culture, genetics, history

Celtic myths: It’s all in the genes

I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a Celt. And being of mixed English-Irish heritage, I’d have said I was least partially entitled to lay claim to such a title.

So it seems a shame that, in some ways, the whole “Celtic” thing appears to be a bit of a romantic myth. Let me explain: according to the British Museum’s rather good latest exhibition entitled “Celts: art and identity”, which I popped along to see with my parents a couple of weekends ago, this ancient people were not so much a single group inhabiting broad swathes of Europe from the Atlantic to the Black Sea.

British Museum
British Museum

They were instead more a bunch of individual local communities and tribal clusters, connected by similar worldviews, values, languages and artwork, but also quite distinct from each other. As the Celtic culture was predominantly an oral one though, they left no written records to elucidate or explain themselves.

And so the vacuum was filled by others, notably the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus who has shaped our beliefs about these so-called “barbarians” ever since through the rather superior, “civilised” Mediterranean opinions that he espoused in the first century BC.

But he patently didn’t get them. Or their incredibly sophisticated, shape-shifting art forms, which, unlike classical, naturalist styles, hid animals and birds as well as multiple layers of symbolic meaning in their apparently simple abstract swirls. So it was a totally opposite way of looking at the world.

Interestingly though, Siculus, or any of the other Greeks or Romans knocking around at the time for that matter, didn’t ever explicitly refer to Britain or Ireland as the lands of the “Keltoi” or “Keltae”, roughly translated as the “hidden people” or “those who are different”.

The term seemed, in fact, to be applied mainly to the societies of central Europe and Gaul (France) – even though the “Celtic” moniker is now attributed exclusively to the indigenous cultures and traditions of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and, of course, Brittany in France as well as their various diasporas.

In fact, the name was only assigned to their collective languages as late as the 1700s in order to reflect their pre-Roman origins. But by the 19th century, the whole thing had morphed into a revival movement known as the “Celtic Twilight”, which drew on Celtic artistic and literary traditions and recast them in the form of a reimagined, romanticised Celtic past.

Over time, however, the word seems to have become increasingly true to its original meaning of “outsider”. And as such, it has been used widely as a tool to help the peoples it denoted affirm their difference to and independence from their dominant English and French neighbours, becoming in the process a hook to hang their increasingly confident national identities on. Which, depending on your viewpoint, is really no bad thing.

The power of genetics

Anyway, another area in which the Celtic myth comes into further question is in the field of genetics. According to a Wellcome Trust-funded study led by Oxford University over the course of 20 years and published in the journal Nature in March this year, there is simply no genetic basis for claiming the existence of a single “Celtic” group in the UK or Northern Ireland.

In fact, amazingly, inhabitants of the so-called Celtic regions are among the most genetically different from each other when compared with other groups from the British Isles. This is likely because people from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the like diverged over time to form separate genetic clusters – a finding that provides a scientific basis for the idea of regional identity for the first time.

And one which also appears to support the opinion that the Celtic thing these days really has more to do with traditions and culture than it has to do with DNA or race per se.

But that is not to say that certain genetic remnants don’t still remain. Take red hair, for example, which is definitely usually considered a Celtic trait. And interestingly, it is among the Irish that you’re more likely to find a redhead than anywhere else in the world – indeed they account for up to 30% of the population.

Red-haired girl
Red-haired girl

Next come the Scottish at up to 25%, followed by the Welsh at up to 15%. But because red locks are the product of a recessive gene, both parents need to bear it in order to produce a flame-haired baby. So lots more people carry it rather than show it.

Another much more unpleasant hereditary condition though, and one that is even nicknamed the “Celtic disease” is haemochromatosis. This disorder, also caused by a recessive gene, leads the body to store too much iron, which is then deposited on vital organs such as the heart, liver or pancreas and, over time, prevents them from working effectively.

Over the course of years, this situation leads to an iron overload, which can prove fatal. But in the interim, it generates symptoms that are unlikely to become apparent before middle age and that can make it tricky to see a direct link. These include low energy levels, stomach or abdominal pains, arthritis and depression. In reality though, the only reliable way to find out if you’ve got the condition really is to have a blood test.

Meanwhile, although, as its nickname suggests, haemochromatosis is most commonly found among people of the so-called Celtic nations, it is – rather unfortunately for me and my ilk – by far the most widespread among the Irish, and particularly those from the west of the country.

While across Europe as a whole, between one in 300 to 400 have the offending DNA, the figure jumps to a huge one in 83 in Ireland – with a horrendous one in five people being carriers. So when folk say to you ‘it’s all in the genes’, all you can do is hope to God that, in this case at least, it simply isn’t.

Manchester, regeneration

Manchester: Plus ca change

I love Manchester. And I can say that with at least some authority as I lived there for nine glorious months in the late 1980s at the height of the infamous “Madchester” era.

At that point, it was impossible to go into a shop or pub without being deafened by the latest anthem from the Stone Roses or Happy Mondays. Or without tripping over baggy jeans and tie-dye tops, particularly in that indie shopping mecca, Afflecks Palace, located in the now bohemian, but formerly scruffy, so-called Northern Quarter.


And it’s still there in all its glory, thankfully. All vinyl record stalls and alternative clothes stores, piercing and tattoo parlours strung out over the three scuffed floors that betray its department store heritage – although presumably the esteemed owners of the old Affleck & Brown wouldn’t really recognise it these days. Or get the perverse hipster charm of novelties such as the Black Milk Cereal Café bursting with sugar-laden breakfast treats.

Anyway, to get back to the point, most of my Manc friends in the late 1980s were gay. Which meant that the majority of my going-out-of-an-evening exploits were focused on the Canal Street area of town – although in those days, it was all about dark and dingy pubs around Princess and Sackville Street near China Town

Which, it must be said, stands in stark contrast to the bright and airy chic of today’s Gay Village canal-side bars – something that’s probably really quite symbolic of the change in public attitudes to all things homosexual, and not just in Manchester.

But whatever the truth of it and despite my focus elsewhere, I’m pleased to say that I still managed to make it to that most iconic of nightclub/music venues, the Hacienda, which was just down the road. And I really loved the urban warehouse style of the place too, with its exposed brickwork and police-no-entry barrier tape plastered everywhere – it may all be a bit clichéd now, but it was definitely new and exciting then.

But how Manchester has changed, and not just a bit, each time I’ve been back. I know it’s all been said before but every time I visit, I’m truly amazed by the continuing transformation.

Because it’s been a city in transition for the last 20 years – since 1996, in fact, when the IRA set off the UK’s largest peace-time bomb in a van in the city centre’s Corporation Street, injuring 212 people and causing £411 million-worth of damage in the process.


But despite the tragedy, Manchester has never looked back. When the regeneration money came pouring in from the private sector and Europe, it grabbed the chance to reinvent itself, almost beyond recognition.

And interestingly, culture and the arts have played a central role – the pocket-sized Victorian-style Cornerhouse cinema and visual arts centre on Oxford Road has, for one, just transmuted into a huge £25 million futuristic exhibition, theatre and film complex called Home.


Also waiting in the wings is the Factory, described by Chancellor George Osborne in his autumn statement, as a “large-scale, ultra-flexible arts space”, to the creation of which he dedicated a healthy £78 million.

Scheduled to rise on the site of the former Granada TV studios and named in honour of Manchester’s music mogul Tony Wilson, it’ll provide a permanent home to the city’s biennial International Festival of performing and visual arts as well as performances of all kinds throughout the year.

In fact, within 10 years, the centre is expected to create as many as 2,300 full-time jobs and to add a huge £134 million to the city’s economy.

So the theme, it seems, is very much one of renewal. While some places like Albert Square with its Victorian Gothic grandeur and the Pantheon-inspired Central Library haven’t changed a bit, other downtown areas have morphed considerably.

Today Manchester is rather more about steel-and-glass skyscrapers, outdoor cafes and shiny new trams than grubby, red-brick edifices, dank, dingy towpaths and greasy spoons – although, to be fair, lots of the old classics are still there where I left them. You just have to strain a bit harder to see them.

But despite the metamorphosis, Manchester still feels the same at heart. The imposing warehouses may have turned into trendy city centre flats and the smoky pubs into fashionable bars, but the people with their wry humour and down-to-earth manner are still as friendly as ever.

Northern Powerhouse

But it does make you wonder somewhat just what impact the much-feted Northern Powerhouse notion will have on the place.

A concept cooked up by the Chancellor with the encouragement of Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester City Council, the idea, on the face of it, is about rebalancing the national economy in order to mitigate London’s dominance – although recent research would appear to indicate that investment to this end is still “heavily biased” in favour of the capital.

But in reality, it seems to be more about supporting the town and its environs to become the UK’s second city behind London. Or at least the capital of the north – much to the disgruntlement of the town’s notoriously independent and very distinct northern neighbours – wealthy Yorkshire, in particular. And Birmingham, of course, which currently claims the number two slot for itself.

Anyway, a key element of the landmark £1 billion devolution settlement for Manchester involved greater powers over house-building, planning, skills development and health in return for electing a local mayor by spring 2017 – with hints that other northern areas might be allowed to follow suit if they behaved themselves and found themselves a mayor too.

Just as important was the implementation of a so-called Northern Transport Strategy in order to boost economic development across the wider region after years of underinvestment. But the Strategy, which was intended to slash journey times between major northern cities by means of a high-speed rail infrastructure, has now been delayed indefinitely.

Which makes it’s all a bit unclear what’s going to happen next really. Certainly people locally seem to have little belief that things will change much, taking a “who-knows’ and “we’ve-heard-it-all-before” stance.

But despite it’s glitzy make-over, you don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to see that Manchester still has its challenges.


For instance, at 80, it has the lowest female life expectancy in England and Wales, more than six years behind the front-runners. The city’s child protection activities were deemed inadequate by schools watchdog Ofsted lately, while deprived areas such as the infamous but regenerating Moss Side, where I lived for a while, still suffers child poverty rates of 59%.

So it seems that the city does still need some support, just in other ways too. Because as far as I can see, it’ll take more than promises of devolution and a bit of fancy building work to really solve its post-industrial problems.