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Comptes rendusReviews

Michael Newton, ed. Celts in the Americas. (Sydney, NS: 2013, Cape Breton University Press. Pp. 376. ISBN: 978-1-897009-75-8)

  • Kathryn R. Alexander

…plus d’informations

  • Kathryn R. Alexander
    University of California, Riverside

Corps de l’article

Celts in the Americas, edited by Michael Newton, draws together specialists on Celtic ethnolinguistic groups in the Americas to detail how Bretons, Welsh, Scottish Gaels, Irish, and Cornish immigrants created place, community identity, and cultural cohesion through spoken and written language use in diasporic settings (the Manx are not represented: no scholar could be found to discuss the history of Manx immigrants). This book – a collection of papers from an eponymous conference held at St. Francis Xavier University in 2011, plus five invited chapters and an introduction – means to redress outdated tendencies in Celtic Studies scholarship, including the perpetuation of an anglocentric master narrative that elides the “identity and historical experiences of Celtic-speaking peoples in the Americas” under those of their colonial rulers. The chapters within the book address the different Celtic-speaking peoples individually, explicitly rejecting a scholastic history of crafting an essentializing narrative for all Celts in the Americas, and for each ethnolinguistic group. The authors overall recuperate the Celtic peoples as active agents rather than passive victims of internal colonialism while also redressing their elision in academic discourse. Primarily concerned with language and “cultural expressions” tied to language (print media and literature), the book’s strong disciplinary foundation uses an established methodology within Celtic Studies – textual analysis and mapping language use and retention – while also gesturing towards interdisciplinary cultural analysis.

The book is divided into five sections. The chapters in Part One individually introduce the migration histories of the Celtic peoples (excluding the Manx) from homelands to destinations in the Americas and their fates in the diaspora. The overviews emphasize language by charting how immigrants established their presence, centered communities, and maintained identities through Celtic-language print media, such as newspapers and literature, and via spoken Celtic languages. This section, burdened by the necessity of describing centuries-long migration patterns to many destinations, provides general narratives about each Celtic community’s migration and each group’s use of language. Deacon emphasizes how the Cornish moved smoothly between ethnic distinction and normative English identity in diasporic communities. Guillorel and Jouas highlight individuals to sketch the narrative of Breton interactions with the Americas over five centuries; though compelling, this tends to obscure a larger narrative about Bretons’ interactions in diasporic contexts. Newton attempts a macro-scale analysis of Scottish Gaelic literary output in the Americas, but the widely dispersed and heterogeneous nature of the Gaels undermines a holistic narrative. Matthew’s chapter, focused on Welsh migrations in the mid to late 19th century, cautions that the plurality of experience in Wales and the Americas makes sweeping statements about their experience, and even their Welshness, difficult. Ó h-Íde charts the migration of Irish-speakers to the Americas, focusing on the subsequent deterioration of language communities in the Americas even as latter 20th century language revitalization was occurring in Ireland.

Part Two focuses on spoken language. Dunbar argues that official Canadian multiculturalism produced enthusiasm and funding for folklorized Celtic cultural displays rather than strong support for language education and retention programs. Johnson questions the effectiveness of a contemporary project to teach Welsh in the Chubut Province, Argentina, suggesting that personal interest and motives are the critical factors in language acquisition and growth. McEwan-Fujita uses the graded intergeneration disruption scale (GIDS) to establish that Gaelic is undergoing a revitalization, and delineates a revised version of this scale, tailored to her case study, that can be used by language activists and policy-makers in Nova Scotia.

Part Three explores cultural expression through language. MacDonald’s chapter, the most ethnographic in a book full of textual analyses, explores traditions of Gaelic place naming in central Cape Breton to show how information about settlement patterns, local oral traditions, and inhabitants is encoded in the names given by locals to their significant places. Sumner comparatively examines versions of a Scottish folktale (the Ceudach “helper character” tale) recorded in both Scotland and Cape Breton to show how immigrants may retain their identity by actively modifying cultural heritage to reflect local values. Ó hAllmahuráin, arguing that Celtic music is not critically engaged in the academy, applies Appadurai’s five ‘scapes’ to the role of North American Irish and Scottish music makers in shaping the Celtic music soundscape. The agency of these music makers in the encounter and negotiation of traditions, however, is obscure.

The chapters in Part Four focus on construction of Celtic ethnic and racial identity in the Americas. Rhiannon H. Williams describes the role of American Welsh-language press in unifying the diasporic Welsh community, while Newton and MacLennan write about negotiations of Scottish racial identity and morality, respectively, in Gaelic and English-language press. Birt, pushing back against cultural purity arguments, applies hybridity to the cultural and linguistic experiences of identity formation by Cornish and Welsh communities that negotiate homelands and American diasporas. Brooks compares the alterity of the Welsh – a stateless European ethnic group – in Argentina and Wales to that of indigenous subalterns in the Americas. [Note that there is an error in the Table of Contents: Brooks is included in Part Four (p. 305), instead of Part Five (p. 323).]

In Part Five: Interethnic Interactions, Daniel G. Williams steps back from particularity to examine how the Celts as a whole have conceptualized their own experiences. Searching for a useful model, he compares Pan-Celticism to Pan-Africanism, but rejects the latter because it is based on racial difference; the former is based on linguistic difference. Williams and Brooks, unfortunately, lack transformative and deep applications of critical theory. Guillorel shows how Breton Catholic missionaries negotiated the linguistic needs of their Gaelic, Acadian, and Aboriginal parishioners in Eastern Canada.

Though the book pushes back against some ideological and methodological hegemonies in Celtic Studies, other hegemonic relationships remain intact. Details of interactions between different Celtic cultural groups are scant (Guillorel’s chapter excepted). Attention to the Scottish Gaels – especially of Cape Breton and Nova Scotia – and also the Welsh dominates the book. The Cornish, Irish, and Bretons have two chapters apiece, sometimes sharing comparative space. “Cultural expression” here refers primarily to literature, popular texts, and spoken language; music and dance, “texts” central to community cohesion, receive almost no mention. Folktales (Sumner) and stories (MacLennan) are analyzed; song texts, occasionally referenced (Newton’s Part One overview), are not analyzed.