THE COUNSELS OF CORMAC
An Ancient Irish Guide to Leadership
Translated from the Original Old Irish by Thomas Cleary
Doubleday. 50 pp. $9.95
THE LAST OF THE CELTS
By Marcus Tanner. Yale Univ. 398 pp. $30
How the Scots-Irish Shaped America
By James Webb. Broadway. 369 pp. $25.95
If you haven't heard enough of all things Celtic, then you must perforce read on. The Counsels of Cormac, almost back-pocket size, is a beautifully and simply designed wee book. Open it anywhere and you will find an appropriate answer to your day's question -- and none of the usual rubbish about "The Fighting Irish." The times of Cormac McAirt High King of Ireland (all of it) are presented as a period of peace, prosperity and justice. Because any knowledgeable citizen could be elected king at that time (3rd century A.D.), King Cormac made sure that the people had access to centers of learning devoted to law, history, medicine and literature, knowing that an educated populace would never elect a warmongering nitwit to the throne. In a never-ending search for the Fodhla (Gaelic for wisdom, also another name for Ireland itself), King Cormac brought scholars, shamans and wise people to teach him and his subjects. There were Saxons, Caledonians, Picts, Franks, Romans, Greeks; all welcomed and honored and, above all, listened to. There was talk of growing things, of healing people, of the mystery of the sky and of the strangeness of the human imagination -- and Cormac chronicled his thoughts on these and many more things, including warfare.
The format of this little book is Q & A. Here's a sample question: "O Cormac, Grandson of Conn, who is the worst for which you have a comparison?" "That's easy," says Cormac, "a man with habits of an heir, with the oath of a horse thief: and he is shrewd, deceitful, hoary, vehement, given to swearing, arrogant in saying, 'It is settled, I swear I will take an oath.' " In other words, mission accomplished. The world is full of people who shovel advice on us, acting on the adage "Take my advice, I'm not using it myself," but Cleary's straightforward translation is presented so attractively that I wanted to rush out into the world to begin practicing all of Cormac's principles.
In his well-researched and superbly written but oddly titled Born Fighting, James Webb tells us of the Scots' journey from the Highlands to Appalachia with a pit stop in Ireland lasting a couple of centuries. A more serious clump of humanity would be hard to find, grimly determined in a constant search for sin and the uprooting of same. This saga of Webb and his people tries to make a case for "The Fighting Scots," which appellation "The Fighting Irish" have tried to flee for over a century, despite that dopey, drunken icon of the Notre Dame football team.
What is noteworthy in this book is the constant battle and insurgency against being conquered and assimilated by the English into their comfortable feudal system. There is no doubt about the valor of the Scots-Irish in their belief in democracy. They constituted 40 percent of the Revolutionary army and a huge proportion of Confederate troops during the Civil War. Although only 5 percent of the Scots-Irish owned slaves, Webb writes, and three-fourths of the white population did not own slaves, the people felt they must defend their way of life against Northern industrial and moralistic finger-pointing. The author provides some strange statistics: Of the 385,000 Southerners who owned slaves, "more than 200,000 had five slaves or less" and, quoting other authors, reports "fully 338,000 owners, or 88 percent of all the owners of slaves in 1860, held less than twenty slaves." Whew! What a relief. But fight they did, and die they did. Those who survived the South's defeat returned dejected to ruined little farms to live out their lives in grim poverty and rage fueled by hell-fire sermons from half-educated preachers.
There is a cultural tug-of-war twixt the Irish and the Scots regarding America's famous Celts. The Irish claim they gave the bagpipes to the Scots, who still don't see the joke. But they both claim Reagan, Clinton, Jackson, Boone, Houston, Audie Murphy, Al Gore, Kit Carson, Robert E. Lee and Robert McNamara, as if it matters. Part of Born Fighting deals with Webb's relationship to his grandmother and his aunt Lena, who is buried in a pauper's grave. He downplays the value of peaceful negotiation by concluding that the Scots-Irish will go on fighting if the cause is right. Anyway, the Scots-Irish are descended from the Scoti, a powerful Irish tribe that invaded what became Scotland and, through diplomacy and learning, united and pacified the Picts, the Lothians and the Strathclyde Britons until the English arrived and upset that glorious country. Despite his inordinate pride in the warlike tendencies of his fellows, Webb has written a splendid, eminently readable account of a hidden people and culture.
Last but not least, The Last of the Celts, by Marcus Tanner. The question here is not where did Tanner go in his quest for signs of Celtic culture, but where did he not go? In this well researched, scholarly but not academic book, he sets out to find the end of Celtic power and influence in the world. He started with his own beginnings. A landowner of Welsh ancestry, he went to Wales and found the family graveyard, but all the tombstone inscriptions were sculpted in the Gaelic language. He went back to Blighty and took an intensive course in the ancestral tongue and thus was able to translate the tombstone legends. That little bit of personal history led to a more intense search on the subject of the Celtic peoples. And what an astonishing odyssey it turned out to be. Tanner seems to be of the opinion that the Celts as a race apart are just about finished or, as they say, history. He does not see any great difference among the Scots-Celts, the Irish-Celts, the Welsh-Celts, the Cornish-Celts, the Breton-Celts and the Isle of Man-Celts, though he does note a distinction here and there, such as religion or approach to same.
The Last of the Celts is also a history of Europe and the loony wars that have ravaged that continent for years; it's significant that the last great siege of a walled city was that of Derry (or Londonderry as the British call it), which began in 1688 and involved the pope, the King of Bavaria, William of Orange, King James II and a host of other monarchs, not to mention a mad clergyman named George Walker. These are the last days of the old race, since it seems impossible for a somewhat Caucasian people to retain the culture, the language and the dress in the face of rock music, English, blue jeans and tie-dye shirts. There are pockets of the cultures here and there such as, oddly enough, the town of Trewlow in Patagonia where Tanner found a community of Welsh descendants devoted to keeping the church open, the language alive and the great songs of Wales resounding through the valleys. Not only did Tanner put his head in Patagonia, Argentina, but also in Nova Scotia, where he went to see the last of the Scots there and found little language but great fiddling. In Ireland he went to the Gaeltacht region, where the Irish is spoken and the songs are sung, but little else is surviving. For the Bretons to survive in France they must recognize that according to law French is the official language and school funding is not offered unless a school is five years old, a financial burden for this community. Total integration into the French culture is almost certain, thus ending all vestiges of old Brittany. As the last "Celtic" land on mainland Europe, it's sure to be engulfed by modernity.
Tanner began a journey looking for the end of something and it appears he found it in the disappearance of the Celts. Despite "Riverdance," Seamus Heaney (Irish), Richard Burton (Welsh), Dylan Thomas (Welsh), Sean Connery (Scots), Robert Burns, "Auld Lang Syne," bagpipes, kilts, whiskey and soda bread, Tanner has concluded we must resign ourselves to the fact that Celticism is done, over, finis. He proves it in a very good and special book that every prodigal and true Celt should read and try to prove wrong. *
Malachy McCourts's "History of Ireland" has just been published.