Citizens of the Celtic world


On Friday, the 40th Inter-Celtic festival kicks off in the French town of Lorient, bringing together traditions from all over France and the world

THE PIPERS are primed, the kilts and dancing shoes are packed, the hotels are filling and the stages are just about built. On Friday, the Breton port town of Lorient will transform itself once again into the heaving, thumping capital of pan-Celtic partying. On their way to the 40th instalment of the Inter-Celtic festival are 4,500 artists and 650,000 spectators from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Spain and diasporic outposts around the world, multiplying the town’s population tenfold and burnishing the reputation of an event that proudly lays claim to being the biggest of its kind.

The Lorient festival casts an open and scrupulously wide embrace, both in its definition of culture and of the Celtic heritage itself. Over the 10-day event, which kicks off with a concert by The Cranberries on Friday night, the programme takes in traditional/folk, rock, jazz, dance and visual art from everywhere from the Isle of Man and Galicia to Canada and Australia.

There will be a televised parade, master classes in Celtic instruments, competitions, art exhibitions, literary events, lectures, sailing races and an “inter-Celtic market”, where craftsmen, authors, tourism officials and chefs can showcase their wares.

For Lisardo Lombardia, the Asturian who has directed of the festival since 2007, it’s this openness and variety that has enabled Lorient to thrive. “The party is the vehicle,” he says. “But beyond the party, people sense that there’s something deeper there . . . We have created a place for encounters.”

Lorient is famous for its encounters. Aficionados swap stories of ending up at the festival by accident while on holiday in Brittany and becoming so fully caught up in the spirit of the event that they have never missed one since. In fact, that seems to be just how Lombardia himself got involved. As a medical student in the 1970s, he came to Brittany with a travel grant to take a course in psychiatry, and came upon the Lorient festival by chance. “I found an atmosphere that seemed to be absolutely – and surprisingly for me – very familiar,” he recalls. He blew the travel grant at Lorient and got involved in organising similar events in Asturias, bringing delegations to the Brittany festival every year before taking charge in 2007.

Pinning down the Celtic character of different art forms can be a notoriously tricky and tenuous business, but Lombardia believes Lorient has struck a chord with so many by recognising that identities are constantly shifting, ever-evolving.

“It could be that more people are rediscovering their identity, but their identity, for us, is not a fixed entity,” he says. “Identity is constructed every day . . . I don’t know of any culture that was fixed or unchanging. We’re talking about Celtic traces, but of course it has evolved.”

Lorient pitches itself as both a repository of tradition and a laboratory for innovation through cultural exchange.

Organisers point to the fate of the binioù, a Breton bagpipe mastered by just a handful of players in the 1930s and presumed to be destined to disappear. Today, there are thousands of virtouso players in Brittany, and the televised parade at Lorient has given it wide recognition.

In Lorient – a town that was built in the 17th century as a gateway to far-off lands and now serves as “an emblematic crossroads” between cultures, as Lombardio puts it – the focus has widened with the festival’s passing years. Whereas the early delegations came from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and the Isle of Man, the line-up now includes not only Galicia and Asturias, but countries with big “Celtic diasporas” such as Australia, Canada, Argentina and the US.

And the organisers couldn’t be accused of being overly dogmatic: the musical line-up this Sunday includes a Malian singer-songwriter, Rokia Traoré, and the Texan band Grupo Fantasma.

But while visitors may come to Lorient from all corners of the world over the next fortnight, the biggest single bloc will be French tourists, many with Breton origins. France has seen a remarkable growth in interest in Celtic- themed music in recent years, the most famous example being the huge Celt’attitude concerts that have taken place in the Stade de France and Paris-Bercy, and organisers of the Lorient festival hope to benefit from the surge in interest this month.

More broadly, some explain the movement’s popularity by seeing it as a counterpoint to the homogenising forces of globalisation, but Lombardia is not so sure that the two are at odds. “No one is from nowhere,” he says. “We are citizens of the world to the extent that we are rooted in a specific place on the planet . . . I think we’re the defenders of a strong identity, but that doesn’t in any way contradict the idea of being open to the world.”

The Lorient Inter-Celtic Festival runs from August 6th-15th.