by Celine Kearney
Southern Celts is the result of Celine Kearney’s PhD research to discover how Celtic ancestry impacts the lives of New Zealanders today. Over six years, she conducted a series of interviews from the Far North to Southland, speaking to a kiltmaker and a whisky importer, artists, sportspeople including a curler, writers, a clergyman, educators… In common, they have Scottish and/or Irish ancestry.
How has that shaped their lives and how does it still influence their lives, even after many decades in Aotearoa New Zealand? The individual interview transcripts often reveal common threads such as a love of Celtic music and poetry; memories of close-knit family get-togethers with cousins and grandparents, and cultural-comfort foods; family traditions of story-telling.
Religion and politics have inevitably played a significant role in the families of many of the interviewees. Some of them were brought up in staunchly Protestant homes while others were very Catholic. Astonishing is the experience of a Catholic who, when interviewed for a job in a Dunedin museum, is asked if he can put his Catholic faith aside to do justice to the city’s Scottish Presbyterian history.
The families range from those who seldom spoke of politics to those who were very politicised, and recount the experiences of ancestors who escaped hanging in exchange for deportation or who immigrated to New Zealand as political exiles.
A thought-provoking part of the transcripts relates to the spiritual-cultural relationship between Celts and Māori. Many interviewees spoke of a feeling of kinship and a strong connection to Māori art and traditional crafts. Oration, extended families and ways of dealing with death are discussed as shared features of both cultures.
At the same time, there is a consistent undercurrent of detachment from England. Hostility is muted but colonisation and subjugation were major drivers of emigration. From the Highland Clearances to the colonisation of Ireland, there is frequent mention of Scottish and Irish immigrants having been oppressed and forced off their land. Interesting debates then ensue as to whether, upon reaching Aotearoa New Zealand, they, as the newly-oppressed, then became the oppressors in their relation to Māori.
In Southern Celts the interviewees’ transcripts seem to be presented in a natural, largely unedited state, so that it is as if the interviewee is really speaking to us. This makes for very heartfelt accounts. It also results in some sweeping generalisations which discerning readers may wish to question or investigate further.
Because it is a selection of unconnected transcripts, Southern Celts is a book to dip into, to read slowly and to digest the opinions and experiences of each interviewee. With an estimation that today over half a million New Zealanders have Irish ancestry (figures for Scottish ancestry are not provided) Southern Celts is a book in which many readers will recognise their own families, while others will gain a deeper understanding of why many of us are the way we are.
Author: Celine Kearney
Publisher: Mary Egan Publishing