The Celtic people of Cornwall in south-west England are to benefit from European Union rules for the protection of national minorities. What with Wales and now Scotland agitating for devolution, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is fast unravelling. How long before the Isle of Wight hoists the flag of independence?
The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities stipulates that national minorities should be protected from “assimilation”, whatever that means in a nation that has been assimilating invaders and immigrants for centuries. Cornish people will now have the same status as the Scots, Welsh and Irish. Protection is intended to combat discrimination, promote equality, and preserve culture and identity. It also means that government departments and public bodies must take into account the views of national minorities when making decisions.
This decision has been welcomed by Gorsedh Kernow, a non-political organisation which exists to maintain the Celtic spirit of Cornwall. It promotes the study of literature, art, music and history; the study and use of the Cornish language; links with other Celtic cultures; and it provides a forum for all who work to further these aims.
The Gorsedh is not affiliated to any religion, is non-profit-making and has no connection with Druidism or any other pagan practices. The current Grand Bard of Cornwall, Maureen Fuller, says, “We are proud of our history and our unique language and look forward to the day when these feature as regular subjects on school timetables and are spoken of by Cornish people as a way of life.”
The Celts are all that remain of an ancient civilisation that left its mark from Asia Minor to Ireland. They originally came from the region around the Lower Danube, settling in Italy in the third century BCE and even sacking Rome 387-386 BCE. The Celts began to invade Britain in the first millennium BCE and by the time of the Roman Conquest, 43 CE, Britons were largely Celtic-speaking. It was only after successive invasions by Saxons from the North German plains that the Celts sought refuge in western Britain or fled to what we now know as Brittany in France.
Of the Celtic languages, Irish took its place in history as the third classical language of Europe after Greek and Latin. The Cornish language did not fare so well. It survived until the Reformation when The English Book of Common Prayer was introduced into Cornwall and a decree made that Old Celtic customs be stamped out. In 1548 a massive rebellion against the crown was quashed and the English language imposed in all religious and civil matters. It was the death knell for the Cornish language even though several attempts were subsequently made to revive it.
It was the expansion of industry, especially Cornish mining in the 19th century, that drove the Cornish language into limbo. The last native speaker, said to be John Davey of Zennor, died in 1891, and the old Cornish toast Pysk, Sten ha Cober! (Fish, Tin and Copper) was no longer heard over a glass of beer.
At the beginning of the 20th century a slow-burning revival of the Cornish language began, led in part by the scholar Henry Jenner who consulted old dictionaries and literature to produce The Handbook of the Cornish Language in 1904. Interest in the old language grew throughout the century and the political notion that Cornwall had a right to self-government in domestic affairs began to raise its head. It looks like that dream has now been achieved.
The county of Cornwall is famous for its distinctive scenery and its pasties – to which tourists and seagulls are partial. The pasty is a pastry case filled with beef steak, onion, potato and swede seasoned with salt and white pepper. Historically pasties had a variety of different fillings (including turnip, potatoes and meat, leeks, and one containing watercress, parsley and shallots). Sweet pasties were also made with fillings of jam, apple and blackberry, plums or cherries.
Incidentally, in 2011 the Cornish pasty was given Protected Geographical Indication status by the European Commission. This appellation d’origine controlée calls for the pasty to be made in Cornwall, have a “D” shape and be crimped on one side. As a protected national minority, presumably something similar will now apply to people born in Cornwall. Making them should be no problem, but crimping them may cause an outcry.