March 28, 2020

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Celtic influence on Canada considered

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/10/2015 (1610 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Like a latter-day Pierre Berton, Ken McGoogan would like history to be fun.

Celtic Lightning is his latest effort at carving a niche for himself in the field of "pop" history, bringing a delectable dish of thoughts and anecdotes and just enough facts to make us feel a little wiser.

At the outset McGoogan notes "I use the word 'Celtic' in its popular sense, to embrace all things Scottish and Irish." He explains Canada (with the exception of Quebec) "is built upon values that arrived with the Scottish and the Irish. [This book] highlights five of those as foundational: independence, democracy, pluralism, audacity and perseverance."

He goes on: "Celtic Lightning has five parts, one for each bedrock value. Each part focuses on half a dozen pivotal figures, Scottish and Irish role models who profoundly influenced those around them, and also those who came after." He sees this as a kind of "cultural genealogy."

Two pivotal figures on whom McGoogan concentrates are Canada's first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, a Scottish Protestant, and politician Thomas D'Arcy McGee, an Irish Catholic. Their joining forces in Canada's fledgling House of Commons in 1863 set in motion the process that led to Confederation. It's easy to see their influence on Canadian democracy.

Many of the others cited seem to be arbitrary choices. While it's easy to accept Irish writer James Joyce as an excellent proponent of audacity, or Oscar Wilde as a fine poster boy for pluralism, it's rather fanciful to suggest these two had a direct effect on Canada. James Boswell is probably literature's most famous biographer, but can he be seen as the inspiration for all Canadian biographers?

Perhaps most questionable is the book's subtitle, How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation. This implies evidence will be shown the 30 people profiled had the Canada we know and love in mind. Macdonald and McGee surely, but William Butler Yeats? Robert Louis Stevenson?

The book, however, is a good read; perhaps the author can be forgiven for his attempt to make such a disparate group fit his thesis. Anyone who has attended a Robbie Burns dinner in Winnipeg or seen the Burns statue here will welcome his inclusion. He may not be a "creator" of Canada, but he has certainly captured Canadians' imaginations over the years.

McGoogan gives us a lot of delightful tidbits The stories about Boswell in particular are hilarious.

The book includes more than 60 photographs, most new and taken by McGoogan's wife Sheena, who accompanied him on his many visits to Scotland and Ireland. Some of the historical places with which the 30 individuals are associated were visited by the McGoogans; their first-hand looks at landscapes and buildings give the book a touch of travelogue.

McGoogan credits British author Richard Dawkins for the "cultural genealogy" idea that pervades the thinking behind Celtic Lightning. But the engaging prose, which made books like Lady Franklin's Revenge (about the amazing woman behind explorer John Franklin) so readable, is McGoogan's own, enlightening as it entertains.


Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer who once gave the "Immortal Memory" speech at a local Robbie Burns dinner.


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