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The Last of the Celts

4.3 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0300104646
ISBN-10: 0300104642
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"[T]here is nothing that the British or the French love more than a good old Celtic revival," writes Tanner. But the recent renaissance of interest in all things Celtic is "vacuous," he continues, a mere mask for the rapid disappearance of genuine Celtic culture in the British Isles and Brittany. In this lively book, which is part travelogue and part social history, independent historian Tanner (Ireland's Holy Wars) records the results of his world travels in search of the remaining vestiges of Celtic culture. As he moves from Scotland and Belfast to Wales, Cornwall and Cape Breton, he discovers that English has replaced Celtic languages and that modernization has erased many of the remaining Celtic rituals and practices. He provides not only a portrait of modern society in flux in these regions but also a picture of each society's rich history. Tanner finds that Celtic music has become the vehicle for preserving the distinctive features of the Celtic past, although some musical spectacles that purport to preserve the culture, such as Riverdance, are more faux Celtic than the real thing. Tanner particularly laments the disappearance of such languages as Welsh, for without a living language, proverbs and other sayings that preserve a people's folkways are lost forever. This thoughtful book provides a very different, less optimistic perspective on today's Celtic revival.
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Review

“In this lively book, which is part travelogue and part social history, independent historian Tanner records the results of his world travels in search of the remaining vestiges of Celtic culture. . . . He provides not only a portrait of modern society in flux in these regions but also a picture of each society’s rich history. . . . [A] thoughtful book.”—Publishers Weekly


“[A] lively and thought-provoking exploration of [the Celtic languages] status today.”—Michael Kenney, Boston Globe
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (September 10, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300104642
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300104646
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,790,495 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 6, 2004
Format: Hardcover
"There is something sad and troubling about the death of a language," because language represents a particular way of regarding the world, and when the language goes, that way of looking at the world goes, too. If this is true, then the book containing this sentiment, _The Last of the Celts_ (Yale University Press) by Marcus Tanner is a very sad book indeed. Tanner has included the stories of the Celts of different regions; of course, the people still remain, but since the languages involved are being lost, an important part of being Celtic is being lost as well. Examined in fascinating detail, with historical research and with interviews of relict speakers, are the Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton tongues. The author's father spoke fluent Welsh to his contemporary family, but did not teach it to his children, and Tanner got interested in learning some of the language. He researched about why it had faded, and his interests grew to take in all the non-English speakers of Britain and Ireland and the non-French speakers of Northern France. In many ways, the decline of the languages and genuine Celtic culture is ironic, since Celtic is big. Celtic religion is supposed to be a throwback to a time when people were in tune with nature, valued women, and were not priggish. You can buy Celtic crosses and prayer plaques. You can go to shows like Riverdance or its spin-offs, and you can hear what the world considers Celtic music (pipe, fiddle, harp) on public radio. These are all just the latest style of Celtic revival, for there have been revivals for different reasons for centuries. People like the New Age-y aspects of Celtic culture, but this is a mere marketing device; real Celtic societies and their languages are doomed.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Marcus Tanner offers an extended eulogy, stripped of sentimentality, for the languages of those peoples predating the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. The sheer timespan of that last clause, from our 21st century perspective, shows how durable has been the legacy of a language-group that we don't even know the true name for-only that many of us descend from varied ethnicities who shared related systems of communication, dating back thousands of years. Even the name Celt is a Greek invention. Defining the Celtic, then, depends upon its clash with the foreigner; so much that Cornwall and Wales owe their names to what the Saxons called the `Other', those outside the common-wealth, those un-familiar, those pushed back to, as a Cornish author lamented over two hundred years ago, `about the cliff and the sea'.

Notice that Tanner, in looking for the remnants of those who speak or revive Celtic languages, differentiates speech from the material culture of the six nations he explores. He visits the Scots Isles, Conamara, West Belfast, the Isle of Man, North and South Wales, Brittany, and finally the outlying colonies in Canada's Maritimes and Argentina's Patagonia. While he finds music, say in Cape Breton, vibrant, there Scots Gaelic, despite the murmur of tourist brochures, will be far less heard-spoken by at most 500 people. Brittany and Galway certainly cater to cultural tourism, and hawk their Keltic Krafts diligently, but in these more ancient redoubts, too, Tanner finds growing indifference to the language's perpetuation.
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Format: Hardcover
Although I argue with the title of the book the author makes a strong case concerning the encroachments on that which makes Celtic culture unique. Although I could make alternative arguements that Celtic culture has morphed into what is now modern Europe, the author is concerned with such things as the dying Celtic languages and customs. The case he makes is quite a strong and convincing one. Pan-Celticists hang on to you hats but don't huff and puff just yet. The author is concerned with the destruction of what we have come to know as Celtic culture but to my mind this in no way runs contrary to the evidence that much of Europe actually sprung from Celtic culture and a fair-minded person should not see this book as an attack on those theories.

This is more of a call to arms and a much needed one.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a fantastic book which stands out among so many other romanticized works on the Celtic world. Occasionally, it seems as if the author's desire to discredit romantic views of Celtic culture move past healthy cynicism to outright negativism. I am thinking specifically of his chapter on western Ireland. Frankly, however, "the Irish mystique" is well due for some deflating. This willingness to criticize well-loved myths is generally very refreshing, and it does not diminish his obvious love of these country's cultures and history.

"Last of the Celts" should also be admired for the author's focus on ALL of the Celtic world (aside, arguably, from Galacia). How often does one have occasion to read about the Isle of Man and Cornwall alongside "giants" of the Celtic world like Ireland and Scotland? For me, the chapters on these overlooked places were the highlight of the book, as the Celtic identities of these places are real, but not as well defined or as obvious as those in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland.

As a final comment: Ive only briefly been to Ireland, and never to any other part of the British Isles. Therefore, I cannot offer an alternate view of Celtic culture in these places. I have, however, lived in Brittany for two years. Marcus Tanner's long chapter on Brittany is far and away the best writing that Ive ever seen about the Bretons. The chapter is poetic and sad, particularly when he writes about the dwindling population of native speakers and their ambivalent feelings towards the death of their language. The author discusses weaknesses of the Breton cultural revival that are almost always downplayed or ignored. This is a fabulous book, and while it is full of criticisms, it is also full of love for the Celts and their customs, and their histories.
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