Europe’s Celtic Fringe is very important to me and now, through photos of its coast and hinterland, its richness is being celebrated in an exhibition in Paris. It is my visit to the exhibition and the effect that seeing the exhibits had on me, which inspired this blog
It was a cold and wet November morning. With Rohan at a conference, I set off alone to visit the exhibition and, en route, to indulge – I would treat myself to a ‘continental’ breakfast in one of my favourite cafes. At Le Rostand, where they have served breakfast for over a hundred years, I sat impatiently waiting for the rain to stop. By mid-morning, I was in front of my first picture.
There have been photographic exhibitions on the railings of the Luxembourg Gardens for years and they have now become part of the Paris art calendar. At the current exhibition – “Terres Celtes” (the “Celtic Lands”) there are seventy or so giant photos of landscapes and seascapes taken in Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland, Wales and my beloved Brittany. For the exhibition, Philippe Decressac visited the six “countries” which he discovered had a “single soul”.
At art exhibitions I usually feel detached; being moved is rare. That morning it was very different; every picture, particularly those of Scotland, Cornwall and Brittany, not only drew me in and made me feel emotional but also made me feel that it was in the picture that I belonged. The reason was obvious, the scenes in all of the photos felt, and most were, familiar.
Our second home is in the tiny Brittany village of Tréguennec, a community which very closely allies itself to Celtic traditions. Indeed, it is by being there over the summer months of almost twenty years that I have learned about Celtic history and culture.
The “single soul” of these six countries, which is almost tangible, will have been forged over thousands of years. In all probability started with the introduction of the earliest seafaring boats 10,000 or so years ago. When they met, those people will have felt a oneness thanks to an essentially common coast line and, with it, shared life patterns dominated by fishing and the sea. Over centuries, together they gradually developed shared customs, folklores and inventions, and exchanged members of their communities. And, with all this, they also developed a common language – even now Cornish and Breton are essentially identical.
Importantly, they have also been brought together by sharing a common stifling, suppressive, even brutal, relationship with their imperialist neighbours – in one case London and England, in the other Paris and France. Just as, for centuries England tried to crush the language and culture of those living in Scotland and Ireland, so did Paris, of those living in Brittany.
For years the French, through their Académie française, tried to eliminate the Breton language, and have also openly belittled the Breton people. Still, in France, people who are stupid are referred to as “ploucs” , alluding to their origins in Brittany where many of the place names start with the letters “Pl” *. In addition, the verb for speaking gibberish is « baragouiner » which mocks the way Breton workers in Paris bars would ask for bread (“bara”) and wine (“gwin”).
It was knowing this background, and with my love for Brittany and for all the countries with their shared soul, that I stood at the exhibition mesmerised in front of picture after picture. And there was more. Each image in the exhibition carried a brief legend describing the particular scene, often with some comment. On seven photos the legend told how the scene – which I recognised – was taken in the Pays Bigouden, the Borough in which Treguennec is situated. Not only did I feel enormous pride that Decressac had chosen pictures of my French home to illustrate the Celtic Lands but it gave added exhilaration as I was transported to places I knew. I had not realised how attached I was to Tréguennec and how much I missed being there.
The picture in the exhibition which showed the magnificent sweep of the Baie d’Audierne (see illustration) was particularly moving. In the view from a little hill at La Pointe de la Torche, is a black dot which is a Second World War German bunker around 10 kilometres away. It so happens that this bunker is only a short walk from where we often swim in the summer. Seeing this was incredible.
Perhaps by mounting this exhibition in the Luxembourg Gardens, which are the grounds of the Senate, France’s equivalent of the UK’s House of Lords, France is publicly recognising Brittany’s rightful place both in France and also as a region with its own culture and one linked with countries in other lands. Now that would be an advance!
* Four Breton towns near us in Tréguennec are Plovan, Ploneour, Pluguffan and Plomeur.
The illustration is one of the photos mounted in the “Terres Celtes” exhibition. It was taken from the mound on the Pointe de la Torche which was inhabited by people some 10,000 years ago. The beach in focus is at the southern end of the 30 km sandy Bay of Audierne in the Pays Bigouden.
For help with writing this blog, I would like thank Manda, Karen, Joshua, Rohan and Vivien.
12 thoughts on “An Hour in the Beguiling Celtic Lands”
As a Celt, and having visited Treguennec and walked on the beach, I enjoyed this piece very much. It’s a wonderful photo – the sea looks so alive. I hadn’t heard of baraguiner before – the words for bread and wine are exactly the same in Welsh – bara and gwîn.
Dear Andrea, Thank you for your comments. It is fascinating how the Celtic Lands have developed a common – well almost – language. Love, Joe
Having visited you and Rohan in Treguennec I really resonated with your blog! I fell in love with Brittany and with your house and so did Rob! Particularly interesting too that Cornish and Breton languages are the same. I wonder if anyone still speaks Cornish! And the photo is beautiful.
Dear Robin, Thank you for your kind comments. As I understand it, there is a resurgence in the use of all of the Celtic languages. It is all rather wonderful. Love,Joe
What a lovely surprise to see your beach, your bunker displayed for all in Paris… quite unbelievable Joe.
I enjoyed reading in your blog the reality of the ‘single soul’ bounded by tradition and language. A Cornish adventure awaits when it’s safe to explore and to find kindred spirits to connect with!
Dear Carolyn, Thank you for your kind comments. It was an enormous pleasure to discover anew how close the Celtic countries were and now are. They have been through some horrible times thanks to England and France, and it is so good to be told by the exhibition in Paris that they are close. Love, Joe
Thank you, Joe, for this lovely blog; much resonance for Caroline and me – especially your observations about the connections in Celtic languages. I hadn’t known of the similarities between Cornish and Breton, but might and should have guessed. That bit took me back to a Breton pattiserie where we’d asked the young woman serving us what a particularly exotic pastry was called. She told us and, recognising we were Brits, we began to chat. It turned out she was Welsh and a fluent speaker too. She’d come to live in Brittany after a 12-year stint as an army engineer. No language problem, she told us: if she spoke Welsh, any Breton speaker would readily understand her, and vice versa. It’s wonderful that both languages – all but stamped out around the time we were young – have since so thrived.
Dear Charles, I am so glad you liked the blog. It was exciting writing the piece as I discovered this one country dotted along like coastlines. A Breton-speaking neighbour near Tréguennec has been going to Wales for years and, like your shop assistant, finds communication possible. Bu the way, in France, attempts to stamp out the Breton language have been going on for centuries. Love, Joe
I’ll try to go and have a look at this exhibition. Very interesting the origin of the word baragouiner ; did you know the expression “etre une becasse ” to be stupid comes from the famous cartoon character Becassine from early 20th C , she was from Britanny . to be noted there is no masculine equivalent… xx
Dear Sauliac, Thank you for your comments. Almost till the last draft I had a sentence or two about the awful aspects of Bécassine but to keep within word limit she had to go – I know it’s was a shame. Had you noticed that, in the cartoon she was seen as so silly that she had no need for a mouth! Love, Joe. PS The Paris exhibition ends on 16 January.
No I never noticed the mouthless Bécassine xxx
Dear Sauliac, Her mouthless face is so much part of the character portrayed that, her dumbness, and all that it implies for Breton women, becomes a given. Love, Joe