasted against their neighbours. Maybe it is time to prompt such thought.
Having recently added my own voice in a digital demonstration for Welsh independence, I find myself reawakening my university education for a new context. My political skills – if I can call them that – are rooted firmly in my understanding of Celtic commonality, our paths along post-colonialism, and our different attitudes to our respective native languages. Political activism in the Celtic countries is traditionally quite socialist and on the left, as it focuses on the welfare of the community, whether rural, working-class, a minority, or any combination of the three. While this is endearing and well-intentioned, only one party has, in my opinion, managed to keep their language community at the heart of its political activism: Plaid Cymru.
Personally, I believe that in the aftermath of Brexit, there is just cause to revisit the concept of Celtic collaboration, especially now that the 6 Celtic countries are no longer under the one European banner. While it would be romantic to use history alone as reason for a new Celtic era, it is pragmatic to learn from one another about how various ideologies and policies have influenced each country for better or worse, and in the event of common challenges, find a common solution. In the same way that smaller states like Ireland, Malta, Denmark, and Latvia, can work together to make their voice bigger in the EU, the Celtic nations can also speak with one voice on an international platform to show solidarity or hail social, political, or economic progress.
If Celtic collaboration was ever to become a model for success like our Nordic neighbours, the best time to start that groundwork is now.