Little bit of politics

During a week's holiday in Ireland I found myself being volunteered to tell stories at an evening entertainment geared towards introducing tourists to Irish songs, dance and Gaelic poetry. I can't remember ever feeling nervous about a performance before ~ but I suddenly had the sort of angst that Joyce Grenfell described in one of her biographical reflections when she was booked to perform in Vermont and wanted to do a sketch involving a local accent (she was fine doing it in any other country... but how would the native react to hearing a foreigner imitating their accent?)
I've told Irish myths and stories a hundred times over, sometimes with one or two Irish people in the audience. Yet the prospect of telling Irish tales in Ireland in front of so many natives raised the embarrassing prospect of watching them cringe every time I mispronounced a character's name ~ and given the range of dialects in Ireland, however I said the names was bound to sound wrong to at least half the listeners! The other issue that struck me as potentially awkward was my own accent.
There are complicated and confusing issues of cultural appropriation at play. Genetic research suggests that a large number of modern British people (I don't know if this includes me, as I haven't been tested) are actually of Ancient British stock ~ in modern parlance, Celts. There is a reasonable chance that the sort of deities our distant ancestors worshipped, and the stories they would have told about them, would have been quite similar to those revered and told by the Ancient Irish. Yet, whilst there is undoubted commonality in the distant past, clearly the more recent past has been a nightmare of political conflict, exploitation and outright oppression. Whilst none of my relatives (that I know of) were involved, there is the issue of collective responsibility that sometimes gets raised in pagan circles. Ought we explore cultures and spiritualities of which we are not a part, especially if we are not giving anything back?
As an issue, this goes to the root of perceived "Celtic spirituality" and not just a momentary panic prior to a quicky storytelling performance. There are numerous arguments around the relationship between druidry and Irish/Welsh/Breton etc. cultures, and the extent to which people who choose the title of druid in the 21st century are, or ought to be, linked to any of those native cultures (which have, of course, long since rejected paganism in favour of Christianity anyway).
For some people certain accents can trigger all sorts of bad past associations and cause hackles to rise. Whilst a Frenchman mispronouncing an Irish name might just seem mildly amusing, an Englishman doing the same might (at least I worried that it might) seem an affront. I don't think my telling Irish myths is quite on a direct par with American WASPS who've not been within 50 miles of a Reservation calling themselves Running Bear the Medicine Man and buying a dreamcatcher made by 8-year old Taiwanese sweatshop workers. However, a few of these issues ran through my head in the couple of hours before going on stage.
The time slot I was offered turned out to be a very short one, and I genuinely couldn't think of an Irish myth brief enough ~ so I wimped out and told an Inuit story which I had previously done for BBC Radio Suffolk and so knew would fit the slot. Thankfully the audience seemed to like it.
Though the issues remain unresolved, and are ones that I need to mull on further and bounce the ideas around with other people on different sides of the cultural and spiritual divides.


  1. Some very thought provoking questions raised. Which have made me think I'd feel from either side. Would I have the confidence to go to Wales and attempt to recite a poem originally told in Welsh in English. Extremely unlikely. Would I perform a poem inspired by Welsh myth I wrote myself in English? Possibly, but I'd still have hang ups and pronunciation if there were Welsh words in it.

    How would I feel about non-locals coming to Penwortham and retelling Penwortham Fairy Funeral? If it was awesome they'd get my thumbs up, but I don't think I'd be very impressed if it was poor.

    And on the broader context of cultural appropriation?... We've been having a debate about this on TDN in relation to the word 'shaman'. If this word is contested, then perhaps Druid, Bard, Ovate, Awenydd should be contested too? Should an English person only use English words for their path? What about Heathens using old english words such as Seidr when we don't we live in those times anymore? Is it the ancientness of these British / European words that give them their power? Are we right to use them? What alternatives exist?

    Another thing I consider is that throughout history we have been creatures of cultural appropriation. Take Christianity- a middle easter religion appropriated and spread worldwide. Take the Renaissance. Take pretty much poetic form in England, the sonnet, villanelle etc. ain't English! Look at the way the Romantics were inspired by the Greeks. Is Shelley's Prometheus Unbound a work of inspiration or cultural appropriation?

    Cultural appropriation has been taking place for many centuries and has inspired all kind of movements. Does the good outweigh the costs? Is it right?


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