Celts divided by more than the Irish Sea

Celtic Nationalism: Wales and Ireland had common goals after 1916 – but deep differences

British prime minister David Lloyd George with his cabinet colleagues Andrew Bonar Law and Sir Hamar Greenwood inspecting officer cadets of the auxiliary division of the Royal Irish Constabulary in the quadrangle of the Foreign Office. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

British prime minister David Lloyd George with his cabinet colleagues Andrew Bonar Law and Sir Hamar Greenwood inspecting officer cadets of the auxiliary division of the Royal Irish Constabulary in the quadrangle of the Foreign Office. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


The most significant year in the lives of both Patrick Pearse and David Lloyd George was 1916. In April, Pearse led an armed rebellion against British rule on the streets of Dublin. He was executed for his efforts to establish an Irish republic. In December, Lloyd George became prime minister of the United Kingdom. Although born in Manchester, Lloyd George was unmistakably Welsh and his elevation to the premiership symbolised the final recognition of Wales as an equal political partner on the British landscape.

By extension, 1916 was also a year of monumental importance in both Irish and Welsh history. It is possible to interpret the events of this year as evidence of significant differences between both nations. Certainly, nationalists in both countries celebrated their national distinctiveness from England, based on their separate culture and language, but this had resulted in very different political expressions of nationhood. Pearse, a man who had learned Irish, believed that Ireland could only be a nation if independent; while Lloyd George, the native Welsh speaker, was the embodiment of how Welsh identity was accommodated within a wider sense of Britishness.

But in comparing the careers of Pearse and Lloyd George, the connections between Ireland and Wales are also apparent. Pearse spent time in Wales, examining how the Welsh language had been introduced as a school subject in English-speaking schools in Cardiff. He was impressed by what he found, and wrote in An Claidheamh Soluis that the approach to teaching Welsh should be adopted in relation to the teaching of Irish in Ireland. Lloyd George, for his part, had come to political prominence in Wales through his promotion of Welsh home rule in the 1890s. Although he was always somewhat hesitant to link the cause of Welsh home rule to that of Ireland, it is undeniable that the push for Welsh self-government was heavily influenced by the success of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

Furthermore, both Lloyd George and Pearse identified their respective nations as Celtic. Indeed, Pearse had taken part in the first Pan-Celtic conference in Cardiff in 1899, while Lloyd George delivered a speech at the Pan-Celtic congress held in Caernarfon in 1904. They were Celts, and Wales and Ireland were Celtic countries. But it was only a few decades prior to 1916 that this Celtic heritage had been “discovered”, and it prompted an interest among the respective populations of what was happening on the other side of the Irish Sea that had not existed before.

Welsh literature was full of casual and unflattering references to the Irish, such as 'farting like an Irishman'

That there has always been considerable interaction between the people of Ireland and Wales is undeniable. Ogham stones along the Welsh coast suggest that Irish migrants had settled in Wales in the fifth century CE. Ancient Welsh tales claimed the Gaels were the original inhabitants of that land, only to be driven out by the invading Welsh. St Patrick is the most famous example of how the Irish Sea connected rather than separated Ireland and Wales, and while Patrick was almost certainly a Welsh speaker, he may have lived outside the area we think of as Wales today.

A dash across the sea was also an option for medieval Welsh or Irish kings whose military fortunes soured at home. Gruffydd ap Cynan was raised in the Hiberno-Norse city of Dublin in the 11th century after his grandfather, the king of Gwynedd, had been assassinated. Once Gruffydd recaptured Gwynedd with the help of his Gaelic and Norse allies in 1099, he called for Irish bards to travel to Wales to teach their Welsh counterparts their superior poetic and musical skills.

The Norman conquest of Ireland, beginning in 1169, dramatically changed the relationship between Ireland and Wales. While the Normans forged new links and networks across the Irish Sea, the fact that they settled in largest numbers on the Irish east coast meant they severed the political, military and ecclesiastical ties between the indigenous Gaels and Britons. The Reformation widened the cultural chasm between the Irish and Welsh, and by the 19th century, there was little affinity between them.

This changed with the rise of the belief that the Irish and Welsh shared a common Celtic ancestry. Before 1700, the word “Celtic” meant nothing to the average Irish or Welsh person. But early in the 18th century, two linguists, Paul-Yves Pezron and Edward Lhuyd, discovered that the Gaelic languages and Brythonic languages were members of a single language family. They implied that the name for this group of languages should be “Celtic”, because one of these languages, Breton, was the language of the ancient Gauls. As the Gauls were Celts, it seemed reasonable to classify all of the related languages as “Celtic”.

Today, archeologists and geneticists debate whether there ever was a Celtic migration to these shores. But in the 18th century, many scholars, using the work of Lhuyd and Pezron as their starting point, wove Celtic invasions into the history of Britain and Ireland. Yet it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that the Celtic character of the Irish and Welsh was accepted. We can tell this by tracking how often the word “Celtic” appeared in Irish and Welsh newspapers. The regularity of its use increased dramatically in the 1840s. It doubled again in the 1850s, and by the 1880s, had doubled once more. Clearly, something happened between the 1840s and 1860s. But what?

Celtic race

The first major publications on the “racial” character of nations appeared in the 1840s and 1850s. These works preached the idea that different races spoke different languages, and the existence of a Celtic language family was viewed as proof of a Celtic race. In the 1850s and 1860s, writers such as Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold built upon this idea by analysing the literature of these various Celtic nations to highlight characteristics that members of the “race” possessed. Meanwhile, archeological excavations around Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland in the 1860s revealed evidence of a rich Celtic civilisation that had once dominated Europe.

Therefore, over a 20-year period, the Celts were established as a biological fact by scientists, given a glorious past by archeologists, and identifiable personality traits by writers. This made Celticness attractive to nationalists in Ireland and Wales, and by the late 19th century, people in both countries believed they were Celts.

At the very moment that this shared Celtic identity was gaining acceptance on both sides of the Irish Sea, Irish cultural nationalists became increasingly aware of a major difference between the two nations when it came to the strength of their indigenous languages. As the number of people who spoke Irish declined dramatically, the Welsh language appeared to be in rude health. The number of Welsh speakers doubled during the 19th century, with 910,289 Welsh speakers recorded in the census of 1891. Naturally, those who were interested in preserving the Irish language looked to Wales for motivation and ideas.

During the Gaelic revival at the turn of the 20th century, the Welsh were held up as role models for the Irish to aspire to. In 1896, Eoin MacNeill declared that the Gaelic League wanted to do for Irish “what has been done for the Welsh language. We wish to make it a leading element in our national life and in our national culture . . . to create and foster the spirit of self-respect and self-reliance. All this has been done in Wales, why not then in Ireland?”.

At Gaelic League meetings across the country, the virtues of the Welsh people in preserving their language were extolled. The claim was repeatedly made that Welsh had once almost died out, but had recovered. Fr Michael O’Hickey told a meeting in Belfast in 1899 that “In Wales, 100 years ago, it was a matter of history that the Welsh language was in its death throes. However, a few patriots took up the work of reviving the Welsh speech, and today they found that practically every person within the confines of Wales was either an exclusively Welsh speaker, or, at all events, a bilingual speaker”.

Activists such as O’Hickey encouraged supporters of the Irish language to believe their efforts would not be in vain, as the Welsh language had once known similar dark days but had been revived. Logically, their argument went, what had been done for Welsh, could similarly be done for Irish. In reality, the story of the fall and rise of the Welsh language, as told in Ireland, was greatly exaggerated. It seems that some Gaelic League members may have confused a Welsh literary revival in the 18th century with a resurrection of Welsh as a spoken language.

Nor was Welsh in quite the prosperous position that O’Hickey claimed. The rise of the number of Welsh speakers in the 19th century was due to a population explosion, but the proportion of the Welsh population who could speak the language was steadily declining, a trend that continued throughout the 20th century. Nevertheless, this misguided belief in a “Welsh revival” remains strong in Ireland to this day. There certainly has been a rise in positive attitudes towards Welsh in the past 30 years, but there simply hasn’t been a revival in any meaningful sense of the word.

The Welsh were generally viewed in a positive, indeed, romantic light in 19th-century Ireland. Such sentiments were not reciprocated across the Irish Sea, however. The Welsh word for an Irishman is Gwyddel, which comes from the Welsh for “wild, barbaric, uncultivated”. Medieval Welsh literature was full of casual and unflattering references to the Irish, such as “an Irish trick”, “an Irishman of a problem”, “farting like an Irishman”, and the word Gwyddel generally being a term of abuse. The famous Welsh bard, Iolo Morganwg, wrote in 1799 that “an Irishman’s loves are three: violence, deception and poetry”.

Welsh contempt for the Irish was caused by three factors. The Catholic faith of the majority of Irish people was anathema to nonconformist Wales. The anarchy associated with Ireland (through events like the Land War and the Fenian rebellion of 1867) was a stark contrast to the Welsh self-image of being the most peaceful and law-abiding country on earth. Finally, the large number of poor Irish immigrants who arrived in Wales in the decades after the famine were viewed with contempt by many in Wales.

Political rights

Yet there were some who believed the Welsh could learn from the Irish, especially in asserting their political rights. Politically speaking, Wales was viewed simply as a culturally distinct part of England up until the middle of the 19th century. The success of Irish campaigners in achieving legislation to remedy specifically Irish problems attracted an emerging class of Welsh political nationalists. In particular, the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Ireland in 1869 was a significant cause of envy in Wales, where the nonconformist majority despised supporting the state church.

As the Anglican Church would never be disestablished in Britain as a whole, political leaders in Wales realised they would have to argue they were a distinct political nation, entitled to separate laws just like Ireland. With Welsh nationalists looking to Ireland for inspiration on how to bring about political reform, it was not surprising that Welsh issues increasingly resembled Irish issues. A Welsh Land League was formed in the 1886, with Michael Davitt travelling across the Irish Sea to teach Welsh farmers how to agitate for rent reductions.

A Welsh home rule movement, Cymru Fydd (“Wales Will Be”), emerged in 1885. Thomas Gee, a prominent Welsh newspaper owner, declared in 1890 that “the Welsh nation aspires to Home Rule, like the sister nation in the Emerald Isle”. More often than not, however, supporters of Welsh home rule were careful about linking their movement to its equivalent across the Irish Sea. The movement’s leader, Lloyd George, only sporadically made references to Ireland. The reason was simple. Ireland was still viewed as a lawless land, and supporters of Cymru Fydd were eager to avoid being accused of “Irish tactics”.

The Welsh home rule movement petered out in the 1890s, but its brightest star, Lloyd George went on to have a spectacular career in British politics, one that led all the way to Downing Street. It was in his role as prime minister that Lloyd George oversaw efforts to stifle the Irish revolutionary movement during the War of Independence. Throughout the conflict, he made barbed comments about the decline of the Irish language to undermine Sinn Féin’s claim that Ireland had a distinct culture and therefore was entitled to political independence. Comparing Wales to Ireland in one speech, he declared “there are a far larger number of people in that small country talking the native language of the race than you have got in Ireland talking their language”.

In Ireland, these jibes did not go unnoticed. The Nenagh Guardian declared that the prime minister had set a challenge for the Irish nation and the people had to “assert themselves and study their own language or swallow the taunt and insult of the Welsh wizard”. When a man who took his family to Donegal to learn Irish was asked why he had done so, his answer was simply “Lloyd George”.

In a speech in 1921, Michael Collins responded directly to Lloyd George’s claim that more people spoke Welsh than Irish by asking, “[W]ould there have been more if this Welsh language had been placed under a ban for generations? Would there have been more if the teachers of their language had been hunted into hiding?”. Where once Welsh speakers had been heroic cultural defenders that the Irish were encouraged to emulate, now they had become part of the oppressive regime suppressing Ireland’s nationhood.

Not everyone in Wales sided with the prime minister, however. Saunders Lewis was a Welsh academic and in January 1921, he sarcastically wrote to his fiancee “isn’t Lloyd George the grand Welshman and true Celt? I’m proud to sign myself his countryman – I suppose Cromwell must have been Welsh too”. Lewis was one of a number of Welsh nationalists who were inspired by what was happening in Ireland. He told his fiancee he had a revolver and that “I am keeping it for the Welsh Sinn Féin which is to start in Cardiff”. In 1925, Lewis, alongside Huw Robert Jones (founder of Byddin Ymreolwyr Cymru or the “Welsh Home Rule Army”) established the political party, Plaid Cymru. Its intellectual debt to Sinn Féin was evident from the fact that in its first few years it proposed that if any of its candidates were elected, they would abstain from sitting in Westminster.

When the Irish Free State was established in 1922, the connections between Wales and the Republic frayed and the interest among nationalists in both countries waned. But it never disappeared completely, and to this day, groups in both nations still look across the Irish Sea for inspiration from their Celtic cousins.

The Coming of the Celts, AD 1860: Celtic Nationalism in Ireland and Wales by Caoimhín De Barra is published by University of Notre Dame Press

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