France's Celtic connection

19th April 2006, Comments 0 comments

Brittany is a region of France that prides itself on its 'Celtitude'. Here sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the Bretons, the Celts, and even the practising Druids.

It is a bright, bracing spring afternoon in the kingdom of the dead and Master Druid Gobannogenos is in an expansive mood.

"It's no accident that I decided to come and live in here," said the 71-year-old sage who has dedicated much of his life to studying the little known ways of ancient Celtic druids who lived in Brittany over 2,000 years ago.

The megaliths of Carnac, a revered spot for archaeologists and Druids alike

Gobannogenos — who in everyday life goes by the more mundane name of Alain Le Goff — lives in the Monts D'Arrée region in the heart of Finistère in western Brittany.

"It is a desolate land of windswept, bracken-covered hills steeped in Celtic mythology. "For the ancients, the Monts D'Arrée were the home of their ancestors' spirits. It was a sacred place, the land of the dead," Le Goff said.

Le Goff says he first became curious about Druidism as a young man. His interest in ancient Celtic spirituality — he says he is an atheist who is guided by a belief in the need to live in harmony with nature and refuses to describe Druidism as a religion — grew out of a desire to discover his own Breton roots.

"I grew up in Paris during World War II and my grandparents were continually talking about Brittany and Finistère. For me it always seemed a faraway, magical place."

His first post-war visits set him off on his ongoing path of discovery.

"From asking myself 'what does it mean to be Breton?', I moved onto 'what does it mean to be Celt?' and then very naturally on to 'what is Druidism?'," he said.

Breton nationalism

The Breton flag, known as the Gwenn-ha-du or White and Black

There are around 50 signed-up Druids around Brittany belonging to different orders with up to 300 more saying they follow Druidism. Most have full-time jobs such as Le Goff who was an engineer before he retired.

But the Master Druid concedes that his spiritual and intellectual quest to learn about the Celtic mystics is also tied up with some very contemporary political convictions.

"Almost all of the druid groups in Brittany are Breton nationalists. We are opposed to France's appalling centralism and we want to see France disappear.

A Celtic symbol found everywhere in Brittany and other Celtic regions

"Here, the only thing that matters is Paris and the Latin mentality. But there are many different cultures in this country: Alsatians, Basques, Bretons. We would like to see the creation of a federal Europe made up of different regions," he said.

For Ronan Le Coadic, a sociologist and expert on Breton cultural identity, Le Goff's mixture of Celtic mysticism and fierce regional pride is, while an extreme example, not unusual here.

"Affirming their Celtic heritage has been a way of helping the Bretons feel a sense of self-worth and identity," he said, adding that Brittany had traditionally been considered a backward, uncultured region by successive political and intellectual elites in Paris.

The Celtic empire

In Brittany today, vaunting the region's Celtic connections has become a major industry, as it has in many other parts of the 'Celtic World'.

This is an ill-defined list of countries and regions that also generally includes Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the English regions of Cornwall and the Isle of Man as well as Asturias and Galicia in Spain, but in fact no one really knows how many people can claim Celtic roots.

The 36th Interceltic Festival of Lorient will take place July 28-August 2. For more on Druid organizations in France and around the world, see the
The biggest single event in Brittany's Celtic calendar is the annual Interceltic festival, a 10-day August extravaganza of Celtic music and arts in Lorient.

First created in 1971, the event is now visited by around 650,000 festival-goers a year and features some 4,500 performers and artists.

This year's guest country will be Australia, because, say the organizers, "nearly 50 percent of Australian citizens have Celtic origins."

Aside from the Interceltic, the region also organises a host of smaller festivals and other Celtic-related events.

And almost every Breton town boasts at least one Celtic-themed pub or a gift shop selling trinkets with supposedly traditional Celtic symbols such as the triskell, a three-sided spiral design said to represent the goddess of life.

The only problem with this passion for all things Celtic is that, according to Le Coadic, there is not much evidence that it has much to do with the real Celts about whom very little is known.

The Broc

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