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Celtic Cultural Plundering: From Carnival Row To Dungeons & Dragons

Judging by the reaction of critics and long-time fantasy fans I suspect I wasn’t the only one to lose interest at an early stage in the recent steampunk drama Carnival Row from Amazon Studios in the US. Despite the money and attention lavished on the streaming show a ragbag of mismatched fantasy tropes and clichés combined with just plain poor writing made it more of a non-watch than a must-watch. Especially in light of the creative and world-building behemoth that was HBO’s Game of Thrones.

In my case it didn’t help that the main character, portrayed by the British model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne, sported a bizarre pseudo-Irish accent, and for no obvious reason except her own thespian hubris, that strayed perilously close to racist caricature. The drama, such as there was, took place in a sort of parallel early industrial Earth where the homeland of a fairy-like race, imaginatively called the Fae, had been invaded by a distant cod-Victorian empire in an obvious but poorly executed analogy of the overseas colonialism by the nations of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. The name of the continent on which the Faes lived and fluttered – quite literally – was Tirnanoc. This, of course, is derived from one of the modern anglicised names of the Otherworld in late Medieval Irish literature, better known in contemporary Irish as Tír na nÓg or “Land of the Young”. Other freely pilfered Celtic or supposedly Celtic terms and ideas popped up throughout the initial episodes of the show making it a cringe-worthy watch for those of us with an awareness of Irish, Scots and Welsh history.

This leads me to this short post by the researcher Orla Ní Dhúill, pointedly titled “Do Fantasy Writers Think Irish is Discount Elvish?”, where she addresses the failings of contemporary writers and artists when it comes to their treatment of the indigenous cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Mann and Brittany.

It is common for colonised cultures to be portrayed as demonic and hyper-sexual. This is used to present the culture of the colonised people as savage and in need of the civilising influence of imperialism. Similarly, when all the different cultures of the “British Isles” (a gross imperialist term that most Irish people never use) are just thrown together in a big mess it is reinforcing colonial erasure.

Another way colonialism disrupts cultures is through the destruction and devaluing of their languages. The Irish language could not be used on birth certificates or any official documents under British rule despite it being the primary language spoken by the majority of the country until the 19th century. Other colonialised populations, in the Americas or Australia, had similar experiences of imperialism. In some countries their native languages were banned outright. I make this point to explain that this is more than bad writing.

This is explored further in a recent episode of the podcast Motherfoclóir, featuring Ní Dhúill and host Peader Kavanagh.

15 comments on “Celtic Cultural Plundering: From Carnival Row To Dungeons & Dragons

  1. Hmm … well one theory has it that the fairies are a sort of folk memory of the pre-Celtic or at least pre-Gaelic races whom the Celts/Gaels displaced, marginalised and dominated, until at best they only lingered on in remote islands, forests and glens. Once they became just a memory, and no longer any kind of threat, their very ‘otherness’ was naturally romanticised and mythologised, incorporated into all the existing lore of this genre. But more recently history has repeated itself with all the modern Celtic language communities and cultures having been similarly marginalised and pushed to near extinction, so that to an English speaker, the Gaels etc. are surely now the ‘new fairies’. Seen in that light, the co-option of our cultures and languages as a prefabricated basis for fantasy is only to be expected, no?


  2. As Marco above says, it is an admired ‘other’, a counterpoint to the stuffy, staid Victorian world of grimy industry. Every fantasy story has to draw from a finite well of difference, I wouldn’t be looking for offence where none is intended.


  3. Interesting, haven’t seen that. I’ve mixed views on such appropriations. If it’s only thinly disguised, or not much at all they can seem a bit lazy and lacking in imagination. That said I’ve often thought that some aspects of Irish mythology would make a great basis for a fantasy/SF crossover.


    • I know I’m not a fan of overly broad definitions of “cultural appropriation”.

      My problem-and a lot of people’s in judging some of these things:

      1) Since there are so many accents in Ireland, I’m not always going to be able to tell the difference between a badly done Irish accent and simply an Irish accent I haven’t heard much of. I have travelled enough in Ireland to know there are many, but I also suck at pegging or scrutinizing accents in the first place.-was just traveling and had a hard time telling Brits from Australians. The protagonist of Black 47 when speaking English sounded like he was from certain parts of North America (midWest, Central Canada) to me, but everyone said that Australian actor nailed both the language and Irish accents in English.

      2) Also it can be tough to tell intentional appropriations from vague resemblances at times.. Tirnanoc obviously sounds like Tir na nOg, but in some contexts I might find it hard to tell if that was deliberate or if they made up something similar by chance. Or if it was influenced by some other thing the person saw based on Irish mythology that they did not consciously remember and/or never realized was based on Irish mythology. Also there are some “influences” that can be tricky as other cultures have something similar. Some Pacific Coast American Indians have myths of being that can shape shift between seals and people, for example.

      I believe there is a very strange
      political dynamic in The US where grotesque or racist caricatures mostly get a free pass.

      You have a mainstream conservatism where anyone who complains ipso fact a “politically correct stooge”. You have a lot of racist groups who love appropriating Celtic things-Although they may see Irish Americans as “traitors” because most are fairly liberal but mainstream Democrats and many have family stories of relatives who “fought for Mr. Lincoln.”

      Then on the left you have a dogma that complaining about any ethnic stereotype involving “white” groups is seem as automatically pegging you as a “white supremacist”. The logic runs that since it is seen as either “punching up” or “not that serious”, that complainers are seen as supporting white supremacy whether they realize it or not.

      Perhaps the most blatant example would be media that routinely portrays Italian Americans as Mafia or members of organized crime. I don’t see a true revival in these prejudices so much as their remnants from times past being given free reign.

      Most people who write those things are NOT deliberately being prejudiced IME. Mostly they are just ignorant.

      However, the only situation where I feel remotely confident contesting this stuff is when dealing with people who try to place “Celtic” influences or Irish Americans as a whole to a “Pro-Confederate” narrative. That I can easily counter with rudimentary historical facts.


      • Oops. That should have been “where grotesque or racist caricatures of European groups get a free pass”.


        • Just on appropriation, I’m not one of those who says one can only be ‘in’ one ‘culture’ to write about it. And broadly speaking I’d give free passes to people who are creating books, art, etc. Crassly commercial stuff is a different matter. I also think a bit of generosity is important, people can be sincere in not being prejudiced as you rightly say Grace and yet do things that can be a bit sketchy.

          That’s a very interesting point re appropriations of Celtic iconography by fascists. Seen that, and it is often about affording such approaches a sort of ‘legitimacy’ or authenticity that they would lack.

          On the pro-Confederate stuff – I’ve known people in the rockin scene who use Confederate flags patches on jackets and so on and there’s been controversy (rightly so in my mind) about that usage. It’s a usage (actually an appropriation) that is well out of order and never more so than when it is done by people thousands and thousands of miles across the ocean.


          • Do you mean people in Ireland display Confederate flags?

            Other than just a few Ulster groups?

            I suspect that some of the people who do such things carry the misbelief that North America is a land free of historical baggage or if there is any the sole issue is race/racism. Of course, that far from the truth.

            More Irish born soldiers (double digit fold for sure) died in The US Civil War than died in The Irish Civil War and The Troubles put together. Some suggest the number approaches the number of total American deaths in Vietnam War. While there’s some disagreement over the exact numbers it’s well accepted that at minimum 4x as many fought for The Union as The CSA.

            Some try to paint Scots-Irish Americans as pro-Confederate but actually they were pretty close to 50:50. They were particularly likely to suffer tragic familial divides. It was common before battles in some theaters to see a good chunk of each army walk cross the lines to see their uncles, nephews, cousins, brothers-in law etc. They embrace people they’d not seen in a while and share info on various relations. Until of course the bugles started blowing for the to get in line to fight. Apparently the large majority of people in that situation had Scots-Irish origins and many of those on The CSA side never wanted to be in that position. So these games about trying to link even Scots-Irish identity to The Confederacy is nonsense.

            Even more vile groups including the KKK have a long history of using Celtic symbols while actually going after some Irish Americans. Irish “race” or ethnicity was never in itself in the KKK’s shit list. However for virtually all chapters Roman Catholics and immigrants were targeted, and for most chapter labor unionists were also on the menu. Indeed in some areas with few black people to terrorize The KKK focused on Jews and Catholics.

            If you want an introduction to a “lighter” version of these butchered histories try “Born Fighting” by James Webb.


            • No, I’ve never seen that usage, flying flags, though thinking back I have seen the very occasional flag in a bar, behind the counter, but not in recent times. I’m thinking more of patches on denim jackets and that sort of stuff.


  4. One thing I see as contributing to the “exotic”, “fantasy”, or even “alien” status of Irish in The US and Canada: Almost nobody studies it. Although there would have been quite a few immigrants who spoke it for a notable portion of US and Canadian history, it is vanishingly rare for anyone to study it.

    I personally only knew two born US citizens, who ever did and both were linguists.

    Much subtler misuses of Spanish on US TV would be spotted in 2 secs even if every Latino in the country was forbidden from watching TV for a year. I have to think part of the difference is because Spanish is “top dog” in terms of foreign language study.

    The rarity of Celtic language study was probably a factor in why the promoters of “Black ‘47” seemed to pick the “mothball plan” for it. Which is assume few people will want to watch it, don’t lose any money promoting it, and just go for minimal losses in case it wins some award and the rights for US distribution become an asset.

    Generally US film distributors assume that a subtitles film won’t even have a niche audience unless there’s either an active community that speaks it or 2-3% of foreign language students are taking it-With over 60% of all foreign languages classes teaching Spanish, plus French, German, ASL, and Mandarin together take up a fat share of the remaining 30%, it’s obvious not many languages are going to meet that criteria. I’d be surprised if Irish is even close to 0.1%.

    Even as somebody who ventured outside the “big 5” what I have is 100sX more common than having ever studied Irish. The fact I *have* Spanish and Russian (interesting parlance) makes me the first of my father’s family since-not long after The Great Famine most likely-to be anything but a monolingual English speaker. I’m actually proud of that fact, in a sense. However, even among people with Irish origins that combo is wildly more common than having ever studied Irish. Indeed Irish Americans tend to one of the more bullish ethnic groups on foreign language study-but our ancestor’s tongue remains vanishingly rare.


    • Darned auto-correct. That was supposed to be “30+%” , not 30%.


      • I wonder are there stats on how much Irish is spoken outside of Ireland.

        Was in Spain over the Summer for a couple of weeks and struck by how many films were shown undubbed there, with Spanish subtitles. These being new films. Was kind of handy in a way!


        • Even when I don’t speak a word of the language I almost always prefer subtitles to dubbing. I find it distracting when the actors voices don’t match their mouthes.

          I’m sure there were a fair number of Irish speakers in North America, England, Australia etc in the decades after The Famine. I don’t know if any statistics were taken at that time. I believe there have been Irish speaking parts of Canada into the 20th century, and know for a fact that there were large pockets Scottish Gaelic in several of “Original 13” during the time period of The American Revolution. Also you hear a lot about German speaking Union soldiers. By comparison you almost never hear about Irish speakers but it’s hard to imagine they weren’t there. Also educated Americans of all ethnic stripes tend to associate The Famine (usually known as “The Potato Famine”) with The Civil War. It seems to me there’s almost a memory hole around Irish language in the US.

          On top of two linguists I’ve known who learned Irish I’ve met a couple who tried to learn at least once. One friend of mine, an Irish American VVAW gave a whole list of languages a try but failed at everything except the Vietnamese he picked up while stationed there. He also could only do the Vietnamese if it was spoken around him. I saw him start talking a blue streak of it when Vietnamese were around, but ask him to say something when he hadn’t been around it in the past few hours and he couldn’t seem to get a word out.

          He joked that he had about as many failed attempts at Spanish and French as his two ex-wives had at losing weight. One language for each ex’s failed weight loss plans. Irish, German and Mandarin were the ones that got three attempts.

          He also tried Arabic, Japanese, ASL, Italian, Navajo, Portuguese, Russian, Dutch, and more but never got anywhere.

          Actually he was particularly freaked by Russian and called it “the Slavic Nightmare Language”. Everytime I had difficulty with anything he’d tease me that if I could handle “The Slavic Nightmare” nothing should be difficult.

          It was sort of hard to explain.


          • 🙂 I’ve been trying to learn conversational Spanish the last five years – kind of getting there finally. I’ll never be anywhere near fluent but I’ve lost the fear of using even the little I know when in Spain which is a bit step forward. Or perhaps I’m too old to care about a negative response any longer.

            Completely agree re dubbing.

            Yeah, there’d have to be a lot of Irish speakers then. On the other hand given how Irish in Ireland moved to a much more marginal status perhaps it is no surprise that it didn’t last too long in the US.


            • Well Beto O’Rourke’s bid for the Senate and then the Democratic nomination has taught me that a lot of people in parts of The US apparently find Spanish speaking Irish Americans to be almost as exotic and enigmatic as the character in Heinlein’s “Stranger and in a Strange Land”. I’ve been in that particular “club” most of my life and had no inkling of that!! Maybe that’s why my Midwestern colleagues at one job seemed to consider me such an “out there” kind of character. At the time I chalked it up to my politics 😏

              I started learning Spanish at the age of ten, partly as a survival strategy for the “LDS vs. non-LDS” that pervaded every aspect of the community I largely grew up in. Plus, I was determined to buck the default-expectation that I was going to be a monolingual- I actually decided at ten that since “Poor Old Abe” (Lincoln) had faced much greater barriers to education than me, that I had no excuse and being a monolingual would be a gigantic badge of shame.

              Nowadays in the US Spanish is “King” when it comes to foreign language study. Of course, people study other tongues. However, here’s the deal. If you look at native born American citizens who have ever really gotten serious or made any real headway with a foreign language other than Spanish the large majority of those Obama’s age or younger, have also studied Spanish at some point. Indeed, many were/are a lot more serious about actually learning to speak Spanish than the legions of students enrolling in Spanish or French classes with no intention of going beyond the bare minimum to meet a requirement. (I know this phenomena exists in Ireland and Britain too!)

              Language history in the US is a crazier “beast” than commonly recognized by Americans and certainly by Europeans. People have been forecasting the imminent demise of Cajun French since the 1820’s, but it’s still alive and kicking in the Bayous. Cherokee and Navajo have survived beyond expectations. Whereas German was a well established language in both colonial America and the USA for generations. During the Article of Confederation era there was a serious proposal to make German the official language of the new country. In 1900 almost 20% of native born US citizens spoke German as their mother tongue (many of those had German speaking relatives in the area before The American Revolution). Yet German was all but eradicated during WWI. Few people were killed, but Germans Americans were basically forced to give up their language in an amazingly short period of time.

              As for IRish speakers? Your logic is sound, but I honestly don’t know!!


  5. When it comes to Steampunk, it’s all been down hill since The Difference Engine. Hasn’t every single attempt at TV/Movie implementation been just awful or have I missed a gem somewhere?

    Liked by 1 person

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