Celtic genes for Cornwall?

My Twitter and Facebook feeds have been awash with comment and reaction to the survey titled ‘The fine scale genetic structure of the population of the British population’ published in the journal Nature last week. The authors examined the DNA profiles of populations in different areas of the UK with a view to identifying historical migrations to the UK from various European locations, and Cornish commentators have picked up on the fact that the results show that the genetic structure of the sampled population in Cornwall clearly differs to the rest of England.

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 10.14.23

ABOVE: The genetic map of the UK produced by the survey taken from this BBC article

The study has been heralded as a victory by some, who regard the findings as conclusive proof that the Cornish are not English – with the Western Morning News’ article going so far as to say that this implies that we are ‘breeds apart’. However, the authors of the study also suggest that the genetic profile in Cornwall is actually much closer to groups in Devon and elsewhere in England than to groups in other mainland Celtic regions of the UK. Further, the study indicates that ‘the Celts’ that historically populated the British Isles actually comprise of several distinct genetic groups originating from different parts of Europe, rather than one homogenous group.

The publication has provoked a lot of (occasionally heated) discussion of Cornwall’s Celtic identity and as such the study, and reactions to it, is very interesting for me since I am currently examining how notions and constructions of Celtic Cornwall were used to promote patriotic sentiment towards Cornwall in the late 19th century. For me, this is an extremely tangled web of how concepts of race, language and culture interact with notions of identity.

This study seems to confirm some elements of the idea that the Cornish identity could be built on the idea of a Cornish race. However, I think that we have moved away from the concept of race as a qualifier for Cornish identity, simply because the term is too blunt – and potentially damaging – an instrument to describe a contemporary and diverse group of people who have different perceptions of what Cornish identity is. In my own case, I was born and brought up in Cornwall, but not bred – both my parents are from England who moved to Cornwall independently, met, married and settled there. I describe myself as Cornish because I feel that the place has unquestionably shaped who I am regardless of my parentage; yet genetically, I’m not one of those pink crosses west of the Tamar river.

In terms of linguistic identity, Cornwall’s own language (Cornish or Kernewek) is an important marker of identity. Once you get over the Tamar it’s obvious that place names in Cornwall are very different to those in England. For the growing minority of Cornish speakers, the debate continues to rage about whether, and if so, when, the Cornish language stopped being a spoken vernacular, and which version of the revived language speakers should use. Indeed there is a case that Cornish has never really died as it exists beyond the lifespans of its speakers (past and present) in the landscape. As a counterpoint though, there are plenty of people who would self-identify as Celtic (not just in Cornwall, but all over the UK, Europe and indeed the rest of the world) regardless of whether they speak a Celtic language or not. Who is in a position to deny self-ascribed Celts their claim to their perceived heritage on the basis of their linguistic ability? I’m learning Kernewek Kemmyn, but I don’t see why this would make me any more Cornish, or Celtic, than someone who is Cornish born and bred who doesn’t speak it. In fact in my research, I have come across the interesting alternative opinion that the revival of the Cornish language is a rather sectarian attempt at gaining credibility for a Cornish cultural agenda and simultaneously creates a false cultural elite. For some perhaps, to paraphrase Louis Armstrong, if you have to learn something to be Cornish, you’ll never know.

So, if racial/genetic and linguistic concepts are not necessarily solid foundations on which to claim or build Cornish Celtic identity, what about Celtic culture? Socially, politically, economically, religiously – Cornwall’s culture has obviously changed and developed over the intervening two thousand years since the Celts were in control of the area we now know as Cornwall, reflecting and reacting to broader cultural changes across the UK. So since we’re talking about a contemporary study based on contemporary population samples, what about the average person on a Cornish street or moor or beach? What elements of their culture would they say make them Cornish – and would they say that these are examples of Celtic culture? Does playing Cornish music make you Celtic? How does that music qualify as Celtic? Is singing in a male voice choir Celtic? Is playing rugby Celtic? What about wearing the Cornish tartan, even though it was invented in the 1960s? Are pre-work dawn surfs Celtic? Or do we ‘elect’ these activities as Celtic in our perception?

All these complicating factors make me question why being Celtic such a central and continual concern for Cornwall? Does Cornish identity automatically include or imply Celtic identity? These aren’t supposed to be silly or rhetorical questions; obviously, Cornwall’s Celtic heritage is a massively important part of Cornwall’s history and has informed (and been deployed within) academic and popular debate for hundreds of years. However, I don’t think that being ‘Celtic’ is the outside boundary of Cornish identity. Personally, I regard Cornwall’s Celtic identity as one of many integral components within a complex and evolving culture that extends a long way beyond Cornwall itself.

I suppose this post essentially asks lots of questions about a topic that there are a lot of very solid opinions about, but very few solid answers because they rely on individual perception rather than an universally accepted cultural manifesto. However, by identifying trends in opinion and performance, we can go some way towards understanding what cultural attributes have been important in Cornwall at different times, and what this tells us about how people perceived, performed and valued their Cornish identity.

Comments, questions and feedback all welcome!

Bound for South Australia!

So far I haven’t managed to write much about how I’m actually spending my time in this first year of my PhD. Rather predictably I’m doing a lot of reading, and from what other students have told me, a fair amount of writing for my first year. However in May, I’m bound for South Australia for a two month field and archival research trip! While there were many different mining communities across South Australia and within other Australian colonies, Cornish migrants were particularly concentrated in the northern Yorke Peninsula towns of Kadina, Moonta and Wallaroo – otherwise known as the ‘Copper Triangle’, or ‘Australia’s Little Cornwall’ – and that’s where I’m going at the start of my visit. If you zoom all the way into the map below, you’ll spot some giveaway Cornish street names in the three towns:

In the first month I’ll be going to Kernewek Lowender, a biennial festival of Cornish culture that started in the mid-1970s. I’m really looking forward to this as it’s a gathering for Cornish people not only within Australia, but also from Cornwall itself and across the diaspora. I’ll be doing field research, ie. attending and documenting events, interviewing musicians and performers – but I’ll also be visiting museums and heritage centres. By combining lots of different data and documentation, I’ll be able to build up a real sense of how Cornish music, identity and community was perceived and performed here. The second month I’ll be in Adelaide, spending time at the state archives, libraries and even more museums.

To prepare, I’ve been researching the Cornish in South Australia, when they arrived and where they went, and what they did when they got here. I’ve also been looking at how Cornish identity has been expressed and performed over the past 150 years. The Cornish Association of South Australia – the oldest Cornish Association in the world! – is a particularly interesting group for me; formed in 1890, the group was originally for ‘Cornishmen and Sons of Cornishmen’ – but now membership is open not only to people born in Cornwall, but anyone who has an interest or love of Cornwall, or who is a Cornish speaker. The CASA continues to be active in Kernewek Lowender and I’m looking forward to meeting their secretary, Noel Carthew, who I’ve been in email contact with about this PhD for a long time now.

I suddenly thought I should write this post after hearing ‘Bound For South Australia’ a popular shanty, sung by the Oggymen at Kernow in the City – very apt, since I’d just had the news that this research trip was definitely going ahead!

This version is by the Fisherman’s Friends, Port Isaac’s famous shanty group. From what I can tell, there’s not a particularly Cornish – or South Australian – historical link to this song. However, you hear it in pubs around Cornwall; perhaps it’s popular with Cornish singers because Cornish migrants flocked to South Australia after big copper discoveries in the colony, and we’ve come to associate the two.

I have my nerves, but I’m also very excited. It’s amazing that almost as far away from Cornwall as it’s possible to get, Cornish heritage is still important and it’s still being celebrated! While I was at Kernow in the City the other week one of the performers said ‘you’re all Cousin Jacks up here’ – and it actually made me realise that since I’m involving myself in a diasporic community in London, this fieldwork trip isn’t such a leap from what I’m doing now. It was amazing to hear ‘Bound For South Australia’ live – it was the first time I’d made the link between the song and my own trip. So I suppose in a sense, I’m following in the footsteps of Cornish migrants a hundred and fifty years and more ago, although I’m searching for the music of the Cornish themselves, not copper.

So – that’s my exciting upcoming trip. I’d love to hear from anyone who has been out to KL or who have visited other Cornish communities overseas! And I’d also love to hear from researchers (in any field) who have undertaken field and archive research trips in Australia or other international destinations – how did you decide where to go, and how long for? What did your research involve?

Gool Peran Lowen / Happy St Piran’s Day!

Hello readers! There has been a flurry of Cornish activity over the last week so this is a good opportunity to introduce a key player in contemporary Cornish identity: St Piran.

Kate and Piran flag

This is me with my Cornish flag my mother got me for Christmas! So, Thursday the 5th of March was St Piran’s day, and it is celebrated annually by parades, speeches, rallies and music events across the county – and across the diaspora too! St Piran is popularly regarded as the patron saint of Cornwall (although St Petroc and St Michael are also contenders for this title) and he also is the patron saint of tin-miners. Legend has it that his hearthstone was a a piece of tin ore, and the heat of the fire drew the silver metal out of the dark stone. This is represented by the white cross on the black background of the Cornish flag. The story of St Piran (or Peran in Cornish) is that he was a 6th century Irish saint who was tied to a millstone by the heathen Irish and thrown into the sea. However he didn’t sink and drown, but instead floated over on the millstone from Ireland to Cornwall where he landed on the north coast beach of Perranporth. However, the story also goes that he liked a drink and died by falling down a well.

One of the oldest places of Christian worship in the UK, the oratory was covered in sand and lost for hundreds of years, eventually emerging in the 19th century. However, in the 1910 it was encased in a concrete shell to protect it. This was eventually covered in sand itself, but in 2014 work was begun by the St Piran’s Trust to re-excavate the site and put in place a long term plan for its conservation. Amazingly the oratory is still used for religious services. Over Christmas I attended a carol service in the oratory, which was a moving experience.

St Piran's Oratory

ABOVE: The oratory before the carol service in December 2014. 

A march across the dunes to the oratory to celebrate St Piran’s day happens every year – and this year a special ‘Trelawney Shout’ was organised in almost 70 pubs across the county.  A ‘shout’ is the term for Cornish pub singing, and ‘Trelawney’ is Cornwall’s adopted national anthem, which deserves a blog post all of its own. At 9 pm on St Piran’s day, singers across the county (and even up here in London!) all sang Trelawney together as part of their St Piran’s celebrations. More celebrations were to be had though – on Friday evening (6th or March) I and some friends went to “Kernow in the City” – an event celebrating St Piran’s day for the Cornish in London. There were pasties and ale, singing and dancing, a Cornish quiz and a good time had by all.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

ABOVE: Slideshow of Cornish music at Kernow in the City: The Red River Singers, Dalla and The Oggymen

There is already a campaign to make St Piran’s day an official public holiday in Cornwall, provoking heated debates on Cornwall’s identity and government in comments sections across the internet. Perhaps there has been some inspiration from the Welsh here – in 2000 the National Assembly for Wales voted unanimously to make St David’s day (their patron saint) a public holiday. While Cornwall doesn’t have any level of devolution or self-government as yet, this is creeping up the political agenda with the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg pledging to create an elected Cornish Assembly as part of his campaign in the county. However, Mebyon Kernow, a left of centre Cornish political party, have been campaigning for more power within the county for much longer.

So – gool Peran lowen or happy St Piran’s day to you. Thanks for reading – comments, feedback and questions all welcome!