By John Kelly
Take a town. Call it a city in deference to the fact that it has a lord mayor who also has a deputy. Sprinkle it with the most unlikely concoction of nationalities you can imagine: Bretons, Scots, Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Galicians, Asturians, Manx. Then merge them in a firm bond, glued by two common themes.
They are Celts. They talk to each other through the ancient music that knows no modern geographical borders.
Lorient, in the south west of Brittany, a few hours drive from Paris, is a sprawling city, fringed by the sea, was bombed to rubble by the Allies in World War II. It was the last stage for the last defence of the Nazi occupation in France. Now, it draws the net of the families of the Celtic Diaspora firmly together. More than 50 years ago, the city was more famed for its heavily fortified U-boat harbors. From subterranean caverns, the deadly peril of the North Atlantic was launched in successive attacks. The German garrison in Lorient was the last to surrender.
From such ashes, even because of the unbelievable carnage and destruction, Lorient had to resurrect itself. What made it different is that it was — and still very much is — Celtic.
The bagpipes were the proof of the pudding. So was the language.
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Unmistakably Celtic, it is closer to Welsh and Cornish, rather than Gaelic as spoken in Ireland because it is probably even more ancient in origin.
There are also the unique Breton flutes, rather like Irish tin whistles, from a fingering viewpoint. But they are louder and more shrill, more like small bugles. They can be rapidly transformed with the attachment of a bombarde or trumpet.
What makes Bretons unique in France is their music and their racial origin. Like Celts in other parts of Europe, they were dispatched to the poorer, most westerly areas by Julius C’sar. He was followed by other Roman emperors who regarded the Celts as dangerous, war-like and generally much too troublesome. The Celts were forced to settle in some of the most beautiful, but isolated parts of Europe.
The island of Ireland remained the most integral of all until the Norman invasion in the 12th Century. But other regions continued their unique traditions. There is Galicia in northwestern Spain, nestling on the border of Portugal. Like Gaul itself, its Celtic origin is evident in its name. Immediately east, also in the north of modern Spain, is the proudly autonomous region of Asturia.
In the U.K., of course, is Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, and proud
Cornwall, where the native language has not been officially recognized by the Tony Blair led government. In an amazingly perverse twist, the same government has nevertheless officially recognized what can only be described as Lowland Scots as a separate dialect in Northern Ireland.
And in France, the government has not signed the European charter on minority languages, which would allow for the official imprimatur of the Bretagnese Celtic still spoken by a sprinkling of ageing people. Neither has Spain sanctioned Galician or Asturian.
Recognition would entitle them to significant European Union support. Tragically, the language continues to wane, just like the fiddles that the older people used to play in the pre-war years.
The bagpipe, a slightly different version of the Scottish form, is what leads the toes to tap and the eyes to twinkle in Brittany.
And it was the bagpipe that drew this diverse but distinct unity together to form the "Festival de Celtique" in Brittany.
The pipes began to talk to each other across the European borders that the Celts had never recognized. Bretons travelled to Scotland. Asturians joined with Galicians. The Irish, so insular as to be frequently amazed by the mere existence of similar Celtic families, enthusiastically joined in, much encouraged by Conradh na G’ilge and affiliated organizations like Comhaltas Ceóltóirí Éireann.
For 30 years, the Irish have sent musical delegations to this otherwise remote part of northwestern France. The festival had succeeded to such an enormous extent that it is now regarded as being the biggest of its kind in Europe. It attracts more than 400,000 spectators and is growing every year. It has a budget of no less than 25 million francs and most of the 4500 odd musicians, dancers and singers, are enthusiastic amateurs, many funding their own transport. Some fly in. Others, like the Scots, travel by sea
and by road.
The visitor-starved city, generally quiet and with an extraordinarily polite population, is swelled by the large influx from all of the remaining Celtic regions. Many of the budding greats in Celtic music, their numbers hugely increased by the spectacular world-wide success of Riverdance, have made their shaky debuts in tents and marquees, hastily erected in car-parks dotted through the center of the city.
For 10 days, the music continues to dominate the entire area. Against all of the odds, in competition against TV, international pop and canned music, it has become a hugely spectacular success, one of the biggest in Europe.
Unlike some of the fleadhanna in Ireland, especially during the sixties, when the genre became tarnished mainly because of its association with excessive drinking, "La Festival Inter-Celtigue de Lorient," has also managed to remain a family affair. It is quite common to see young children dancing on the crowded streets at late hours. It continues to re-generate vast interest in the native music and traditions among cheerful teenagers who might otherwise have been lost from the traditional to the pulp of pop and heavy metal.
Even more importantly, through the inter-mingling of the slightly different traditions, it provides a new impetus for the development of Celtic music in general.
New groups, with new musical techniques, absorbed through this fascinating merger of cultures, albeit with a similar origin, spring up almost overnight. Some, like the Los Angeles based "Gaelic Storm," which starred in "Titanic," go on to achieve international fame. They visited Lorient during this current festival. They also drew a huge crowd to a concert that owed more to a pop extravaganza that traditional music. Others who came in the past, like the Wolfe Tones, went on to greener pastures and greater things.
Bagpipes still remain the centerpiece. One of the most spectacular displays was a spot-lit concert provided by massed pipe bands from all parts of Europe and Brittany. Foremost among them were the Scots. Perhaps a little more surprising, however, was the fact that the top individual piping Macallan Trophy was won by a young man from Northern Ireland whose name is Robert Watt, an only child who hails from Maghera in Co. Derry. At 21, he is one of the youngest ever to have won what amounts to the individual individual world championship.
The descendants of the great world-wide Irish Diaspora, North Americans, Canadians and Australians, are showing an increasing interest in the yearly outburst of Celtic pride and music in what would otherwise be a little known part of "La Belle Francais." More Irish American traditional group should consider a visit. So should traditional Orange bands which are absolutely unique in the Celtic world.
Look out for some names in the future, names like "An Teaglach," a group composed of father, mother and two sons, from Ireland. They were particularly wonderful. Another who earned much praise was Anor from Cork, made up of two teenage boys and two girls, formed only last October, who came second in the competition for groups to another top-class Irish rival, Cuilleann. They have already produced their first CD in Sweden, of all places. Another group who really brought the house down with one of the most vibrant performances ever was Altan, with wonderful musician Mairéad Mooney, from Gweedore, to the fore.
The ongoing Celtic Diaspora continues. Its future centerpiece could well be Lorient, centrally situated as it is among the various Celtic fringes of Europe and an ideal setting for the Continent’s most unusual festival.