To some, talk of the Celts might evoke misty valleys, druidical spells, fabulous jewellery and woad-painted people. But the Celts can’t be pinned to any historical period, and the Pan Celtic International Festival returns to Carlow, Ireland, this spring to prove it. Celebrating the links between the nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall and the Isle of Man, there’s plenty of music, dance, singing, food and festive cheer, as well as competitions, too. Just a short drive from Ashford Castle and The Lodge at Ashford Castle, here we explore some of the thinking behind the event in an interview with its founder, Con O’Conaill.
What does being Celtic mean in 2017?
“Being Celtic means belonging to an ancient people with a rich, expressive language, culture, art and sport. There is no anti-English sentiment. The only complaint Celts have had historically were against policies that attempted to extinguish Celtic languages and traditions, without valid reason.”
Some historians write the Celts out of history as a people, insisting the label fitted a culture rather than an ethnic group. Do you agree?
“No, mostly because the facts do not stand up. Unbiased archaeology tells a rather different tale. The Celts go back over 2,000 years and were associated with Galatia in Turkey and Galicia in Spain. Originating in the southern part of Germany around 800 BC, the Celtic people spread to form one of the greatest empires in Europe in the pre-Christian era. They conquered and colonised France, Spain, Belgium, Britain, Ireland, Northern Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and parts of Bohemia, Rumania and Poland. They sacked Rome in 390 BC and penetrated the Balkans, eventually arriving in Asia Minor where they settled in Galatia. Here they preserved their language and culture up to AD 400. One of St. Paul’s letters was addressed to them there.”
Why did you found the Pan-Celtic Festival?
“I became interested in the Celtic people and languages at school. Much of my curiosity was piqued when one of my teachers talked about our “Welsh Celtic cousins”. Later, I heard an interview on BBC Scotland with Ned Maddrell, the last native speaker of Manx Gaelic. This made me fascinated by the Celts and I soon felt it was a pity that more was not being done to preserve and promote all the Celtic languages and cultures.
In the winter of 1969/70 the tourist committee in Killarney proposed to hold a festival during the May Races, and asked for suggestions. I thought this was the opportunity to have a Celtic festival with the aim of bringing the six nations together and, through the festival, to promote the languages and cultures. There were several suggestions, and the committee finally opted for a Bach Music Festival. I, however, said I’d go ahead with a Celtic one and set about putting a programme together.
I was too late to successfully organize it in 1970, so I decided to have the first one in May 1971, with only Wales and Brittany represented. Later I visited all the countries and succeeded in having all six participate in 1972, establishing the now very successful Pan Celtic International song contest in the process.”
Some Celtic languages have almost died out over the last few centuries. Is their rehabilitation something to be applauded?
“Some languages have come near extinction but there has been a great revival in recent years – I hope Pan Celtic has made some contribution to that. Our policy is to only allow Celtic languages to be used in performances and competitions at the festival. We also we give equal status to all the Celtic nations and languages, whatever their reach globally.”
Is a pan-Celtic festival an anachronistic creature in a globalised world?
“Globalisation makes it more important to protect and promote our individual cultures and identities. It would be a very boring world if everyone spoke the same language and had the same cultures and values.”
Which events are you most looking forward to in the 2017 line-up?
“The principal events such as the International song contest for newly-composed songs in a Celtic language; the traditional singing competitions for solos and groups; and the choral competitions are all fantastic. Visitors also love the national club nights, where each country puts on a programme of entertainment.”
Does the festival attract Celts overseas?
“Yes, we have had people and artists from overseas such as Nova Scotia in Canada, Patagonia in Argentina, and the Asturias in Spain. Any overseas artist wishing to perform or compete must opt for their Celtic country of origin and perform in that language. In the past, a group from Canada represented as Scottish and a person from Patagonia spoke Welsh.”
If all the dance and song of the Pan Celtic Festival has given you itchy feet, why not book a few nights at the luxurious Lodge at Ashford Castle, set within the 350-acre estate of Ashford Castle, which provides famous Irish hospitality on the grandest scale.