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Cornwall: One of Six Celtic Nations

L.C.R. Duncombe Jewell

Published originally in Celtia in October 1901, this essay (now appearing for the first time on the www) was written for the Pan-Celtic Congress held in Dublin in the summer of that year, in an attempt to gain recognition of Cornwall's own Celticity. Duncombe Jewell was only partially successful, and two years later he left Cornwall to live with his friend Aleister Crowley in Boleskine near Loch Ness.



It should, of course, be quite unnecessary for anyone least of all for a Cornishman, to write or to read a paper in order to prove the self-evident thesis stated in the title which l have chosen for my contribution to the deliberations of the Pan-Celtic Congress.

That Cornwall is a Nation, no Cornishman at home or abroad but will be found to declare. Even alien writers of fiction who have of recent years come among us, studying us superficially to their profit, have noted this fact; as witness Charles Lee, the author of “The Widow Woman" and “Paul Carah, Cornishman," who makes one of his more important characters cry out somewhere—

“There edn' no smell of earth like the smell o' Cornish
ground ; nor no nation fit to stand up in the sight o' the
Cornish nation, ‘ Wan an‘ all ' agin the world."

And that Cornwall is Celtic from head to heel, from Tamar to Land’s End, is less difficult of demonstration than the fact of its separate and distinct nationality. From the printed remains of its language, and the
characteristics of its inhabitants to the archaeological remnants, the Celtic crosses, the holy wells and oratories dedicated to the Irish and Welsh saints who brought Christianity to Cornwall, the seven score Celtic castles and camps that stud the map like bosses on a shield, the stone circles, menhirs, logan and crick stones, the quoits, cromlechs, beehive huts, British villages and caves, the newly discovered Celtic cemetery in Harlyn Bay—unique among all such discoveries—and to the legended and fairy lore of the Duchy, nothing
but the attributes of the Celtic race are at all discoverable throughout the brief length and little breadth of the land. That Cornwall, for lack of spoken word or written paper, should be allowed to slip from the charmed circle of Celtia, with all its enormous treasures of Celtic antiquities, its literature, its language, its fascinating folk-lore, its historical struggles against the encroachments of the Saxon, its still strong and vivid belief in the ultimate re-incarnation of its hopes, and dreams, and aspirations in the person of King Arthur—whose soul, according to Cornish tradition, passed into the body of the sacred chough, the Tshauha of our tongue, from the Pool of Dosmare, until the time of the re-union of Celtdom under one Arluth, one Ard-righ,— is something not to be thought.

It would be as great a loss to Celtic today as the loss of the Hebrides to Highland Scotland, or of Breiz-Izel itself, that great result of the great Cornish Immigration in the ninth century—“Cornwall beyond the sea.” The
Isle of Man has been described as the fifth wheel in the Celtic coach, but if Cornwall be paired with Man we have at once six wheels upon which to make our vehicle for the salvation of the Celtic world run easily and swiftly from start to glorious finish. The official objections to the full and formal recognition of Cornwall as one of the Celtic Nations, as voiced by the honorary secretary of the Celtic Association, are that “ Cornish, as a spoken tongue, is dead,” and that “no Cornish Language Society has so far been formed to resuscitate it.”

These objections may be quite summarily disposed of. Cornish is not dead. The Anglo-Saxon fable, repeated, I was sorry to observe in the June number of CELTIA—that Dolly Pentreath was the last Cornish-speaking
Cornish person, is, like most Anglo-Saxon fables, but the baseless fabric of the dream of those whose wishes are the fathers and mothers of their thoughts. When Dolly Pentreath lived (I676 to 1778), so far from being the only one who could talk Cornish, it was regularly spoken by people of her class in several districts of Western Cornwall, more particularly in the Lizard promontory and on the shores of Mount’s Bay. Daines Barrington, the exploiter of Dolly, himself published a letter written in 1776 in Cornish by William Bodenor, a Mousehole fisherman. Bodenor, in his letter, enumeratees five people in Mousehole who could speak Cornish at that date, two years only before the death of Dolly Pentreath. Whittaker who was vicar of Ruan Lanihorne a parish east of Truro and far removed even from the Lizard District, states that there were people still living in 1799 who could speak Cornish; while a letter. discovered some years ago in the British Museum, written to Sir Joseph Banks, mentions the writer's father as the “only living man" who could speak it. This letter is dated 1791. It is evident, therefore, that so far from dying with Dolly in I778, Cornish lived on as a spoken tongue among the peasantry into last century, and quite probably to within I00 years of the present day.

But even so Cornish died hard. When Mr. Henry Jenner, F.S.A., of the British Museum, went to Mount’s Bay on a brief visit in I875, he, in company with the Rev. W. S. Lach-Szyrma, Vicar of Newlyn, discovered that
there were still persons who counted in Cornish, used certain Cornish phrases, and many detached words. In the paper upon the subject which Mr. Jenner contributed to the Translations of the Philological Society, he enumerates six such people, fishermen and the wives of fishermen for the most part, and at the present day,
though, perhaps, none of the peasants or miners or fishermen in the west use any longer connected sentences in the language, yet some hundreds of Cornish words are in daily employment among them, for which, in many cases, they have no knowledge of the English equivalent. Only last year I remember being engaged in examining the traces of a British village under the shadow of Caer Bran when Iwas asked by a peasant to take shelter in a cottage near by, as he was about to fire a blasting charge. I did so, together with the man and his two companions, and incidentally asked them what they were blasting. “A peeth," was the reply. Asked what “a peeth" was they said: “why just a peeth" and led me to the place, which was simply a draw-well they were engaged in making. I suggested the name "well" but  they had never heard it and when I asked them what they called a natural well or spring, the elder man promptly replied Venten. (Peeth is given by Mr Jenner as a new word in Cornish akin to Welsh pydew and French puits but it is entered by Jago as a late Cornish alteration of Venton.) As a matter of fact, it is evident that the Cornish made (and still make) a distinction between a natural well or fountain and a well blasted or dug out of the earth; and it remained for an agricultural labourer within half-a-dozen miles of Penzance, to point out the difference in the last year of the 19th century, when Cornish had been “dead,” forsooth, for one hundred and fifty years!

My conversation with these men revealed the fact that they used Cornish words (occasionally very much corrupted) among their English in the proportion of about one in twenty. But over the whole of Cornwall, even in the easternmost parts, Cornish words are still habitually mixed with English in very much the same proportion. The names of common objects are still often Cornish. The miner still goes to bal when he goes to work—bal meaning the “ mine-head ” practically. The labourer’s wife in the towns still talks of a cheeld wan, meaning “ a little child.” The farmer’s field is still a “pare,” the golden gorse is “bannel broom,” the gold-finch is a "molenek" the wren, “gwradnan,” the robin, "ruddoc," the heather “grig,” and the limpet a “kroggan." I do not say anything of the places and personal names to be found in Cornwall. These are still almost wholly Cornish, especially the first, which run down into Devonshire and betray the lines along which the Britons came before the Saxon invaders of the west, and the spots on and around Dartmoor, where they remained undisturbed, and where their descendants linger to the present day.

So much for vernacular Cornish. Literary Cornish is happily preserved against the ravages of time by a quite respectable body of literature in the shape of the Poems of Mount Calvary  and of The Creation ; the Miracle
Plays known as the Ordinalia; and the Life of Saint Meriasek, besides fragments and miscellanea in the shape of proverbs and short poems, some of which have not yet been printed or even translated.

There can be no need for me to go into the merits of these compositions in the language here; they would more fittingly form the subject of a separate paper to be read at the Pan-Celtic Congress of 1904. But there is one point in one poem which I cannot refrain from indicating. In The Creation of William Jordan, written so late as 1611, and possessing great literary merit, the devil and the fallen angels are often made to speak in the English language, as the mother tongue of all such beings.

When one remembers that Cornwall is not naturally defended by barriers of mountain or ocean, but only by the tiny stream of Tamar - whose name is taken from one of the most beautiful of all the Celtic Legends, and one indigenous to Damnonium - it is wonderful that the Cornish have remained Cornish, and that the old language did not die out in the first century after the Norman Conquest of England. This is in itself an argument for, and a proof of, the essential right of Cornwall to be considered a part and parcel of the Celtic world.

Nor should the group of notable Anglo-Cornish writers, which, within the last decade, Cornwall has given to the world, be passed without mention : Mr. A. T. Quiller-Couch (“Q”), Mr. Arthur Symons, Sir Jas. Rennell Rodd, Robt. Dennis, Mrs. Henry Jenner, Mr- H. D. Lowry, Mr. Riccardo Stephens, Mr Arthur H. Norway, and Mr. Herbert Vivian are Celtic alike in their choice of effort in the realms of fancy, adventure, and imagination.

The characteristics of the modern Cornishman are still absolutely Celtic and akin to those of his brother Celts of Wales and Brittany and Ireland. It has always been so. The “Lost Causes,” for which the Highlanders and Irishmen and Bretons have ever fought—the Catholic Faith and Legitimate Monarchy—have brought the Cornish time and again into the stricken field. "The Commotion"—the Cornish “Pilgrimage of Grace"— was a much more formidable insurrection in favour of the Catholic liturgy than that headed by the Archbishop of York: and Humphrey Arundel and Blessed Cuthbert Mayne were given by Cornwall as veritable Martyrs for the old Faith. King Charles I could have made no sort of headway against the forces of the Parliament had it not
been for the Cornish army under Sir Bevil Grenville; and south of Trent it was only in Cornwall that King James III was proclaimed in 1715. Like the Welsh, too, the Celts of Cornwall, religionless after the introduction of the Reformed Faith, which they refused to receive at any price, but with that deep sense
of personal religion only to be satisfied by Catholicism or Methodism, found a very real saviour in John Wesley.

Mention, also, maybe made of the Cornish game of hurling, which, with wrestling, is one of the main pastimes of the people. Hurling with the Silver Ball, indeed, is a solely Cornish game, and is one of those which is certainly worth preserving, as the section for Celtic games will surely find.

The Cornish, too, were undoubtedly formed in clans, which the feudal system scarcely modified; because the natural leader of the clan became the feudal lord. The names of the old Cornish families are still names to conjure with: and the name of one, and that not the oldest of them all, is identified for ever with the National Anthem of the Cornish, whose words. ring true with the sentiment: “One and all against the world.”

The Cornishman is a dreamer of the sort to which Mr. W. B. Yeats, in The Tables of the Law, gives definitive words. He has “the nature that is half monk, half soldier of fortune, and must needs turn action into dreaming, and dreaming into action.” The sap of his own Wandering Heath is in his blood, and he roams
forth restlessly to the vanquishing of worlds that Alexander of Macedon never knew. All the world over there are to be found large Cornish settlements of successful men who make money and return always to die in Cornwall, and nowhere will you ever come upon a Cornishman among the "poor white trash" of Colonial towns, nor find colonies of "Poor Cornish" as you do of "poor Irish" in the  great cities of the New World. This comes, perchance from the fact that the Cornishman has always been forced to fight, and has always fought with a fair measure of the success that endows a race or an individual with the gift of confidence.

The mariner and fisherman fight the sea on the desperate coasts of Cornwall: the miner fights death in the depths of the earth: the agriculturist fights the wilderness on the skirts of the granitic moors :—“One and all” against the world and fate.

One of the most reliable expressions of the character of a people is their folk-lore: and the folk-lore of Cornwall, one of exceptional richness, will be found curiously like that of Ireland on the one hand and of Brittany on the other. Those interested in this so fascinating subject may be advised to take and compare Lady Wilde's Legends of Ireland with Robert Hunt's Popular Romances of Cornwall. They will find there the fairy legends of Ireland and Brittany, the same belief in witchcraft, in mermaids, in demons and spectres. We have our well-fairies, our dwarfs, our changlings, our four-leaved clover, our drowned cities, our wishing-wells, our Baal-fires, our superstitions for every day in the year and every action of the day. But we have also a folk-lore proper to ourselves. 'We have the Arthurian legend, the Tregeagle legend, the tales of the giants; and although we cannot boast of the great inheritance of epic heroes like Oisin and Fingal, we have at least one tale of like calibre in the legend of Tamara.

Tavy and Tawrage, sons of Dartmoor giants, loved Tamara, the beautiful daughter of earth spirits, who, glorying in the light of the sun, left her cavern and was pursued long time by her admirers over moor and heath and fen; until caught by them under a bush, in Moorwinstow, they attempted to compel her to a choice between them. Here they were surprised by Tamara's father, and the gnome cast over the giants the spell of slumber and endeavoured to persuade his daughter to return to him to his cavern. Enraged at her refusal, he put upon her a terrible curse and Tamara, dissolving in tears changed into a river which should flow on for ever to the ocean. When Tavy awoke and found Tamara gone, his father, at his request, transformed him likewise into a stream, and rushing down from the hills, he still goes seeking his Tamara; his only joy that he runs by her side, and that mingling at length their waters, they glide together to the eternal
sea. Tawrage, too, found an enchanter, who, at his prayer, changed him likewise into a river; but, mistaking the road by which Tamara travelled, he fares northward on the hopeless, never-ending quest, his bitter fate that, still sorrowing he must continue to flow on, ever getting farther and farther from his lost Tamara.

This surely is a legend worthy to he classed with those for which the Celts of olden time are now world-famous.

But I have, perhaps, already said enough to prove the Celtic characteristics of my people. I have not mentioned the enormous wealth of Celtic antiquities scattered over the moors and hidden in the glens of Cornwall: the 300 odd Celtic crosses, ornamented with some of the finest known examples of interlaced and knot work: the numerous holy and wishing wells bearing the names of Celtic saints: the remains of hill and cliffcastles, including Tintagel where King Arthur was born, and the most perfect example of a triple-entrenched camp yet discovered, at Castel-an-Dinas with some 150 others, none of them Roman: its barrows and cromlechs: the stone-circle of Boscawen Un, once according to the Welsh triad one of the three Gorsedds of Britain: nor of the countless monoliths and rock piles found broadcast on all our ancient hills.

Shall Celtia throw away this vast heritage complementary to that which she already possesses in all the Celtic lands from the Loire to Stornoway? Can she afford to lose even one gem from her re-burnished crown? May not the banner besantee of Cornwall, the traditionary device of Cadoc, last Celtic Cornish Prince, float alongside those of her sister nations? Will she not be permitted to throw in her lot with the rest, to stretch out her hand upon the one hand and touch her daughter Brittany, and on and on the other to clasp again that of her sister Wales? Do not her position geographically,and her ancient language philologically, connect
her inseparably with the rest of the Brythonic peoples, with the whole of Celtia?

Language, it is true, is the real badge of nationality, and the Cornish language—the tongue in which Boadicea animated her troops when opposed to the legions of Rome; the tongue in which the British bishops refused
to join Augustine lest they should be constrained to bring salvation to the Zouzon whom they had much rather burned in hell - is on the eve of revival. To-day there is a growing movement among the lettered class in
Cornwall to learn something of their own language; and in the programme of the new Celtic-Cornish Society, which has for its object the study and preservation of everything of Celtic origin that remains in the country—place is found for the encouragement of the revival of Cornish. A cheap Cornish grammar is now in
course of compilation, and a new Eng.-Corn.,Corn.-Eng. Dictionary is well advanced.

With these facts before us there is surely no need to wait for the time when a language census can be taken between the Tamar and the Land’s End, for Cornwall to be received into the Communion of Celts. Now is the
acceptable time, and this is, indeed, the hour.

And Cornwall from the horn of her plenty brings to the Pan-Celtic Congress a gift of her own, a gift for the whole of Celtia: none other than her own cherished motto, “ONAN HAG OL,” “ One and all,” to he the war-cry and the counter sign of the Celtic Race, to he the badge of final union and the seal which shall fasten
together the Six Nations with a twice-threefold cord never to be burst asunder.