This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

June 2005


Our August 2002 piece on the old Celtic homeland in Galatia, in present-day Turkey, prompted many requests for a piece about Galicia, on the northwest promontory of the Iberian peninsula. Known as the “land of a thousand rivers,” Galicia, along with much of central and western Iberia, was home to the Celtic-speaking Celt-Iberian people from about 800 BCE. Rich metal deposits drew the Celts to Galicia: gold, but more importantly tin. Like Cornwall far to the north, the gravelly river beds of Galicia were a major source of tin for the production of the ancient world’s bronze.

Galician folklore has preserved the story of Breogan, the Celtic chief who founded the settlement of Brigantium (present-day A Coruña.) Irish mythology also preserves a memory of Celtic Galicia - the Book of Invasions (Lebor Gabála) tells how the Gaels set sail for Ireland after spying it from the tower of Breogan. (Trade contact between Ireland and Iberia would continue for centuries through Galicia, and A Coruña would become the favored Iberian port of entry for the Wild Geese fleeing the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland.)

The Celts in Galicia marked their presence on the landscape in the distinctive form of stone-fortified settlements called “castroes” whose warriors wore golden Celtic torcs around their necks. Enclosing complexes of round stone-foundation houses, the larger castroes were surrounded with as many as seven concentric lines of defense.

Gold and tin eventually drew the Romans to Iberia as well, and their conquest of the Celt-Iberians climaxed at the battle of Numantia in 134BC. The Celts in Galicia, however, fell back upon their fortified castroes, and continued to resist the Romans. It took the Romans many years of hard fighting and another climatic battle at Mount Medúlio before they could secure their occupation of the province they dubbed Gallaecia. Under the Roman occupation the old Celtic language of the Celt-Iberians began to die out, to be replaced by Latin. This replacement was so complete that, apart from Celtic place-names on the landscape, and some names of plants and animals, little trace of this language remains. As the western Roman empire began to collapse, Galicia fell under the sway of a succession of invading Germanic tribes: the Vandals, the Sueves, and finally the Visigoths in 585 AD.

When the Islamic conquest of Iberia reached Galicia in 711AD the Moors found the Galicians as tough as their Celt-Iberian forebears. Islamic rule in Galicia proved short-lived when a series of counterattacks launched from out of neighboring Asturias in 718AD began to force back the Moors. Galicia now became a springboard for the Catholic Reconquista of Iberia, helped along by the discovery of what were proclaimed to be the remains of the Apostle James in 813. Popularly credited with helping the Galicians defeat the invaders, Saint James - Santiago - was given the title of “Matamoros” (Moor-slayer) and the shrine built around his burial place at Compostela became the destination for a pilgrimage that continues to this day.

The late Middle Ages were a good time for Galicia and for its emerging language, a sister language to Portugese. Galician song and poetry flourished and spread beyond the borders of Galicia to central and western Spain. Galicia’s heyday abruptly ended when the fall of the kingdom of Granada in 1492 ended the Reconquista and an aggressively unified Castilian state under Ferdinand and Isabella increasingly marginalized Galicia and its culture.

Speaking of the year 1492, for a while in the early 20th century it looked as if Galicia could join Ireland, Scotland and Wales with its own bid to have discovered America, when a theory was circulated that Christopher Columbus was actually a Gallegan from the town of Pontevedra. But the documents on which this idea rested were eventually proven forgeries, and little is heard of this notion today. Still, though, it is an interesting fact that Columbus’ flagship the Santa Maria was originally named the Gallega.

A remote province of the kingdom of Spain, Galician culture languished until the beginnings of a revival in the late eighteenth century. Known as the Rexurdimento, this reinvigoration of the Galician language produced such noted national poets as Rosalía Castro and Eduardo Pondal. Economic stagnation continued, however, and emigration became a major fact of Galician life in the nineteenth century. Embarking mainly from the port of Vigo, thousands of Gallegans set out for Argentina, and later Cuba. Galicia’s national anthem, Os Pinos (the Pines) would in fact be first performed publically in Havana, Cuba, in 1907.

In 1907 Galician nationalism began to assert itself with the formation of Solidiariedade Galega (Galician Solidarity) which sought full representation in the Madrid government and the end to the local rule by Castilian political bosses. Though the efforts of Solidiariedade Galega came to nought, it was succeeded by such organizations as the Irmandades de Fala (Language Brotherhood), ORGA (Autonomous Galician Republican Organization) and the PG (Galician Party.)

Galician nationalists actually achieved a commitment to autonomy under the Spanish Republic in 1937 only to lose it when Francisco Franco won the Spanish Civil War two years later. Although Franco himself was born in Galicia, the Galician language and identity were suppressed under his dictatorship, even while the Franco government, for reasons of its own, supported research into the Celtic heritage of Spain. Galician nationalism reemerged following Franco’s death, and on 6 April 1981 it secured recognition by Madrid as an Autonomous Community.

In the 1960s Galicia’s bid to join the Celtic League was rejected on the grounds that it lacked a Celtic language. Today the most visible assertion of Celtic culture in Galicia is in the field of music, notably through the Galician Bagpipe, or Gaita Galega, with virtuosos such as Carlos Nunez gaining international renown. Similar to the Scottish highland bagpipe, the Gaita Galega differs in the shape of the bag and the placement of the drones, which come in numerous variations. The music of the Gaita is most often heard as part of a Quarteto d Gaitas, featuring two pipers supported by a Bombo (bass drum) and a Tamboril (tenor drum.) Over the years Gallegan bagpipe contingents have been a popular feature of the annual Interceltic Festival at Lorient, Brittany, and well as many other festivals in Galicia and throughout Europe.

The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2006 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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