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Gaelic Folklore as Cape Breton’s Cultural Heritage Essay

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Updated: May 9th, 2021

Kimberly Rachel Grunke’s Article on The Effect of Christianity upon the British Celts


In the article, The Effect of Christianity upon the British Celts, Grunke (2008) discusses the Celtic culture and the impacts of Christianity on the people from this community. The article is a reflection of the cultural experiences of the Celts, including the Gaelic community, as they came into contact with Christianity. The spread of this new-world religion had various impacts on the deeply mystic culture of the Celts.

Discussion Questions

The article by Grunke (2008) raises several questions regarding the culture of the Gaelic community and the Celtic people in general.

What were the religious practices of the Celts before their encounter with Christianity?

The question is significant given the fragmented nature of the Celtic societies and the differences in their cultural practices (MacKinnon, 2009). Grunke (2008) refers to some pagan priests belonging to the Drund order. The religious practices that formed part of the Celtic culture, however, do not come out clearly.

What was the quality and character of the Christian life among the Celts in ancient times?

The Celts, including the Gaelic people, had their sets of cultural beliefs, which were likely to be upset by the incoming faith. The idea of Christianity disrupting the set way of life among the communities, including their religious beliefs and practices, is well documented. The experience of the Celts is worth exploring, especially because the religion was introduced by the community’s archrivals, the Romans (Grunke, 2008).

Were there some pagan practices that conflicted with the Christian faith?

It is a fact that the Celts were fond of mysticism. As such, it is possible that some practices conflicted with Christianity, but the Celts did not want to give up (Grunke, 2008). It is a perspective that is worth investigating.

A Review of the Main Points in the Article

The Celtic communities, including the Gaelic people, evolved in various ways in response to a wide range of historical and geographical elements. Despite this, their culture remained the same. Some of the groups were farmers, while others were traders. The Celtic culture was generally handed down from one generation to the other through oral traditions. The community had specialists in folklore and cultural practices, whose role in the society was to act as the custodians of the people’s cultural and traditional practices. The Celtic culture was characterized by beautiful forms of artworks, which included oratory skills. While the Celts formed several sets of complex societies, the religious and social customs of the people differed between the various groups of communities (Grunke, 2008). Their interaction with the outside world, especially the Europeans and the missionaries, had a profound effect on their cultural heritage.

In this article, Grunke (2008) highlights the cultural practices of the Celts and the arrival of Christianity. The question that remains unanswered relates to the kind of religious practices that existed before the introduction of formal Christianity. It should be noted that the Christian faith was introduced to the Celts by the Romans, who were their enemies (MacKinnon, 2009).

Grunke (2008) observes that the Drund priests were among the first Gaelic converts. They may have been forced by the Romans to abandon their practices and champion the new faith. There are also many references in the article to impressions of saints all over the Celtic land. The references suggest that the Celts may have embraced the new religion with gusto.

An Analysis of Cape Breton’s Culture: Gaelic Folklore Tradition


Folklore is often seen as the materials that are handed down from one generation to the other. They include traditions passed down through word of mouth, cultural practices, and customs. Folklore may include folktales, folk songs, proverbs, riddles, and other materials that may have been preserved through words. It may also include traditional tools, physical objects, and ornamentation. According to Sioned (2008), beliefs are also part of folklore. As such, the tradition entails the product of the human mind imbued with creative feelings. Since time immemorial, there have been elements of the human mind that are responsible for the development, creation, transmission and preservation of folklore. The elements are the artistic impulses and creative ideas (Sioned, 2008). Folklores are a part of the culture. The culture in this case is viewed as the intellectual part of civilization. The cultural models associated with folklore may be constant. However, the variation in performance and situations is a major characteristic of unstable elements of oral traditions. In its traditional form, folklore is transmitted orally. It often acts as the shared and tradition-based creativity of a cultural community. The manifestation of folklore may include folk festivals, folk songs, and dance ensembles.

In this paper, the author will analyze the Gaelic culture through the prism of the folklores and related art forms. Gaelic is part of Celtic cultural heritage. As such, the author will analyze the relationship between the two traditions.

The Celts

The terms Celtic and Celts are viewed to be similar given that they are used to describe a group of people related by culture (Monaghan, 2008). The two are also presumed to share a mystical inclination. They are believed to have the capacity to see things that other people cannot see. Consequently, many Celtics are viewed as having a ‘second sight’ (Monaghan, 2008). They can view spirits roaming the land at night. Evenings are regarded highly by the Celtic people. It is a time when things that are fluid and undefined take center stage. It leads to the creation of a charming image. The scenario has attracted the attention of many scholars, who have made efforts to study the Celtic culture.

Contrary to popular belief, the term Celt is not a definition of a race of people. Besides, the alleged mysticism is not a trait that is invariably inherited (Grunke, 2008). On the contrary, the word is used to describe a centralized culture. It is believed that all Celts subscribe to the same religion, worship similar gods, and perform their rituals in the same way. It has also been observed that there are no ancient people who described themselves as the Celts (MacKinnon, 2009). According to Monaghan (2008), these people referred to themselves as the Belgac, Iceni, Cantii, Brigantes, Arverni, or other tribal names. It is a fact that the contemporary imagination identifies a single culture. However, the ancient community was made up of dozens of linguistically related groups. Each group carried a name that was associated with an ancestor, a god, a totemic animal, or a sacred location. It is conceivable that the word Celt could have originated from one of the tribal names that may have been used by other communities as a generic term about this group of persons (Monaghan, 2008).

According to Duzbabova (2010), the Celtic is viewed as a branch of what is described as the great Indo-European language family. They include the Germanic languages, English, Dutch, and the celebrated Roman dialects. The Roman languages include French, Italian, and Spanish. The Celts are also viewed as closely related to the Slavic languages. All the Indo-European-speaking tribes are not related as it was largely assumed. However, they share a linguistic tree that stretches back to Central Europe (Grunke, 2008). The Celtics were some of the first languages to take a different evolutionary route. Consequently, some ancient forms of dialect have been maintained in the Celtic language. The remnants could have been lost in other branches of the linguistic family tree.

Currently, six Celtic tongues are easily identifiable. They are divided into groups. Each of these clusters is identified by pronunciation and grammar. The main groups include the Scottish and the Irish. Both are called Gaelic and Manx (Duzbabova, 2010). The others are Guidelic Celtic. The Breton and the Welsh are referred to as Brythonic Celtic. As a result of political and cultural pressure, authorities have made decrees declaring that French and English should remain the official languages of the larger Celtic territories (Monaghan, 2008). It is only in Ireland that the indigenous Celtic language is the official language, although English is still used as the major mode of communication. The Scott Gaelic is used on the two sides of the Atlantic. It is mostly used in Cape Breton and Nova Scotia (Monaghan, 2008). The language also features Scotland and Wales, albeit as a minority dialect.

Breton has about one million Celtic speakers. However, despite this large number, the schools here teach French as opposed to Breton (MacKinnon, 2009). The reason is that Brittany has been associated with France for a very long time. There are various factors associated with the decline of the Celtic languages. One of them is the economic value of the English language, which is commonly used in commerce and trade (MacKinnon, 2009).

The Oral Tradition in the Gaelic Culture

Many literate people assume that anything that is written is unalterable and permanent. Such a scenario is in stark contrast to the spoken word, which disappears fast and can be easily changed. Written works, on the other hand, are fragile. However, memorized words are more enduring than many people tend to believe (Duzbabova, 2010). For instance, Sappho, the Greek poet, was widely known for just a few lines that were quoted by many writers. She became known as one of the great poets of antiquity. Writing does not necessarily mean that the recorded piece of history will persist over time as the writer intended. For example, highly skilled orators can remember the fine details of particular works. For instance, the Homer epic is believed to have been orally transmitted for a long time before it was written down (Duzbabova, 2010). The Odyssey and the Iliad were similarly oral repertoires and were often recited in public. As a result, one can conclude that oral traditions have their social structures. The frameworks anchor the frequent narration of the stories. In most cases, the practice of storytelling disperses the narratives through the community in a manner that is unmatched by the solo reading experience.

It is a fact that the Gaelic people were not literate when analyzed using today’s education standards (Sioned, 2008). However, they possessed a rich historical knowledge characterized by poetry and other forms of general learning. The Gaelic believed that words gained potency when they are spoken. Consequently, to the Irish Celts, the art of poetry was viewed as a form of magic that was only related to enchantment and incantation (Monaghan, 2008). The satire was regarded as a powerful tool that could alter the physical world.

The Mythological Cycle of the Gaelic People

The Gaelic people from the Irish region, who are some of the Celtic-speaking persons, do not have any myths regarding the creation of the world. In most cases, this myth represents the basis of a society’s mythological foundation. It is regarded as the ‘essential’ myth of the people (Duzbabova, 2010). The situation is different in Celtic mythology. The Gaelic created an assortment of myths associated with the invasion of their island. A collection of the myths can be found in The Book of Invasions (MacKinnon, 2009). A large portion of the narratives talks about godlike persons. The individuals were related to Danu. The goddess represented the five waves of invasion on the island (Monaghan, 2008).

According to mythology, there were six invasions. At the end of these incursions, the island was occupied by the ancestors of the current Irishmen. The myth claims that the first wave brought a lady called Cesair (Duzbabova, 2010). The woman was supposedly a granddaughter of Noah. The man had escaped from the Near East. He was in the company of fifty female companions. After the death of Cesair, Partholon and his men arrived on the island. They cleared the plains. Seven lakes also surfaced in the countryside. Partholon and his people had to fight with the demonic Fomhoires (Duzbabova, 2010). Also, they started the art of the small island. The people are believed to have brewed the first alcoholic beer in the community. They also had the first health practitioner and educationist. However, they were killed by a plague.

The next group of invaders was the Nemedians. The name is derived from their leader’s name, Nemhedh. Just like the Partholans, they had to face the Fomhoires (MacKinnon, 2009). During their reign, they reclaimed twelve plains. Their efforts led to the emergence of four lakes. After the death of their leader, they engaged in several fights with the Fomhoires. They, however, were defeated and had to flee the island. Some of the descendants of the Nemedians joined the next group of invaders, the Fir Bholg (Duzbabova, 2010). The new invaders came up with the idea of kingship. They also partitioned the island into five administrative regions.

The next group came and defeated the Fir Bholg. They were the Tuatha De Danann. They were godlike and were skilled in druidism and magic. The people had four talismans, Lia Fail. The four were referred to as the stone of fate and the sword of Nuadu, which was undefeatable (Duzbabova, 2010). The third talisman was the magical spear of Lugh. The spear was supposed to guarantee victory. The last talisman was the cauldron of Dagda. The cauldron could feed all the people (MacKinnon, 2009). It was the most important talisman. It can be found in various locations in the Welsh and Irish legends.

The Mabinogion and the Gaelic People

The Mabinogion is a collection of Welsh mythology. The tales are derived from the Welsh oral tradition. They were recorded in the twelve century by an author who was described as talented. However, the interest of the author was to produce a nice piece of literature as opposed to the preservation of the sources (Sioned, 2008). The unnamed author faced the herculean task of compiling the collection from scattered and scarce mythological materials. The author may have made some inventions, but the collection remains the only source of knowledge regarding Welsh mythology. The texts of the Mabinogion are contained in two manuscripts. The first is the Red Book of Hergest. The second is the White Book of Rhydderch (Duzbabova, 2010). It was translated into English in the nineteenth century by Lady Charlotte Guest (Sioned, 2008). There are 12 interconnected stories in total. They are arranged in four parts referred to as branches. The four are made of the major stories, which include the Pwyll, the prince of Dyved, Branwen, the Daughter of Llyr, Manawydden, the Son of Llyr, and Math, Son of Mathonwy (Duzbabova, 2010).

The first branch carries the stories related to Pwyll. The first part focuses on the common motifs found in Celtic mythology. They include the coexistence and cooperation between the world of mortals and the ‘otherworld’. It highlights the existing mutual relationship between the two (Sioned, 2008). The stories are a reflection of how mortals can work with the otherworld to establish a better and habitable world.

The Pryderi appears in all the stories. However, he plays a minor role in all four. The series starts with the birth of Pwyll, the Lord of Dyved. It ends with the death of Peredur (Sioned, 2008). The Dream of Maxen involves an emperor who marries a girl that appeared to him in a dream. In the Lludd and Llevelys, the tale revolves around the country being attacked by three strange plagues. The most significant of the tales was the Culhwch and Olwen. The myths presented in the four sets of the Welsh tales are also found in Gaelic mythology.

The Gaelic Folk Tradition from the Perspective of the Arthurian Legend

The tale of King Arthur is one of Britain’s most pervasive secular myths. It is described as an immortal piece of the legend. It is a story of a mythical king who lives with his beautiful wife. He fights alongside his knights against the enemies. He is finally killed by Mordred, his illegitimate son (Sioned, 2008).

The origins of the legend are not clear. It also has many assemblers. Each made contributions to the legend and informed its evolution over the centuries. Many scholars have questioned the historicity of King Arthur, the hero in the tale. Historians have been unable to determine whether the King was a historical figure or just a fictional character (Duzbabova, 2010). The problem lies in determining what could be fictional and what could be historical. The Arthurian tale shares some similarities with the Gaelic mythological tales.


Due to their isolation, the Gaelic people who lived in Great Britain were able to maintain their beliefs and traditions longer than their counterparts in continental Europe. Even after the coming of Christianity, they were able to preserve their folklores with the help of their druids and storytellers. Today, their tradition remains a major part of the world’s history.


Duzbabova, L. (2010). Web.

Grunke, K. (2008). The effect of Christianity upon the British Celts. Web.

MacKinnon, R. (2009). Discovering Cape Breton folklore. Cape Breton: Cape Breton University Press.

Monaghan, P. (2008). The encyclopedia of Celtic mythology and folklore. New York: Checkmark Books.

Sioned, D. (2008). The Mabinogion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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