Why and how are Gaelic society or earlier cultures ‘relevant’ to us now?
Cultural revitalisation as a political project and as a way for re-existing in the face of modernity’s necropolitical regime, is not:
a nationalist project (nationalism is a recent modern invention constructed through ahistorical narratives which are often completely false or badly exaggerated and that serve to provide cohesion and legitimacy for states to dominate and divide life);
seeking to ‘go backwards’ (an impossibility);
just concerned with the surface trappings that get solely reified as ‘culture’ (eg. ceol agus craic);
about re-enactment or roleplaying;
something that can be done alone, for one’s own self or benefit.
Revitalisation is memory work in this timespace of grave amnesia. It’s heartbreaking and difficult while also being profoundly resourcing. Often this work isn’t very optical or easy to display outwardly on social media. There’s no guidebook. When we open ourselves to rooting in the ground of the past so that we may grow, without idealisations or romanticisations, suddenly the horizons of possibility magically unfold all around us. There is a major deficit of imagination in modernity - we generally have such myopic and parochial ideas of what is possible socially and politically. Imagination is the first casualty of being conditioned to live under foot, imagining it to be ‘normal’, ‘natural’ or not even seeing it at all.
Gaelic society, which is said to have ‘ended’ in 1607 with the Flight of the Earls (cultures don’t just end, but the systems that held it together did), is the last time any kind of human culture existed on the island that lived in proximity, relational respect, and reverence for the land. We still live in the shadow of its collapse - speaking, perceiving, sensing, and dreaming through our coloniser’s frames of reference, and operating as a mere tax and pollution haven and service provider for the global colonial economy. This position is extremely precarious. The land has never been in a worse state of devastation. The British Empire may have laid the foundation, but we built on it ourselves. If the modern economy took a dive overnight and we had to try to live even partially off the land (as people did for literally tens of millennia) in this state, without colonial violence against peoples and land elsewhere to subsidise our modern lifestyles, we wouldn’t get very far at all. Cultural revitalisation is first about recognising that there is deep-time memory and wisdom within the land-based cultures of a specific place. But let's not romanticise or shroud that wisdom in unnecessary mystique - it’s incredibly practical, foremost about survival, and being able to live well in that place ‘sustainably’. There’s aspects that won’t work or make sense now, and there are harmful aspects not worth repeating, but without this ancestral guide we are lost orphans on a dark stormy night as we face into modernity’s collapse.
There’s also a widespread cultural misconception in Ireland that any time in history prior to the present there was only terrible poverty and suffering (and therefore there’s no worthwhile examples, inspirations, or lessons to be had from the past). The suffering we so closely associate with our past is primarily that brought about through centuries of sustained colonial violence. What about before that? Gaels were not poor - there was nearly always enough to go around and homelessness, for example, was non-existent. The image of all times past being objectively ‘worse’ in every way (which is usually qualified against unsustainable modern standards by modern people) to the present is merely a narrative tool that supports the story of linear progress central to modernity’s mythology. Except how can mass death, extinction, slavery, and ecological devastation be considered ‘progress’ towards anything? How can modernity and its cultural lifeways ever claim to be ‘better’ than those that aren’t, didn’t, and wouldn’t have created this mess?
What were the ways of thinking, being, sensing, perceiving, and doing that enabled ancestral cultures of the land to genuinely practice and nurture meaningful relationships with the rest of life? How can we begin to re-embody these lifeways and practices in new ways that meet the unprecedented challenges we face, leaving room for all the possibilities of the ‘beyond’, the untread paths, to appear? Such questions are at the core of cultural revitalisation. Natural questions arise around fascism and its propensity to weaponise the past in ways that appear (superficially) to relate to what I am talking about here, and yes when those things rear their head they should be challenged. Migration is as ‘natural’ to our species as breathing or drinking water. All cultures and peoples have always been melting pots of difference and diversity. Nationalist narratives try to construct the completely ahistorical and violent idea that this wasn’t/isn’t the case. Where does one culture begin and end? There is no ‘pure’ past from which to draw from, no ‘pure’ culture, no ‘pure’ blood. Where do we draw lines when seeking lessons from the ancestral past? We don’t, because they would be arbitrary projections shaped by modern desires for ease and categorisation, and colonial ideas of cultural and blood purity. We’re only limited by what evidence we have and by what can actually come to be known (through many diverse means, not just things that are credited as ‘valid’ by Westernised academia).
Tuiscint na Talún is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.