The Different Kinds of Celt (The Leader, 1904)

1.239-47. The Leader. A Review of Current Affairs, Politics, Literature, Art and Industry,

Vol. VIII., No.11 (Dublin), 7 May, 1904, 171-73.

Extracts from ‘The Different Kinds of Celt’ by ‘Imaal’.

Beginning with a characterisation of ‘the Celt’ as traditionally represented in the English press during the nineteenth century, the principal object of scrutiny in these extracts is that figure’s successor, the ‘Yeats type’ of Celt, and the vogue for the same in literary London which appeared to ‘Imaal’, by way of a piece in The Spectator, to be on the point of exhausting itself. ‘Imaal’, a regular writer for The Leader, having found time for a quick swipe at George Moore, concludes his essay by offering a brief description of the “altogether un-Yeats-like Celt” he would like to see “put into literature” and reflects on Ireland’s need for “a great novelist.” It is worth noting, then, that Stephen’s rehearsal of Yeatsian language (1.242-7) is immediately followed by a passage which shows a similar desire to depart that register and continue in a much more naturalistic vein (1.248-53), though the subject-matter of the second passage is presumably not quite what ‘Imaal’ was after.


It were a long story, indeed, to go into the question: What is the Celt? For the most part, all we can infer from certain writers is that the Celt is of incompatibilities all compact; that he is like a sort of lumber chamber, into which all the most picturesque and least useful “component parts” of the human character may be “shot.” At one time he was supposed to live in a whirl of excitement, blackthorn sticks, potheen and “divilment.” He was supposed to feed — occasionally — on potatoes, sometimes with milk, and sometimes with only salt; the livelier imaginations of his depictors — or detractors? — may, perhaps, have sometimes given him potheen as an immediate adjunct of the potatoes he ate. In addition to these peculiarities the Celt was always supposed to be easily knowable by the circumstance (which surely everyone has noticed!) of his wearing a short clay pipe in his hatband, and saying “Hurroo!” if you only looked at him — sometimes whether you did or not. The more violent side of his character was supposed to be closely associated with crêpe masks, blunderbusses, old-fashioned guns with long barrels, and so forth. When thus accoutred he always developed a huge and hideous upper-lip, and wore knee-breeches slit oddly at the knees, a coat with uncomfortably long skirts, and brogue-like shoes, while his head was crowned with a mongrel, nondescript sort of hat in which his faithful clay pipe dutifully accompanied him. This, at all events, was the manner of his garments and militant outfit as represented by the London illustrated papers, comic and serious — a representation on which I implicitly rely, as (I declare upon my honour!) I never knew an English paper to contain an unkind or untrue picture or statement concerning the Irish people, for every Englishman is like George Washington, and simply could not tell a lie! Besides, as the English are perfectly free from passion or prejudice, it is simply not supposable that they would misrepresent an admittedly picturesque person like the Celt. Anyway, the Celt with his black mask on, looked by no means a “genteel dastard”; indeed, he looked a creature whom the staff of Secretary Plews, at Amiens Street (exclusively Saved — and all Oxford-educated!) might be good-naturedly pardoned for not wishing to take afternoon tea with.
¶¶With the decline of the land-agitation, however . . . this type of Celt lost vogue, and is now difficult to find.
¶¶But relief was at hand! “The old order changeth, giving place to new,” and there arose (under the hands of genius) another type of Celt, whom, truth to tell, it is no easy matter either to imagine or describe. Fortunately, however, no description, or only very little, is necessary. The new Celt is the Yeats type, to say which should almost be enough. The new Celt is a mixture of moonshine, and mist, and dreams; he wanders (both corporeally and mentally) in waste places, such as bogs, moors, mountain sides, woods, and so forth. He is haunted by the lapping of lakes (twig the alliteration there!), by the murmur of druid forests and “wicked” woods, by the grey of the skies, and the greyer grey of the ever-grey seas, and by all sorts of murmurings, whisperings, weirdnesses, and altogether-indescribable tenuous mysteriosities.
¶¶A striking peculiarity of the new Celt is that he does not eat or drink. How does he live, then? On dreams, thou fool, on dreams! — plus “visions,” occasionally. He does not sully the soulfulness of his nature with sordid mundaneity; he lives as a spirit and is consequently a cut or two above bread or bacon.
¶¶Now this sort of Celt, the “literary” Celt let us call him, had begun to gain a certain amount of acceptance in London — that is, in literary London, a place where ennui creates that craving for novelty which wins acceptance for many strange things. However, a revulsion of feeling seems to have set in, and it appears to be dawning even on literary London that the new Celt does not quite square with the facts. A writer in the Spectator, with awful audacity, has even ventured to hint as much! I could have told him so any time these four years, but then we are only fools over here, and the account we give of ourselves goes for nothing. The Spectator man had been reading Dr. Joyce’s Social History of Ancient Ireland, and it began to strike him that the Celt of mere history was not quite like the Celt of Mr. Yeats. Now that circumstance had struck us all here long ago, even without Dr. Joyce to aid; however, you have to fling weighty tomes at the head of literary London in order to make it reconsider its attitude.
¶¶The Spectator writer, after remarking that “the modern mystical school” of Irish writers entirely fails to portray those elements of the Irish character which he calls “sociability” and “combativeness,” adds that, though there is undoubtedly “much mysticism of an imaginative order in early Celtic literature,” there are also abundant proofs of “delight in a free, active life realised to the full amid festivity and conflict.” A passage follows which I must quote. “It is unfortunate, for many reasons, that a fashion should have been set of describing the Celtic character in the terms of an elegant and languid mysticism. By so doing many of our best authors leave its more human side to the mercy of Irish writers of inferior calibre, or of Englishmen, romanticists seeking for virgin soil, humourists gathering thistle fodder for a certain public, or converted realists repenting in sackcloth and trousers, of all men the most incapable of describing the Celtic combativeness and sociability without exaggeration.” Is George the converted realist — converted in a double sense? Perhaps; and it’s no matter. The passage as a whole is good, and we are all with the writer when, after some bantering remarks he adds: “But seriously, it is time to turn from the mystic to the more human sides of the Gael: the men of the ancient epics could dream, but they could love and fight on occasion, and could look on Nature without an ever-boding sense of the presence of unseen powers.”
¶¶Quite so.