First the obligatory Malcolmian anecdote:
It fell to Richard Crossman, Minister for Housing in Harold Wilson’s 1964 Government, to open the Ideal Home Exhibition. As he was chivvied round, he fell in with a Canadian exhibitor. Crossman noticed that the exhibit, for all its splendour, lacked one important element. The exhibitor responded that a shower (which was included) was far more hygienic and economical than a full bath. Crossman exploded:
Good grief! An Englishman doesn’t take a bath to get clean! He has a bath to think!
Nevertheless, Malcolm took his shower, and thereunder he meditated.
What was on his mind was a term he had used in that previous post: “The Celtic fringe”. He had done so a trifle tongue-in-cheek, recognising that it is possible to find pejorative (itself a late Victorian import) implications in its usage.
Even so, it is a useful shorthand:
- It describes those part of the Archipelago where the writ of Tory Central Office hardly applies, where warm bodies will vote any way except half-blindly for a Tory (unless the Tory adopts a parallel existence as an “independent” or whatever).
- It also reminds us that these islands may once have been the Saxon empire. Now Celts (both Brythonic and Goedelic), Angles, the people of Danelaw and other breeds without the dóm of the Westseaxna rīce properly seek their own place in the sun.
Yet, Malcolm’s niggle was this:
Where and when did the term originate?
So, a quick resort, predictably, to the Oxford English Dictionary:
Celtic fringe (or edge): (the land of) the Scots, Welsh, Irish and Cornish, regarded as occupying the fringe or outlying edge of the British Isles (freq. derogatory); Celtic twilight: W. B. Yeats’s name for his collection of stories, etc., based on Irish folk-tales; hence gen., (sometimes disparagingly) the atmosphere of, or artistic tendencies associated with, the folklore and legends of Celtic Britain, esp. of Ireland.
Malcolm, as quick as never, spotted the negative connotations implicit in both terms. Similarly, the idyllic “American dream” became somewhat soiled and sullied by the later Twentieth Century, especially when it had serially been done over by Sinclair Lewis, Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Hunter Thompson …
It seems from the OED‘s citations that the Marquis of Salisbury is the progenitor of the Celtic fringe. There he was, in 1890, deploring Parnellism (source right):
The great defect of our present representation is that the Celtic edges of the country on both islands are represented enormously out of proportion to the rest of the Anglo-Saxon population.
A typical Tory: if the underclass and peasants won’t do as they are told, that’s their mistake.
Salisbury provoked various responses, most pertinently Grant Allen in Chapter 18 of his 1894 Post-prandial Philosophy (which is conveniently on line):
We Celts henceforth will rule the roost in Britain… opportune or inopportune, Lord Salisbury says we are a Celtic fringe. I beg to retort, we are the British people…
One inevitable result of the widening of the electorate has been the transfer of power from the Teutonic to the Celtic half of Britain: at the polls, in Parliament, we are the British people. Lord Salisbury may fail to perceive that fact, or, as I hold more probable, may affect to ignore it.
An intriguing thought from that: what if Home Rule had failed, been aborted, never happened? Ireland consistently delivering five million naationalist votes, consistently against the Tory Unionists? The “Conservative century” could never have happened. There’s a good one for Dominic Sandbrook to fantasise over.
In any event, by 1907 A.S.T. Griffith-Boscawen could reminisce on Fourteen Years in Parliament (which, fortuitously, has also been scanned to the Web) Despite a surname which hyphenated two Celtic origins, he described his outlook as:
a Churchman, a Conservative, and a Tariff Reformer.
Griffith-Boscawen attributes the term “Celtic fringe” in its finished form to Arthur Balfour (Salisbury’s nephew, and, hence “Bob’s your uncle!” when in 1887 Salisbury appointed Balfour Chief Secretary for Ireland):
THE General Election of 1892 was probably the hardest fought contest since the Reform Act of 1832… In the end the Liberals had a majority of 40, counting the Nationalists on their side, so that while Unionist continuance in office was impossible, their opponents were completely at the mercy of the Irish Party. The composition of their majority was also remarkable. It came entirely from Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, or, as Mr Balfour aptly said, ” the Celtic fringe”, while in England there was a Unionist majority of 71. Wales really bore the palm for Liberalism, the Unionist representatives being reduced to two, so that it was remarked that the entire Welsh Unionist Party could come to Westminster on a double bicycle, a form of locomotion which the members forming the party the Hon. G. T. Kenyon and Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones would probably not have enjoyed!
One discrimination that went the way, circa 1914-18, of the Royal House of Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha was that neat division of the Archipelago into “Teutonic” and “Celtic”. The OED certainly has it in a citation from Augustus Henry Keane, Man, Past and Present (1899):
The ‘Keltic fringe’, that is, the strips of territory on the skirts of the Teutonic and Neo-Latin domains in the extreme west.
Let us notice in passing how that, oh-so-conveniently, both literally and metaphorically, marginalises any difficulty. Keane, a Corkman, forswore an intended Catholic vocation, to become Professor of Hindustani at University College, London. His other peripheral contribution may have been to inspire references in Sherlock Holmes’s investigations.
There is one final reference which deserves a mention.
Louis MacNeice (a regular study of Malcolm’s, as may have been noticed) used the phrase in a particular context. I Crossed the Minch derives from his visits to the Western Isles. As he implies at the outset, he was expecting the Hebrides to be similar to the West of Ireland, where he went looking for:
That natural … culture which … is only found on the Celtic or backward fringes.
“Backward fringes”? Oh dear! Not a fit place for an Englishman in search of a restful, thought-enducing, civilised wallow in a bath-tub, perhaps.
Perhaps it would be better to move on quickly and explore that book a bit further in a separate post.