Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Celtic Roots Craic 64 – Galicia – the Cinderella of Celtic nations

Galician flag

You might have noticed we’ve been playing a lot more Breizh music – from Brittany – on recent shows? That’s because several Breton musicians and bands have contacted me from France – usually through Facebook. And I’m also hoping to get hold of some authentic Galician tunes in the near future, from a similar contact. 


Galicia is the north western province of Spain – with towns like A Corunya, Vigo, Santiago de Compostela – where the famous pilgrimage across the north of Spain terminates. Another inland town is Lugo, which is named after the ancient pagan Celtic God, Lugh – like the village Conlig, close to where I live at the moment – which gives ye a bit of a clue to the Celtic heritage of Galicia.

Unlike Catalonia, which has been having a big row with the Spanish government over independence, the Galicians seem to be happy enough with their lot. They’ve had their own autonomous parliament since 1978 – Franco took away their autonomy while he was in power. The Galicians were originally called Gallaeci by the Greeks and Romans – similar to the Galli – in Gaul, and the Gallati – the Galatians, another Celtic tribe who lived in part of what is now Turkey – St Paul wrote a letter to them, remember? In those days Galicia extended into what is now northern Portugal. They lived in fortified villages called castros – hill forts.

The Roman historians regarded them as a bunch of barbarians – occupying themselves in fighting by day and eating, drinking and dancing at night – sounds like they were true Celts all right! When Rome collapsed the Kingdom of Galicia survived independently for more than 170 years. Like Brittany, the northern part of Galicia had an influx of fellow Celtic Britons, who had been squeezed out by the anglo-Saxon invasion of what then became England. The Britons brought Christianity with them and established their own diocese of Britonia. In 718 Ad the Islamic Moors took over most of Iberia – modern Spain and Portugal, but they never really conquered Galicia – just sent some soldiers to collect taxes from them. 

Unfortunately, the Galicians no longer speak a Celtic language – modern Galician is a Romance language, based on Latin and close to Portuguese, which – although containing lots of Celtic words – disqualifies them, in the opinion of some, from being a truly Celtic nation. At a meeting of the Celtic League in 1986, Galicia officially joined the other six Celtic nations – Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales. Unfortunately for Galicia, this decision caused an uproar in the Celtic League and – mainly because they no longer have a living Celtic language – Galicia’s membership was revoked again a year later.

Despite this rejection, regular Celtic Festivals are held there – the International Festival of the Celtic World in Ortigueira being one of the largest and best known in Europe, with sometimes over 100,000 visitors. Last year the Galician Parliament recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of self rule with bagpipes and folk songs. Yeah, the place is apparently coming down with bagpipers – which they call gaitas, similar to words used for the pipes in eastern Europe. There are hundreds of pipers – gaiteras – registered in Galicia! Some of the most popular tunes are called munieras – which are very similar to Irish jigs – I’ve played some on past shows.

Galicia has something else in common with the other Celtic nations in that it is remote, hilly and not industrialised. The coastline is made up of rias – flooded river estuaries, similar to those found in Brittany – with plenty of beaches. The climate is generally wetter than other parts of Spain – so us Scots and Irish should feel right at home. And there’s Finisterre – Land’s End in Galician – the second most westerly point in mainland Europe.

And, while it may not be particularly Celtic, the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage ending in Santiago de Compostella, nearby, attracts millions of pilgrims, who walk the Camino Trail and stay overnight in special hostels provided for the pilgrims. The saints bones were rediscovered after the Romans departed and are claimed to be those of the apostle James, who was the first disciple martyred in Jerusalem, then – apparently – secretly transported the length of the Mediterranean by his disciples. Some believe the bones were actually those of the fourth-century, Priscillian, bishop of Avila, who was executed by the emperor as a heretic and whose followers brought his body back to Spain from Trier, in Germany.


A former colleague of mine when I was a lecturer – from here in Northern Ireland – went on the pilgrimage and then wrote a book about it – it’s called Restless Hearts'.

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