Topic: Celtic Identity and Globalisation (2011) by Debbie McCauley

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This paper on reinventing a Celtic identity in reaction to globalisation was written by Debbie McCauley on 18 September 2011 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

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Global pressure and interaction with identity formation is not a new phenomenon but can be traced back over the past two hundred and fifty years. The experiences of globalisation have resulted in the construction of a range of identities that can be described as resistant. An illustration of this phenomenon is the Celtic identity which can be viewed from both an historical context as well as a more recent development. This essay will examine the prevalence of the Celtic identity, one which is evident not only in Europe but also in the Pacific Celts of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Manuel Castells identified a ‘resistance identity’ as one form of identity building along with ‘legitimising’ and ‘project’ identities (Chimisso, 2003, p. 60). It can emerge as a result of destructive experiences such as a culture that is subjugated and marginalised as well as a reaction against globalisation. There is an instinctive human need to establish an identity, whether intentionally or on a subconscious level. People often strive to maintain or even recreate a perceived identity which can then evolve in another form. New groups can emerge as a result of identity establishment which in turn may reinforce and influence the further construction and reconstruction of identities.

Globalisation in itself is not a new phenomenon but according to Pittaway (2003) is part of a lengthy chain of historical transformation. Reactions to globalisation are complex and can be highly contested. The pressure on identity formation as a result of globalisation has triggered protective responses in the form of resistance identities. The many facets of identity tend to shift constantly. Bowman (2003) questions, ‘how fixed or meaningful can any identity be in an increasingly and self-consciously global milieu?’ (p. 108). As an added pressure, globalisation in the postmodern ‘information age’ includes accelerated new processes such as consumerism and mass media that can impact tremendously on cultural identities.  

The various Iron Age ‘Celts’ left many intriguing and beautiful artefacts and artworks behind. They were not unified as one people but instead remained distinct groups without a common culture or identity about whom contradictory reports remain from secondary sources such as the Romans. As Bowman (2003) explains; ‘until the eighteenth century there had never been a group of people who self-consciously self-identified as Celts’ (p. 160). The interpretation and meaning that modern society has attached to evidentiary fragments of the past has effectively resulted in the creation of history via a modern day perspective. Bahrami (2003) stresses that, ‘the Celtic past is not as neat or as continuous as popular modern accounts would indicate’ (p. 33) and probably no account of history can reveal the entire reality.

Celticity is the result of the invention and reinvention of traditions. Fascination with the Celts is not exclusively a modern trend but a complex one which can be traced back to several ‘revivals’ starting in the seventeenth century. ‘There have been periods of fascination with the Celts in the past, for example among seventeenth and eighteenth century antiquarians or eighteenth and nineteenth century Romantics’ (Bowman, 2002, p. 57). Currently we are in the midst of another revival of Celtic identity which started in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. ‘The Celtic mists are swirling again and we are once more in the throes of a Celtic revival’ (Bowman, 2002, p. 57). The present Celtic revitalization can be viewed as an affirmation of Celticity in reaction to the homogenising processes of globalisation upon culture. Individuals are seeking new identities as they resurrect historical memory. Harvey, Jones, McInroy & Milligan (2002) term this a ‘Celtic renaissance’ during which ‘there has been a renewed interest in Celtic societies and cultures, and an increasing awareness among Celtic peoples of what it means to be Celtic’ (p. 8).

The twenty-first century Celt is part of a diverse group spread globally throughout the world. ‘What we have at the beginning of the twenty-first century are various images of the Celt and a variety of agendas utilizing Celticity’ (Bowman, 2003, p. 131). Different groups are embracing various elements in order to devise a Celtic identity which will fulfil their requirements. Bowman (2002) argues that there are three ways of describing these various modern day versions of the Celts:

  • ‘Celts as ‘other’ – the designation of the fringe by the mainstream’
  • ‘Celts as ‘not English’, the ethonym adopted by ‘geographical’ Celts such as Welsh, Irish, Scots, Cornish – the self-designation of the fringe in relation to the mainstream’
  • ‘Cardiac Celts’ – ‘an elective affinity,’ people who feel in their hearts they are Celtic. (p. 96) 

A resistance identity can be used to provide distance from other groups. At times a Celtic identity enables the user to dissociate themselves from colonial oppressors, for instance allowing one to be ‘not British’ and thus ‘not the oppressor’. This is often one benefit of claiming a Celtic identity, it ‘allows an opting out of mainstream society and history; it allows one to be not mainstream British, not colonizer, nor exploiter, or whatever else one desires not to be’ (Bowman, 2003, p. 161). As James (1999) explains, these identities can;

arise from a sense of shared difference, and usually perceived threat, from another group with which they are in contact. In the case of the Welsh, Scots, Irish and others, this common cultural Other was England which, with the drive towards a basically English, uniform ‘Britishness’ following the Union of 1707, and the incorporation of Ireland in 1801, threatened to swamp other cultural traditions. (p. 137)

In an increasingly disconnected and globalised society there has been a groundswell of interest in tracing one’s genealogical roots to find an identity that is, in some cases, Celtic. In this author’s case, even though I have never visited Ireland or Scotland, there is a sense of identity with both countries due to genealogical research which has established these links to a Celtic ancestral past:

  • Great-grandfather George McCauley born at sea in 1876 on the ‘Jessie Osborne’ on route to New Zealand from Northern Ireland.
  • Great-grandmother Rachel Hamilton arrived in New Zealand from Northern Ireland on board the ‘Ocean Mail’ in 1875.
  • Great-grandfather Thomas Kelly arrived in New Zealand from County Galway, Ireland, on board the ‘Glenorchy’ in 1879.
  • Great-great-great grandparents Alexander and Ann (nee Gerrie) Watt arrived in New Zealand on the ‘Queen of the Avon’ from Scotland in 1859.

This is, perhaps, the authors’ way of distinguishing her Celtic identity from the British colonialists and also the all encompassing ‘Pākehā New Zealander’ (a non-Māori New Zealander) to constructing an identity based around being a ‘Celtic New Zealander’.

A resistance identity can also be formed in reaction to ecological issues such as pollution. A Celtic past can be seen as identifying with a time when humanity was living a simple life, close to and in harmony with nature. There is often an impetus to get ‘back to nature’ and live as the Celtic ancestors did, even though they had no choice in the matter. As Pearson (2002) explains: ‘Often, a past golden age or the spiritual practices of indigenous peoples are held up as being more ecologically sound or closer to nature, and as seeming to offer an alternative to what is perceived as modern western destruction of nature’ (p. 9). Bowman (2002) reinforces this when she states; ‘It seems that Celts and the Celtic past have come to epitomize that which is lost but longed for in contemporary society’ (p. 60).

Celtic communities are dispersed worldwide. A modern day notion of the ‘Celts’ may include; Celtic music, design and art, Celtic dance, jewellery, movies such as Braveheart (1995), alternative Celtic spiritualities, the tartan and kilt, pan-Celtic (representing all Celtic peoples) associations, festivals, rituals at Stonehenge by the druids; the Book of Kells; as well as mythology and tourism and heritage sites. As Harvey, Jones, McInroy & Milligan (2002) explain; ‘the Celtic revival can be viewed as a reaction to globalisation and modernity through a rise of interest in alternative lifestyles, spiritualism and cultural identity’ (p. 14). The Celtic renaissance includes the contemporary construction of things Celtic and these may sometimes include invented and reinvented traditions and images.

An example of the reinvention of identity is the Clan MacAulay one. According to the Clan MacAulay website the profligate 12th Chief of the MacAulay clan died around two hundred and fifty years ago. This was after the sale of the MacAulay castle and lands of Ardencaple in 1767. Leaderless, landless and penniless the clan dispersed. Revitalisation came in 1998 pushed by former Japanese prisoner-of-war Iain MacMillan MacAulay of Ardencaple. As research into the Chiefly bloodline was unsuccessful a democratic vote for the position was instigated. ‘In 2002 the Clan Association adopted a democratic system to elect a Chief of the Association after years of research failed to establish a bloodline Chief to any of the Clan branches’ (Clan MacAulay website, n.d., para. 3). Iain MacAulay was declared Commander of Clan MacAulay, but died in 2003. At an AGM in August 2010 Hector MacAulay was elected Chief for the following five years and an international clan gathering was held in Northern Ireland in August of 2011. This reinvented identity allows people who want to, to use the revitalisation of Clan MacAulay as part of their own identity construction.

Tartan is another significant marker of Celticity. The fortune of the tartan has not always been assured, as Bowman (2003) explains: ‘Tartan, which had been banned after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, was completely rehabilitated with the 1822 visit of George IV to Edinburgh’ (p. 134). A traditional kilt can be worn to express local identity or a sense of belonging to a clan. Numerous variations in tartan designs are available; there is even a European Union tartan. This is an example of a contested identity, as this comment on whether there should be a European Union tartan attests; ‘Yes. It should be hypocrisy interwoven with greed, theft and corruption, with a thread of insanity running through the middle’ (Answers, 2010, para. 2).

During weddings, bridegrooms wear a tartan as a marker of identity. An example of this was in May 2011 when the author’s niece, Hannah Collinson, was married in Edinburgh, Scotland. The bridegroom, Angus Law, chose to wear a kilt made in his family tartan rather than a traditional suit. As Bowman (2003) comments, ‘The contemporary custom of bridegrooms wearing highland dress at weddings is not only a colourful alternative to a boring suit, but an expression of ‘Scottishness’’ (p. 149).

A pan-Celtic community appears to be thriving in cyberspace appealing to the ‘connected’ generation. There are numerous websites on all things Celtic. This makes a Celtic identity more easily obtainable to anyone with access to a computer and has resulted in a new generation of ‘Cybercelts’. An example of this is the two main MacAulay websites that help to construct identities around this name:

  • Clan MacAulay website (
  • MacAulay/McCauley Clans of Ireland (

The current Celtic revival has been embraced those who can adapt traditional Celtic imagery to their own needs. This can be seen in the paintings of Steve O’Loughlin, a Los Angeles based artist who often uses a modern interpretation of Celtic patterns in his artworks. One of these is entitled ‘Freewayman’ a 5ft x 4ft oil on canvas featuring a running figure cloaked in Celtic designs with ribbons of road swirling around and over him in Celtic knots. O’Loughlin explains; ‘The running figure in Freewayman is entangled in an endless ribbon of traffic. I wanted to express the caught-in-traffic anxiety we live in’ (as cited in Bowman, 2003, p. 13). As Harvey, Jones, McInroy & Milligan (2002) explain; ‘selective and fragmentary components of Celticity are being fused and refashioned within contemporary youth culture to create new Celtic art forms’ (p. 11).

There is also economic gain to be made from the commercialisation of the Celtic resurgence whereby Celticity has increasingly become prey to the forces of reinterpretation, commodification and globalisation. As a Celtic identity is a constructed one, it can be demonstrated and refashioned in numerous ways. Bowman, (2003) explains that ‘in the present climate, Celtic sells’ (p. 153). This is demonstrated by the new take on the MacAulay tartan featuring a skull and crossbones and its use on an IPad case available through the internet. This is an interesting modern interpretation of the MacAulay tartan reflecting a Cyberceltic identity and just one item in the proliferation of items available such as: aprons; bags; cards; cufflinks; cups; cushions; hats; jewellery; key chains; printed business cards; shields; t-shirts; ties and even wedding stamps. As Harvey, Jones, McInroy & Milligan (2002) explain:

The exploitation of Celtic cultural capital is revealed to operate within, and across, a number of spatial scales that range from the commodification of traditional Celtic landscapes and heritage, to the selling of cultural markers and spectacles to specific groups and diasporic communities that are seeking to reclaim a sense of identity and belonging. (p. 15)

Celticity as a global phenomenon includes the Pacific Celts (people who immigrated to the pacific region). In the 1800’s the New Zealand Company settled people from Scotland in Otago and Southland and, according to Belich (2001), ‘New Zealand is the neo-Scotland’ (p. 221). George Vesey Stewart established the Irish ‘Ulster Plantation’ in 1870s Katikati of which the author’s ancestors were part. These settlers brought a strong sense of Celticity with them along with a resistance identity as Belich (2001) further explains:

Scottishness was an obvious cultural ‘denomination of dissent’ when New Zealanders wished to emphasise distinctiveness from the English. Remember we are not looking for reinvented and romantic Highland Scottishness, kilt, dirk and sporran; but for mild New Zealand Lowland Scottishness: archetypally egalitarian, competent, undemonstrative and somewhat dour. (p. 221)

Aotearoa has its fair share of Irish Pubs, bagpipes, tartan, Celtic dance studios Celtic music, highland festivals and Celtic spirituality. Furthermore, the Pacific Druids had established themselves in Aotearoa quite early on. Mosley (1882) reports that the first ‘Lodge of the United Ancient Order of Druids’ was opened on April 22, 1876, at the Orange Hall, Worcester-street, Christchurch (para. 1). 

Increasingly there is movement away from the traditions that immigrants brought with them from Europe towards events which both follow the seasons of Aotearoa such as marking winter solstice, and incorporate traditional Māori festivals such as Matariki. Bowman (2002) explains; ‘Customs and rituals have been and are being ‘revived’, rediscovered or invented’ (p. 76). Juliet Batten’s book Celebrating the Southern Seasons (1995) appears to have had an impact on the increasing number of seasonal festivals being celebrated as well as resistance towards a global European identity:

Claiming our own new year, in line with the southern seasons, means breaking with the northern hemisphere calendar that has been followed since first European colonisation. For some, this might feel alarming, but in reality it represents a natural process of growing up as a nation: we release the parent culture and claim our own identity in relation to the land in which we live. (Batten, 2005, p. 30)

There is also evidence of the creation of monuments in an attempt to reaffirm a Celtic identity. In 1999 Wairarapa farmer Gavin McLachlan built a ‘Neolithic-style stone circle’ on his family farm ‘to commemorate his own family’s emigration from Scotland in 1849’ (para. 2). ‘The stones, or ‘menhirs’, are placed to recreate the astronomical calendar, as with the European stone circles. The alignment of the stones is dictated by the winter and summer solstices’ (MacGibbon, 2001, para. 3).

This was followed in 2005 by Stonehenge Aotearoa, also situated in the Wairarapa. Inspired by England’s 4000-year-old Stonehenge, the Phoenix Astronomical Society ‘set out to create a modern version – Stonehenge as it might have been built in the Southern Hemisphere, at this particular latitude and longitude’ (Hall, 2005, p. 1). It is said to incorporate ancient Egyptian, Babylonian and Indus Valley astronomy, Polynesian navigation, and Celtic and Māori star lore. According to the Stonehenge Aotearoa website the next event there is Ostara, ‘The ancient Celtic ceremony and celebration of the Spring Equinox’ that will include ‘the Druidic & Wiccan ceremony of the spring equinox within the circle of stones’ (para. 3).

Māori formed a resistant identity as a result of colonisation which led to the New Zealand Wars from 1860. There is also another resistance identity in Aotearoa promoted by white supremacists; the Celtic resistance identity. The author believes that this identity most likely stems from a reaction against the renaissance of Māori culture and increasing biculturalism in Aotearoa. This pseudo-historical identity offers convoluted details of alleged arrivals in Aotearoa long before Māori. For instance, the Phoenicians 2666 years ago, Mauryans 2240 years ago, Greeks 2180 years ago, Celts 300AD, Arabs 790AD, Tamils 1170, Portuguese 1522 and Spanish 1576 (Radical history, n.d.) [see also 1421: The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies (Bantam Press, 2002)]. There seems to be a persistent belief that evidence remains suppressed by a conspiracy of government officials, academics, museum workers, archaeologists and Māori.

The underlying impetus towards claiming a pre-Māori settlement of Aotearoa seems an attempt to undermine the status of Māori as Tangata Whenua. The desire to discredit Māori nationalism would leave the neo-Nazi’s free to cultivate a ‘We were here first’ and ‘Keep our country white’ maxim as was popular with Nazi Germany and still is with European neo-Nazi groups.

The idea of Celts as first settlers that were later conquered by Māori is expounded upon further by self-proclaimed ‘Archaeo-astronomer’ Martin Doutré in his self-published diatribe Ancient Celtic New Zealand (1999). His conclusion is thus; ‘To sum up the long-term history of New Zealand: a once enlightened and advanced pre-Celtic/Celtic based civilisation, nationally dispersed across the entirety of New Zealand, came to a sad decline and end with the advent of the interloping “Pa” or “fortress”, Māori warrior’ (Doutré, 1999, p. 284). An investigation into Doutré himself and his hidden agenda reveals that he:

  • is an ‘enthusiastic member of the 9/11 ‘Truth’ movement, which denies that Osama bin Laden’s followers were responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon’ (Hamilton, 2008, para. 6).
  • ‘has maintained a friendly correspondence with David Irving, the neo-Nazi pseudo-historian whom courts in Britain and Austria have found guilty of denying the Holocaust’ (Hamilton, 2008, para. 8).
  • ‘maintains a friendship with Kerry Bolton, who is perhaps New Zealand’s best-known neo-Nazi’ who ‘in 1980 founded the Church of Odin, a group which blended far right politics with bastardised versions of the pre-Christian Norse and Celtic religions’ (Hamilton, 2008, para. 9).

There is also the question of credible evidence or the lack thereof. As Riddell (2004) states; ‘If there were hundreds of people living here over a period of perhaps thousands of years, where are their discarded tools, shards of pottery, personal ornaments, religious artefacts?’ (para. 13).

A reaction to the transnational forces of globalisation can result in the construction of ‘resistance identities’. This has been illustrated by means of Celtic resistance identities which have undergone many reinventions and are continuously fluid in reaction to globalisation. This can include weddings, but also the commoditisation of a Celtic identity and its bastardisation and use by groups such as the white supremacists in Aotearoa. The preservation or creation of a modern day Celtic identity can be used by the individual to help find their place, their identity, and their sense of belonging in a globalised and fast-changing world.

by Debbie McCauley (September, 2011).



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