The pursuit of Celtic beauty often goes astray. When I traveled to Donegal, the northernmost county in Ireland, I found it cold, and full of rocky, neglected “hiking trails.” The people there were leery of strangers; my girlfriend and I were conspicuous tourists. We didn’t speak Gaelic or know any locals. We didn’t even have a clear reason for showing up, except that we’d been living in Dublin for six months, without a chance to explore further. Donegal was exploration at its most purposeless and regrettable, as we realized when we entered a small town’s only pub. The musician actually stopped playing. There was a long awkward moment. Then he started right up again, moving on to his big encore. It was “Country Roads,” by John Denver.
When I started compiling the Spotify playlist for this article (which you can find here), the second song I picked was written and recorded by The Magnetic Fields. I realize that The Magnetic Fields aren’t Irish, Scottish, folky, or authentic. They don’t record soft, inoffensive New Age music. They don’t even sing doomy, misty ballads—usually—or pair the dirgey stuff with an equal amount of “lively” fiddling. Despite this, their song “Abigail, Belle of Kilronan” is Celtic music at its most thrilling. Being Celtic isn’t something anyone’s born into now; you become Celtic, over time, once you’ve lost enough and fought enough and lived long enough amid the thorns and the deeps. Anyone can wake up on a misty cliff, with dew underfoot: Celtic art is an open-source project that never ends or tires. There’s a Celtic film called Braveheart, by the Australian Mel Gibson. There’s The Secret of Roan Inish, an incredible Celtic fairy tale by a native son of Schenectady, New York. Most of the best bad Celtic music in the world is either something James Horner composed—Horner never refused his Celtic muse, regardless of the actual film he was supposed to interpret—or else was created in his image. Thus we have the brave and sad violin that plays in Game of Thrones, or the theme to Outlander, which is not merely brave, sad, and beautiful, but raspy, bittersweet, and shallow.
The Celts were largely misunderstood in their own era; considered barbarians by the invading Roman army, they were in fact a puzzled, anxious people, vividly superstitious, prone to night terrors. They believed in a faery world (the “Otherworld”) that was diverse, productive, and treacherous, all at the same time. You might compare it to some versions of the underworld, where the dead mingle in the streets and affairs of the living; there’s also something obviously similar about the stadium full of giants, gods, trolls, dogs, snakes, and trees that animate Norse mythology. But the Norse myths arc over the present like rainbows; they’re largely concerned with the origins and ends of things. The realms of the dead, meanwhile, are the noisy remnants of our own history. As any reader of Dante can tell you, the dead can be undignified beggars; before Dante, in Homer’s Odyssey, the ghost of Tiresias drinks a living man’s blood. The Celts gave back human blood to living, inhuman things; they didn’t leave it out for their ancestors to drink.
Celtic mythology, among the great mythic traditions of Europe, mainly attempts to situate human beings in relation to the whole of the natural world—without simplifying Nature, demonizing it, or explaining its cruelty away. Nature, timeless, borderless, is a perfect knot, an ungraspable whole that each Celtic myth seizes by one promising strand. These myths are ignorant of beginnings and expect no end to anything. The Otherworld is not so much greater than the human world as it is mapped in conjunction with it, at a sort of queasy diagonal to us and our certainties. Nature’s a rebuke and counterpoint to everything humans do and claim to understand. It sweeps in like a tide, thwarting our intentions, sliding our carefully domesticated human reality completely off its pinions. The myths bristle with insanity, illusion, and temptation. In most of them we are overmatched, and go astray.
Such myths are a caution, more often than not; but what is the world like without them? A. S. Byatt, writing about the Harry Potter series, prophesied a truly dismal apocalypse:
It's become respectable to read and discuss what Roland Barthes called ''consumable'' books. There is nothing wrong with this, but it has little to do with the shiver of awe we feel looking through Keats's ''magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.''
This is Keats at his most Celtic, and he pulls it off beautifully, especially under Byatt’s discerning eye. To live close to Nature you have to salt your meals with awe and fear. It’s not always comfortable, but to live otherwise is suffocating; one can die of claustrophobia. So instead, in a thousand degraded forms, we go forth with “mythical,” recycled miracles, trying to catch a wriggling comet in those unworthy nets. Harry Potter sprouts gills. Crazy old loners at the edge of town know more than they let on. Ballpoint pens extrapolate wildly into swords. It’s all unsatisfying. Van Morrison, who knew extraordinary things about “gardens all misty wet, all misty wet with rain,” ends his Celtic album (Astral Weeks) far from dewy baths that renew us. He turns his gaze towards a socialite in a brand new Cadillac. “I know you’re dying, baby,” he sings, “and I know you know it too.” Whoever it is that Van has in mind, you can bet she died listening to Pure Moods on CD, hoping faintly for something more.
Now at this point I wouldn’t blame you for banging your fist on the table and demanding to hear what, exactly, I think “Celtic” is. Granted, we’re not going to judge by some impossible standard of authenticity, nor give away the crown to anyone who can play “uilleann pipes” on a rented Yamaha. Why would I call James Joyce intermittently Celtic, with his talk about a woman being a “flower of the mountain” (in his novel Ulysses), not to mention all of this:
Perhaps it was an old flame he was in mourning for from the days beyond recall... Heart of mine! She would follow her dream of love, the dictates of her heart that told her he was her all in all, the only man in all the world for her for love was the master guide. Nothing else mattered. Come what might she would be wild, untrammelled, free.
Those are the words of one Gerty MacDowell, a minor character who shows up in Ulysses about halfway through. They’re laughable words, if you’re in a graceless mood. But they’re also heartbreaking, because Gerty is so desperate to speak in perfect, love-kindled songs. Look at the way the past comes into her little picture, done over in pastels: “the days beyond recall.” Consider “the dictates of her heart,” which must of course be like laws unto themselves, blinking in the daylight after staying buried deep—beyond the reach of disillusion—for so awfully long. The Celtic palette, which Joyce reserved for his women, is every Romantic yearning sprung back to life. It is the way the mountains echo something inside your own heart. It is the grandest and most unwarranted hopes. It’s the gleaming ideal. It’s the underdog’s jingle. It’s the happy ending, edged by uncountable loss. It’s all that is most elemental in a poem of today: the sedge, the bloom, the moon, the snow, the kiss, the glimpse, all atremble. Newborn. The flower of the mountain. It’s as if the Highlands never agreed to let romance die out; for that required the gray despair of crowds and cities. All we have to do is ascend those same peaks, far off the grid, to find that which is wild, untrammelled, and free about us. “The world offers itself to our imagination,” said the poet Mary Oliver. Still? But perhaps, yes, it does.
On the far side of its Druidic worship of Nature is the Celtic love of craft. I’ve come to feel that the Celts couldn’t sit for 10 minutes without embroidering something. Like the artisans of the great Islamic empires, they created abstract lace-patterns that always carried the weight of some patient somebody’s unrecorded sacrifice to an impersonal ideal. In Islamic art the filigree is a symbol of the complexity of God’s creation. In Celtic art it’s a symbol of itself: that is, of its own painstaking craftsmanship. Celtic culture celebrates finely made things; it’s an ideal and an absolute. They don’t just have perpendicular, unadorned crosses. They have crosses encrusted with knots, and the effect, remarkably enough, is a cross that bears witness to the effort true religious faith must make in every generation. The cross has to be signed, so to speak, by the people who’ve brought it to life in a new place and time: that is what the Celtic cross bids us to remember.
On one level, this makes complete sense. If you want to learn how something ought to be made, ask the people who have to travel with it for a long time in the wild. I mean, of course the Irish and the Scots turned their knots into memorable sweaters. It’s cold there. Of course you’d want anything that’s got to withstand the elements to be “wrought” with extra care.
But that’s surface level. There’s a real, ungainly asymmetry between the way the Celts reverence Nature, and the way they ramify everything they touch with layer upon artificial layer. People who reverence Nature sing out to their gods in makeshift spaces, tracing everything as lightly as they can: if you want to understand the contradictions of the Celts, consider Stonehenge. Where is the “Stonehenge” of the Plains Indians, in North America? Where is the Australian, aboriginal “Stonehenge”? Nowhere, obviously; the whole spirit of those cultures is against it. Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Philip Drew puts it like this: “[the aboriginal Australians] discovered their temples and cathedrals (their most profound spiritual sanctuaries) in the ready-made structures of the landscape itself. They concerned themselves with creating comfortable, economical shelters.” But the Druids had other ideas. They got people to drag immense, foreign stone blocks a very long way to build their temple; then they hoisted them. They had construction crews. They did all this for unknown reasons, in “the days beyond recall.” Stonehenge may be a cemetery; it may be a shrine, raised for the benefit of pilgrims. My personal theory, which involves early forms of tourism—people love visiting sites full of large, incongruous rocks—and Celtic souvenir shops, is probably wrong.
Stonehenge back in the day. We still don’t know what everyone was doing there, however.
Stonehenge now. This clearly illustrates the importance of preventative dental care, among other things.
Anyway, what’s ultimately most eerie about Stonehenge is that we’ve figured out more or less exactly what it looked like in its prime. It’s based on a simple circular pattern. And that’s what the craftsmen who created “Celtic” culture did with everything they touched. They didn’t create eccentric masterpieces to demonstrate their genius. They created templates. There were narrative templates, musical templates, religious templates, and wool sweater templates. They didn’t do this for the reasons we make such templates now: in order to mass-produce things. They did it because if you died, suddenly, in the middle of your weaving, somebody else could take right over and still do it justice. Celtic designs are logical; like a fugue, started by Bach but finished by one of his sons, they can be taken from some ragged intimation to a polished, faithful end, all by a process of deduction.
And die they did. Wiped out by the Romans, in both culture and numbers, the Celts gradually lost all pride of place, even in their ownmost isles. They were conquered again, and again, and again, and where they clung somehow to the bulwark of tradition, in places like Donegal, it became them least, as I found out firsthand. “History is written by those who have hung heroes,” says the narrator of Braveheart. The Celts were not mourned in their time. They did not receive the burial they earned.
They were mourned later.
Then Elrond and Galadriel rode on; for the Third Age was over, and the Days of the Rings were passed, and an end was come of the story and song of those times. With them went many Elves of the High Kindred who would no longer stay in Middle-earth; and among them, filled with a sadness that was yet blessed and without bitterness, rode Sam, and Frodo, and Bilbo.
—The Lord of the Rings
Who are Tolkien’s Elves? They are the ghosts of singers and scribes. They are the shadows of things made long ago, forged with care. In our time the empire of human activity has crept everywhere, and clawed up the wilderness, and brought the planet to the brink of an “anthropocene” catastrophe. The templates of the Celts, woven in the hopes of making something that would outlive Nature, have now become our corny, hackneyed callsigns for Nature in exile. But there are moments when those intricate figures outshine even the grubby need we have of them. What is Celtic in J. R. R. Tolkien, Van Morrison, and James Joyce, is beautiful. Even what is shabbiest about James Horner has a gleam of real tragedy, and its complement, undiminished hope. The Celts couldn’t have known, before the Romans arrived, that they would be the most important losers in European history, or that they’d slowly become cultural touchstones. But today the people who take up their song are the ones who expect to lose, who expect to fail, who expect nothing. The winners of each new era can afford to be cavalier, dispensing with art, glutted by what’s real. The trick of the Celts, meanwhile, was to create like one's already dead—so, in time, eternity was theirs.