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The pride of the Bretons is unswerving. Every year the modest seaside town of Lorient – which usually reflects in size, scruffiness, amount of watering holes and bald heads a typical British resort such as Blackpool or Llandudno – is inflicted with a ten day Celtic extravaganza which overturns it. The cold, clinical backdrop of white 1950’s buildings is splashed with strings of bunting, posters, fairground rides, food stands, pop-up stages and barrels of cider.
Sleepy Lorient is jolted awake by the sudden influx of bands, performers, stall-owners and 700,000 spectators right from Scotland to Acadia. Each blink of its waking eyes sees another tent pop up, another stage crop up or another row of crèpe stands sprout up along the streets. Before she knows it she has become an intense epicentre of all things Celtic. A cacophony of traditions and sounds and cuisines chime together for ten days and ten nights. Like a great chorus of bagpipes, it takes a big deep breath on the 1st of August and plays triumphantly without coming up for air until the 10th.
Not only does the Interceltic Festival serve to defibrillate the little town of Lorient every year with a major cultural injection, but it also carves a solid place for Brittany on the map. Bretagne – an area with extremely strong regional pride – sees itself as unique and apart from the rest of France. Votes in favour of independence have often been significant. The festival presents a prime opportunity for the Bretons to showcase their region within the framework of other Celtic nations, therefore affirming their identity as something other than French. Alongside their Celtic brothers and sisters, including the Irish (whose Gaelic roots have been unbroken for centuries, since the Roman invasion never reached them), the Scottish (whose national pride lives on today through a heated push for independence) and the Cornish (who were recently granted minority status), Brittany can hold its head up high. ‘Celtic’ becomes a race in itself, an alliance of ancient peoples which is still very much alive today.
It is true that the Breton culture certainly distinguishes itself from the rest of France, and boastingly so. Their peculiarities are not restricted to their beloved dialect, of which they dine out on little phrases such as ‘demat’ (hello) and ‘yermat’ (cheers), nor their addiction to their own version of Coca-Cola ‘Breizh Cola’ which they claim is much better! But the differences go deeper; they are to be seen in the Breton manner and behaviour. Certainly difficult for me to adapt to, but equally so for the French members of the press team, was the almost superstitious, tribal ritual of faire des bises which involved kissing everyone you met on both cheeks. This may sound typically French, however, when you have to stand up to cordially receive every strange, hairy fat man who enters the press office as if you were family, this seemingly innocent, familial gesture turns rather arduous and results in beard-inflicted sores. A further quirk is the traditional ‘Fest Noz’ evenings which gather Bretons together to shuffle in unison to a repetitive Gaelic equivalent of rapping. I was astounded, and frankly quite encouraged, to see that all generations of Bretons still knew the steps to this group dance and would doggedly circle around together in interlocking spirals.
The press office where I was tucked away was a swirling backstage pool of interflowing nationalities. An endearing Scottish accent would suddenly morph into a concerto in Italian rattled off at top speed. Absorbing all this, I began to feel slightly out of place. Being a vraie English girl, it dawned on me that I had practically zero Celtic roots myself. Whilst the English language and a fair competence in French allowed me to communicate with most people present at the festival, this communication remained merely on the level of functionality. I did not belong to the tribe, nor could I relate to their culture. I was an inter-celtic medium, a translator, a go-between, but not a true participant.
By Maddie Kilminster, Chair of The Linguist
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham