I woke up this morning, turned on the television, and remembered that today is the summer solstice when I saw a story about the crowds celebrating the height of summer at Stonehenge. There were fewer arrests than usual.
This time last year I was on a whirlwind trip of a lifetime to Ireland, Wales, and England. My biggest regret is that I didn’t get to see Stonehenge. I have been fascinated with Celtic Britain for almost my whole life. Although I haven’t followed any ancestors across the ocean to the homeland, I’m quite sure I have Scots, Irish, and Welsh blood flowing through my veins.
It began to be a joke among the travelers last year that I was the only one who had come on the trip to see Wales. Hardly anyone else knew anything about Wales, but I have always loved the high fantasy books based on its mythology: The Crystal Cave and its sequels by Mary Stewart; the Prydain Chronicles, a series for young people by Lloyd Alexander; and of course, anything about King Arthur. Then as I began to do genealogy, I began to see over and over again: “They came from Wales,” when reading about the origins of my ancestors.
Wales was everything I expected. Ireland was beautifully green and pastoral. Wales was all rocky mountains, misty and wild. I can see why it would be easy to invent stories of magic about the place. The highlight of the whole trip for me came the night we spent in the wonderfully Welsh town of Llangollen, where the International Eisteddfod music competition is held every year. At dinner I looked out the window of the hotel dining room to the top of a tall hill across the river that ran through Llangollen. It almost looked like a menagerie made out of vines, but when we asked the waitress, we found that we were looking at the ruins of Dinas Bran. I knew that name! In one of my favorite fantasy series, The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, major events in the story take place at Dinas Bran.
I have been reading a book called The Sea Kingdoms: The History of Celtic Britain and Ireland by Alistair Moffatt. While not specifically a book about genealogy, I nevertheless have found so much in it that lends background to my genealogical search. I always thought that the thing my ancestors had in common was Southern in nature. I hardly have a Yankee in my family tree. I’m thinking now that what the Wheats and Mings and Powells and Bells, and even the Smiths, have in common is a background in Celtic Britain. Another great book I have read makes an argument for why.
Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer, one of America’s premier historians, explains that four major regions of colonial America were established by four distinct groups from Britain, who brought their ways of building, speaking, naming, marrying, burying, and worshipping from their original homes in Britain. It should be required reading for every genealogist with origins in Britain. In Fischer’s view, the backcountry of America (frontier Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, etc.) became the new home of the border peoples of Britain: our Celtic ancestors pushed into the highlands of Scotland, and the edges of the British Isles—Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and finally to America.
Back to The Sea Kingdoms: Here are some things I have learned.
· History was an oral tradition in Celtic Britain. Time was reckoned not by dates but by genealogy. Faced with the loyalist army at the Battle of Culloden, the Highland Scots in the Jacobite army screamed their genealogies at their foes.
· Because the Celts could recite long lists of their ancestors, using only their Christian names, nicknames were added to “bring life to the long lists.” Hence, the three generations of William Pharris in Jackson County, Tennessee: “Old Man,” “Big Bill,” and Billy.
· One of my grandfather’s favorite expressions was, “He’s too poor to buy a mosquito a wrestling jacket.” I always assumed it was a Southern expression and understood the part about it being a little bitty jacket. But why a “wrestling jacket”? In traditional Cornish wrestling, the opponents wear canvas jackets tied at the front with rope.
· The origin of the Primitive Baptist hymn singing without accompaniment may have its roots in Gaelic psalmody.
· Long before Christianity, the Celts believed in a life after death. “The absolute certainty of an afterlife passed unchanging from the Celtic past to the Christian future….To some sects who believe themselves elect” (Primitive Baptists—my interpretation) “life on earth is little more than a prior inconvenience to be born with fortitude and managed with dignity and little fuss.”
I’m only about halfway through with The Sea Kingdoms. I’m sure I’ll learn even more.