This is the text of an address given to the Celtic Society of Australia, Sydney, by Dr T. J. Kiernan, Irish Minister to Australia, 1949-10-29.
Celtic Congresses in other countries
T. J. Kiernan
The first Celtic Congress, called a Pan-Celtic Congress, was held in 1838 in Abergavenny, Wales. Until the end of the last century, the Congresses were held only every thirty years or so; but the 1898 Congress, which took place at Morlaix, Brittany, was followed by a regular series, in Cardiff, Dublin, Caernarvon, Saint-Brieuc, Brest, Edinburgh, and Nantes.
The present series of Celtic Congresses dates from the 1917 meeting at Birkenhead, which met on the invitation of the National Union of Welsh Societies. It was then that the papers and addresses delivered at the Congress were, for the first time, reproduced in permanent record.
The 1914-1918 World War was still in progress, and in a preface to the Celtic Conference reports of 1917-18, the President, E. T. John, referred to the undoubted Celtic renaissance already so much in evidence, adding “This awakening has become vitally essential to the well-being of humanity, under the stress of widespread materialist reaction; for, whatever may be the fate of Teutonism in the field, it has won the homage of assimilation and imitation, conscious and unconscious, in the most diversified and unexpected quarters, completely conquering its antagonists, even though it moves itself to the inevitable and final failure. Conquered or unconquered, vanquished or victorious, it still triumphs so long as human civilization and international relations base their final sanctions upon force as the dominating factor most assuredly the negation of the gospel of Celticism.”
In addition to representatives of the six Celtic nations, the Celtic Society of Paris was represented at the 1917 Congress.
In the following year the meeting place was at Neath, Wales; and in 1920 at Edinburgh. The success of these international unions of Celtic Societies was now well-established and the transactions of each meeting were being published.
At the Edinburgh meeting of 1920, the Welsh scholar, Edward T. John was again in the chair; and in his inaugural address, he referred to the overseas Celts. “Although”, he said, “Celtia Overseas may not be represented very strongly on this occasion, it is to be hoped that the Congress will not fail to appreciate adequately the greatness alike in numbers, character, and achievement of the Celts of the Dispersion—ever remembering Acton’s vivid phrase that ’Exile is the nursery of nationality’, an aphorism constantly demonstrated by such incidents in Celtic experience as the holding of Gaelic classes in New Zealand, by the Gaelic-speaking contingent from Nova Scotia and Cape Breton in the recent war, by the story of Pennsylvania and its Merion tract, by the appellation of the great Dominion of New South Wales, by the continued existence and prosperity of the Welsh Colony in the Chubut Valley in distant Patagonia, by recurring Cymric, Irish, and Scottish reunions ranging from Calcutta to Seattle.”
The President of the Congress then stated the aim of the annual meetings and of the permanent Committee, “The permanent task of the Congress is surely first to see that in every Celtic area, wheresoever Celts in appreciable numbers assemble, the fullest facilities are provided for the exhaustive study and exposition of the Celtic languages and literatures, and of the dramatic story of the Celtic race, and, in like manner, to ensure that in the educational systems of England, the overseas Dominions, the United States, and France, the very material contribution of the Celtic peoples to the literature, history, and development of Western Civilization be adequately appreciated, effectually and faithfully expounded and emphasized, a vista of activity and watchful persistence, sufficient to tax the energies of the most enthusiastic.
Celtic music—folk songs of Wales, Scots-Celtic folk song, and folk songs of Ireland, were now occupying more attention at these annual meetings.
A very successful Congress was held in the following year, 1921, at Douglas, Isle of Man. In one of the papers, on “Some traits common to the Celts in the Middle Ages”, Dr Douglas Hyde, who later became first President of Ireland, referred to an ancient Irish poem contained in the 15th-century vellum called The Book of Fermoy; and said that a copy was found in an Irish manuscript in Australia by his friend, Dr O’Donnell of Melbourne, who sent it to Professor Hyde for comparison with an older copy in Trinity College, Dublin. I mention this as a matter of practical interest to members of the Celtic Society, since there must be other old Celtic manuscripts brought out by early settlers. Indeed, only a few weeks ago, I saw in Melbourne a manuscript booklet brought out from Ireland a hundred years ago, written in beautiful Irish script, and containing a version of “The Midnight Court”, the celebrated poem written by Brian Merriman. The Melbourne manuscript was brought to Australia by Merriman’s niece and may prove to be a discovery of quite considerable importance, since the translations in recent times of Frank O’Connor, Arland Ussher, and most recently of Lord Longford, published in Poetry Ireland.
The Manx Congress showed a widening of interest in the subjects discussed. There were Manx folk-plays stages, having parallels in Welsh folklore. Lennox Robinson gave an account of the Abbey Theatre. Mrs Kennedy Fraser spoke on folk-song collecting in the Hebrides; and there was a series on notable Celtic women. There was a Manx concert; a second concert of Welsh, Irish, and Hebridean music; and the Congress ended with a Grand Celtic Concert, at which a first performance was given of a new Celtic Suite for Piano, by Josef Holbrooke, interlacing the music of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Mann.
In 1929, I was asked to organize the 1930 Congress in London; and in the hope that you may some time organize an Australasian Celtic Congress, I shall give you a first-hand account of the work of organizing that Congress, which turned out to be a great success.
The various Celtic groups in London sent representatives to a first general meeting and from this an organizing committee was chosen of which I was elected chairman. The Welsh were the easiest to get together, as through their chapel in Greater London they maintain closer and more constant contact than other groupings.
The Irish bodies I was already well-acquainted with, in the Gaelic League of London, the Irish Literary Society, which had been founded by W. B. Yeats, the Irish Texts Society, and the National University of Ireland Club, which I had founded in London just a year before. The Scottish element was also readily organizable, through the London Gaelic Society and the London members of An Cumann G‡idhealach. Brittany, Cornwall, and Mann had each one representative on the Organizing Committee.
The next step was to get a headquarters in London for the meetings of the Congress. I asked the University of London if accommodation could be given for lectures and concerts. The authorities of London University were generous and their response and as the Congress was to be held during the college vacation, they allowed us to have the use of University College without any restrictions; so that the address of the Congress was now University College, London; and it was there that the Celtic plays were staged and the concerts given in the concert hall of the College, and we had the Aula Maxima for our lectures and discussions.
Having got housed, and shaken down in committee, an explanatory notice was printed and posted to all members of the Celtic groups in Greater London and to all who might be likely to lend support. It was pointed out that for the first time in its history the Celtic Congress was to be held in London. Hitherto, a meeting-place in a purely Celtic area had been chosen—Bangor, Dublin, Douglas, Edinburgh. In such centres as these, the enthusiasm of the local Celts ensured success, but London presented a different problem. In a purely Celtic area, the Celts of one nation were hosts to their five sister nations. In London, the six nations met as exiles, without any common organization. And yet, we put it, London has a claim on Celtic people; London was once a Celtic settlement, its very name enshrines a Celtic word, and it offers a home to hundreds of thousands of Celts.
While, at previous Congresses, the proceedings had been published after the meetings, long after the delegates had dispersed, our committee decided to publish a Celtic Congress, London, Official Handbook, for distribution at the meetings, as a stimulating guide and informative programme. This we did; and prefaced it with a quotation from a paraphrase of an Irish poem in Sigerson’s Bards of the Gael and Gall. It might be a suitable admonition to parliaments as well as Congresses, and here it is:
Be sparing of words,
Our 65-page handbook sold for one shilling, and contained full details of the programme of the nine-days’ Congress, the words of the anthems and rallying songs of the Celtic nations, twelve specially-written articles, and a few pages of advertisements to help defray the printing costs and keep the selling-price low. The Australian Government advertisement said, “Over there, in Australia, the country is full of no one but Scots, Irish, English, and Welsh, working hard growing fruit and producing other farm, orchard, and pastoral products in the eager hope of making a decent living. Would it not be in your interests as well as theirs for your wives to give a thought to them when buying household supplies, and to give a preference to their sultanas, currants, raisins, canned peaches, pears, and apricots, wines, butter, and meat?”
While it is true that Celtic music had been becoming a more prominent feature of recent Congresses, the emphasis was almost entirely on folk-music, and while this is the theme of our musical story it is by no means the whole of it. It was decided, therefore, to open the 1930 Congress with a concert of contemporary Celtic music. University College concert hall was used for the separate national concerts, and His Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket was booked for the concert of contemporary music. I asked John McCormack to sing at this and he at once agreed to sing in both parts of the programme, without fee. So did Plunket Greene, and the Welsh soprano, Megan Foster, the harpist Gwendolen Mason, and the cellist, Beatrice Harrison. For instrumental music we approached Goossens and he brought the Virtuoso String Quartet to play a Bax oboe and strings quintet and a quartet by J. B. McEwan. Leon Goossens, whose brother is a conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was extraordinarily enthusiastic and generous, as were all these distinguished artists, at the idea of staging this opening concert of contemporary Celtic music. It featured works of Arnold Bax, C. V. Stanford, Hamilton Harty, Charles Wood, Hardebeck, Milligan Fox, and Kennedy-Fraser. Herbert Hughes, who was a member of the organizing committee of the Congress, played the piano accompaniments, and in the Official Handbook wrote on “The Celtic Spirit in Music”, illustrating his subject with the following comments on some of the composers whose works formed part of the opening concert of contemporary Celtic music: “In Arnold Bax—represented here merely by a chamber work and a couple of songs—we have a creative artist of high rank, a man in whose veins runs the blood of an old Galway family. In Stanford, Dubliner and Cambridge man, a composer whose influence on the generation of twenty-five years ago was far-reaching, and is still felt. In Wood, an Ulster-man, his successor in the Cambridge professorship, a great teacher and master of style; in Harty, the brilliant chief of the HallÈ Orchestra, a County Down man whose patronymic would require Gaelic lettering to do it justice; in McEwan, the present head of the R. A. M., a Scotsman, whose work does not belie his spiritual association with the Northern seas; in Hardebeck, a scholar whose Welsh ancestry and natural predilections combined to turn him into a Professor of Irish Music in the University of Cork.”
What, I remember, was most impressive at the concert in His Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, was the beautifully clear, accentless diction of all the singers, and particularly of the veteran Plunket Greene.
The concert was preceded by the formal opening of the Congress by the President, the Right Honourable Lord Howard de Walden, which took place in His Majesty’s Theatre. On the same evening a Civic Reception was given to the delegates at the Mansion House by the Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress of London, from eight o’clock till eleven p.m.
A full company of Gaelic players was brought over from the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, and they gave a three-act tragedy, “An Danar”, and a one-act Comedy, “Ag Suirghe leis an mBaintrigh”. The theatre of Wales was represented by the Penmaenmaur Drama Company and the London King’s Cross Welsh Players.
A combined Welsh, Manx, and Cornish concert was given in the concert hall of London University College and the entire concert was broadcast by the B.B.C. On another night, a combined Irish and Scottish concert was staged.
On the Sunday we had Mass and Sermon in Irish at Corpus Christi Church, Maiden Lane; an afternoon Welsh Service and Sermon at St. David’s Church, Paddington; and, in the evening, another Welsh Service and Sermon at Charing Cross Road, Welsh Chapel, and this was broadcast by the B.B.C.
The subjects discussed at the London Congress were less academic than had previously been the practice at these annual Congresses. One series, for instance, dealt with the economic problems and future of the Celtic areas. Another was devoted to contemporary art in Brittany, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
Hamilton Harty, John McCormac, Plunket Greene, Herbert Hughes—of the great figures in the world of contemporary Celtic music, thee are since dead. The series on Celtic Folklore was opened by a paper by the late Dr Douglas Hyde, and the first speaker to the paper was the late Dr Robin Flower, the Deputy Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum. Robin Flower, with the assistance of Idris Bell of the British Museum, arranged for the delegates an exhibition of Celtic manuscripts in the manuscript room of the British Museum.
We balanced our books. We asked no subsidies. We found cooperation in London wherever we sought it—friendly and respectful cooperation. We planned taking the best part of a year for our planning, a high-standard Congress and presented what in retrospect—since I can look back over those twenty years with cool appraisal—was a very high and dignified level of achievement and this was particularly noticeable in the concerts.
We did have to hold a gift-sale “at home” to clear a tiny deficit. I would have forgotten it except for the recollection that I donated a bottle of Irish whisky and one of my books on finance. The whisky fetched something like three pounds but the book remained unsold. Even after that I still retained my faith in Celtic standards of values.
Such a Congress, lasting the greater part of a fortnight, with players, dancers, musicians meeting from the six Celtic peoples, does much more than cover the ground recorded in the addresses and discussions and formal programme. It sends back to their countries men and women whose vision of the Celtic tradition and Celtic message of peaceful collaboration is considerably widened; and so they return better citizens of their own lands. Held in a city such as London it draws attention to the Celtic sources of which English literature and drama, music and painting, have been the beneficiaries. Carefully and seriously organized it does something to educate those who are poorly informed of Celtic culture, and does this quietly, and so all the more effectively.
The Celtic Congress of 1949 was held at Bangor, Wales, and concluded with a Welsh sacred songs festival. The main topic of discussion was the language revival in the six Celtic countries. According to the Secretary of the Manx Language Section of the Congress, efforts to revive the Manx language in the Isle of Man are meeting with some success and young folk are taking up the study before it is too late to preserve the oral tradition handed down from the small number of native speakers who are mostly of an older generation. The influence which Ireland has among the other Celtic nations was given formal recognition, at the 1949 Congress, by its unanimous decision that Irish should be the official language of its Constitution. There is now a permanent International Committee to coordinate the work of the annual meetings to make advance preparations for the next year’s Congress.
What I have said about the London Congress may stimulate interest in Sydney, for the International Committee is anxious to make contact with Celtic Societies the world over, and it should be of value to the Celtic Society of Sydney to cultivate this international contact. There ought to be, one should have thought, a highly developed Celtic consciousness in Australia, with its Celtic Prime Minister, Celtic Leader of the Opposition, Celtic Premier of New South Wales, and Celtic Lord Mayor of Sydney. Contact with the peripatetic Celtic Congress, through its permanent International Committee, would be intellectually stimulating. Speaking of the Celtic Congress organization, the President of the Edinburgh meeting of 1920 said: “It is perhaps difficult to conceive of an organization better fitted to consider dispassionately the philosophic problems of the interactions of internationalism and nationalism, an aggregation of the Celts of the world—so habitually practising a concurrent and triple loyalty to nationality, to the State, and to the race—at once intensely nationalist and perfervidly cosmopolitan. We claim that Celtic nationalism—always aiming at achieving the highest standards of individual, communal, and national rectitude, at securing the physical and social well-being of the people and their maximum intellectual growth and progress—never menaces in any way any other nation.”
That is an important point. The Celt becomes merged in exile in the new country but remains the unconscious heir of an ancient culture and a living tradition. These are imponderable possessions, to be known and cultivated, not lightly to be discarded, and certainly not, except through ignorance, to be despised.
That that is appreciated by the members of the Celtic Society of Sydney I am well aware; and I take this opportunity of thanking you for the generous subscription of your Society to The Celtic Time, the inter-Celtic paper published in Ireland. Such a gesture of solidarity from New South Wales means much more than its monetary value. A donation nowadays may suffer from depreciation by devaluation, but the gesture signifies an appreciation in inter-Celtic relations which no currency changes can depreciate.
T. J. Kiernan
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