Celtic Revival

Celtic High cross in Quebec (Compare with the original)

The Celtic Revival (also referred to as the Celtic Twilight) was a variety of movements and trends in the 19th and 20th centuries that saw a renewed interest in aspects of Celtic culture. Artists and writers drew on the traditions of Gaelic literature, Welsh-language literature, and so-called 'Celtic art' - what historians call Insular art (the Early Medieval style of Ireland and Britain). Although the revival was complex and multifaceted, occurring across many fields and in various countries in Northwest Europe, its best known incarnation is probably the Irish Literary Revival. Here, Irish writers including William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, "AE" Russell, Edward Martyn and Edward Plunkett (Lord Dunsany) stimulated a new appreciation of traditional Irish literature and Irish poetry in the late 19th and early 20th century.[1]

In many, but not all, facets the revival came to represent a reaction to modernisation. This is particularly true in Ireland, where the relationship between the archaic and the modern was antagonistic, where history was fractured, and where, according to Terry Eagleton, "as a whole [the nation] had not leapt at a bound from tradition to modernity".[2] At times this romantic view of the past resulted in historically inaccurate portrayals, such as the promotion of noble savage stereotypes of the Irish people and Scottish Highlanders, as well as a racialized view that referred to the Irish, whether positively or negatively, as a separate race.[3]

Perhaps the most widespread and lasting contribution of the revival was the re-introduction of the High cross as the Celtic cross, which now forms a familiar part of monumental and funerary art over most of the Western world.[4]


Antiquarian researches into the Gaelic and Brittonic cultures and histories of Britain and Ireland gathered pace from the late 17th century, with people like Owen Jones in Wales and Charles O'Conor in Ireland. The key surviving manuscript sources were gradually located, edited and translated, monuments identified and published, and other essential groundwork in recording stories, music and language done.

The Welsh antiquarian and author Iolo Morganwg fed the growing fascination in all things Brittonic by founding the Gorsedd, which (along with his writings) would in turn spark the Neo-druidism movement.

Interest in Scottish Gaelic culture greatly increased during the onset of the Romantic period in the late 18th century, with James Macpherson's Ossian achieving international fame, along with the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the poetry and song lyrics of the London-based Irishman Thomas Moore, Byron's friend and executor. Throughout Europe, the Romantic movement inspired a great revival of interest in folklore, folk tales, and folk music; even Beethoven[5] was commissioned to produce a set of arrangements of Scottish folk-songs. As elsewhere, in what was then the United Kingdom of the whole archipelago, this encouraged and fed off a rise in nationalism, which was especially intense in Ireland.

Druids Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890) by E. A. Hornel

In the mid-19th century the revival continued, with Sir Samuel Ferguson, the Young Ireland movement, and others popularising folk tales, dubious works of history, and other material in all the nations with a claim to be 'Celtic'. At the same time, archaeological and historical work was beginning to make progress in constructing a better understanding of regional history. Interest in ornamental 'Celtic' art developed, and 'Celtic' motifs began to be used in all sorts of contexts, including architecture, drawing on works like the Grammar of Ornament by (another) Owen Jones. Imitations of the ornate Insular penannular brooches of the 7–9th centuries were worn by Queen Victoria among others from the late 1840s,[6] many produced in Dublin[7] by West & Son and other makers.

In Scotland were John Francis Campbell's (1821-1885) works the bilingual Popular Tales of the West Highlands (4 vols., 1860–62) and The Celtic Dragon Myth, published posthumously in 1911. The formation of the Edinburgh Social Union in 1885, which included a number of significant figures in the Arts and Craft and Aesthetic movements, became part of an attempt to facilitate a 'Celtic' Revival in Scotland, similar to that taking place in contemporaneous Ireland, drawing on ancient myths and history to produce art in a modern idiom.[8] Key figures were the philosopher, sociologist, town planner and writer Patrick Geddes (1854–1932), the architect and designer Robert Lorimer (1864–1929) and stained-glass artist Douglas Strachan (1875–1950). Geddes established an informal college of tenement flats for artists at Ramsay Garden on Castle Hill in Edinburgh in the 1890s. Among the figures involved with the movement were Anna Traquair (1852–1936), who was commissioned by the Union to paint murals in the Mortuary Chapel of the Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh (1885–86 and 1896–98) and also worked in metal, illumination, illustration, embroidery and book binding.[9] The most significant exponent of the artistic revival in Scotland was Dundee-born John Duncan (1866–1945). Among his most influential works are his paintings of Celtic subjects Tristan and Iseult (1912) and St Bride (1913).[10] Duncan also helped to make Dundee a major centre for the Celtic Revival movement along with artists such as Stewart Carmichael and the publisher Malcolm C MacLeod.[11]

Modern copper jar, using a Celtic motif in restrained fashion.

The Irish Literary Revival encouraged the creation of works written in the spirit of Irish culture, as distinct from English culture. This was, in part, due to the political need for an individual Irish identity. This difference was kept alive by invoking Ireland's historic past, its myths, legends and folklore. There was an attempt to re-vitalize the native rhythm and music of Irish Gaelic. Figures such as Lady Gregory, WB Yeats, George Russell, J .M. Synge and Seán O'Casey wrote many plays and articles about the political state of Ireland at the time. Gaelic revival and Irish nationalism frequently overlapped in places such as An Stad, a tobacconist on North Frederick Street owned by the writer Cathal McGarvey and frequented by literary figures such as James Joyce (although Joyce was thoroughly contemptuous of the movement, feeling it betrayed the realities of urban Ireland) and Yeats, along with leaders of the Nationalist movement such as Douglas Hyde, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. These were connected with another great symbol of the literary revival, The Abbey Theatre, which served as the stage for many new Irish writers and playwrights of the time.

In 1892, Sir Charles Gavan Duffy said,

"A group of young men, among the most generous and disinterested in our annals, were busy digging up the buried relics of our history, to enlighten the present by a knowledge of the past, setting up on their pedestals anew the overthrown statues of Irish worthies, assailing wrongs which under long impunity had become unquestioned and even venerable, and warming as with strong wine the heart of the people, by songs of valour and hope; and happily not standing isolated in their pious work, but encouraged and sustained by just such an army of students and sympathizers as I see here to-day".[5]

The Celtic Revival (also often referred to as the "Celtic Twilight") was an international movement. The Irish-American designer Thomas Augustus "Gus" O'Shaughnessy made a conscious choice to use Irish design roots as well as Art Nouveau influences in his artwork. Trained in stained glass and working in an Art Nouveau style, O'Shaughnessy designed a series of windows and interior stencils for Old Saint Patrick's Church in Chicago, a project begun in 1912 and completed in 1922. Louis Sullivan, the Chicago architect, incorporated dense Art Nouveau and 'Celtic'-inspired interlace in the ornament of his buildings. Sullivan's father was a traditional Irish musician and they both were step-dancers, which suggests that his creativity was not rooted only in his official education. In England, the Watts Mortuary Chapel (1896–98) in Surrey was a thoroughgoing attempt to decorate a Romanesque Revival chapel framework with lavish Celtic reliefs designed by Mary Fraser Tytler.

Celtic-style tattoo

The "plastic style" of early 'Celtic' art was one of the elements feeding into Art Nouveau decorative style, very consciously so in the work of designers like the Manxman Archibald Knox, who did much work for Liberty & Co., especially for the Tudric and Cymric ranges of metalwork, respectively in pewter and silver or gold. Many of the most extravagant examples of the plastic style come from the modern Czech Lands and influenced the Czech Art Nouveau designer and artist Alphonse Mucha (Mucha, in turn, influenced the Irish-American O'Shaughnessy, who had attended a series of Mucha's lectures in Chicago).

An Archibald Knox design

Interlace, which is still seen as a "Celtic" form of decoration—somewhat ignoring its Germanic origins and equally prominent place in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian medieval art—has remained a motif in many forms of popular design, especially in Celtic countries and above all Ireland, where it remains a national style signature. In recent decades, it had a re-revival in 1960s designs (for example, in the Biba logo) and has been used worldwide in tattoos and in various contexts and media in fantasy works with a quasi-Dark Ages setting. The Secret of Kells is an animated feature film of 2009 set during the creation of the Book of Kells which makes much use of Insular design.


The term Celtic Revival is sometimes used to refer to the Cornish cultural Celtic revival of the early twentieth century. This was characterised by an increased interest in the Cornish language started by Henry Jenner and Robert Morton Nance in 1904. The Federation of Old Cornwall Societies was formed in 1924 to "maintain the Celtic spirit of Cornwall", followed by the Gorseth Kernow in 1928 and the formation of the Cornish political party Mebyon Kernow in 1951. This revival has spread across the Irish sea towards Northern England, with the attempted reconstructions of numerous types of bagpipe (such as the Lancashire Great-pipe) and an increased interest in the Northumbrian smallpipes. There are also attempts to reconstruct the Cumbric language, the ancient Brythonic language of Northern (particularly Northwestern) England, a remnant of the Brittonic kingdoms of Hen Ogledd.


Galician gaiteiros. All forms of Galician culture were suppressed during the Franco regime.

Galicia also had its own Celtic revival.[12] During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, all forms of regional culture were suppressed in favor of a unified "Spanish culture" that was heavily based on Andalusian culture (although Franco himself was Galician). This lasted until Franco's death in 1975, when the King was restored to power and all Spanish regional cultures were allowed to flourish once again. Prominent Galician Celtic musicians include Carlos Núñez, Luar na Lubre and Susana Seivane.[13] Currently, the Gallaic Revival Movement is seeking to revive the Gallaic language, also known as the Galician/Gallaecian language, for everyday use.[14][15][16][17] Neighboring northern Portugal is also undergoing a Celtic revival.[12]

See also


  1. Foster (2003), pp. 486, 662.
  2. Castle, 2–3.
  3. MacManus, Seamus (1921). The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland. Ireland: The Irish Publishing Co. ISBN 0-517-06408-1. Retrieved 24 October 2015.
  4. Stephen Walker, "Celtic Revival Crosses", Celtic Arts Website, accessed 22 November 2008
  5. 1 2 Castle, 239
  6. Royal Collection Archived 9 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine., Brooch given in November 1849, and Christmas 1849.
  7. Victorian penannular brooches from the V&A Museum.
  8. Gardiner (2005), p. 170.
  9. MacDonald, (2000), pp. 155–6.
  10. MacDonald (2000), pp. 156–7.
  11. Jarron, Matthew (2015). "Independent & Individualist": Art in Dundee 1867-1924. Dundee: University of Dundee Museum Services / Abertay Historical Society. pp. 48–91. ISBN 978-0-900019-56-2.
  12. 1 2 Alberro, Manuel (2005). "Celtic Legacy in Galicia". E-Keltoi: Journal of Interdisciplinary Celtic Studies. 6: 1005–1035.
  13. Melhuish, Martin (1998). Celtic Tides: Traditional Music in a New Age. Ontario, Canada: Quarry Press Inc. p. 28. ISBN 1-55082-205-5.
  14. Archived 2 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  15. "Gallaic Revival Movement". Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  16. "Gallaic Revival". Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  17. "Old Celtic Dictionary".


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