email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Celtic Realm
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The conversation might go:

The conversation might go:

"Hullo, Norman, how's your mother?"

"Great, she's visiting her grandchildren and planting flowers in the garden."

Except the speech is rhythmic and guttural, a back-of-the-throat performance, nothing like the rounded slip and slide of English. If there were sound balloons above their heads, they'd look like this:

"Hallo, a Thormoid. Ciamar a tha do mhÓthair?"

"Gu d˛igheil. Tha i a' coimhead air a h-ogh-aichean agus a' cur fl¨raichean anns a' ghÓrradh."

The Sunday mates in the Cross Inn are speaking Scottish Gaelic. To them it's no big deal; it's the first language they learned at home. But to me, an American long intoxicated by Irish roots and curious whether an even wider and deeper kinship might exist, that of a Celtic identity, I felt as if I had stumbled upon a secret society. There was something thrilling, even subversive, about hearing an ancient Celtic language in the land of Shakespeare, where neither the Queen nor the Prime Minister would have the foggiest clue what these locals on Lewis were talking about.

When the men caught me listening, they switched to English. "It's rude, that's what we were taught, to speak our language in front of strangers," said Norman Campbell, a novelist and poet who publishes in Scottish Gaelic. I bought a round, and the men opened up, telling me how in their parents' time teachers would take a belt to students overheard speaking the native tongue. Now it's different, they said, and the government is promoting the language. More drinks, and Norman's brother Alasdair drops by and starts singing. The tune is "Gealach Abachaidh an E˛rna," or "The Moon that Ripens the Barley." It sounds sad, I remarked. "Well," Alasdair said, "that moon is huge, very yellow, and it breaks your heart."

Ah, the clues are adding up for identifying a Celt: the ancient language, an easily retrieved sense of historical grievance, a resort to song, and this bittersweet sentimentality. Less clear is how a fringe culture like the Celts managed to survive, even flourish, in a rapidly assimilating world. A brief detour into history begins to tell the tale.

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