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APRIL 13, 1998: 

The Celts

D: David Richardson (1985) CBS Fox

For a moment during Part 5 of the long and winding six-part, three-video series The Celts, the world seems to stand still. It's when the camera drops below the surface of the water on a resevoir in Wales and reveals the murky images of a ghost village. Like a life-size aquarium, the camera pans across water-crumbled archways, houses, churches, a graveyard, and other signs of past life framed in muddy liquid. This Welsh village, it is noted, was deliberately flooded to create a resevoir for another village -- in England. Thus, the suppression of the Celtic culture that began when the Romans invaded Britian and continues into the troubles in Northern Ireland finds a metaphor in these reverent frames of a political Atlantis.

The Celts series was produced for BBC in the mid-Eighties, and later shown on The Learning Channel. Its 1998 release on home video coincided with St. Patrick's Day, the most recognized Gaelic holiday and arguably one of the most misunderstood. A deeply religious symbol but a cultural hot potato, St. Patrick is both saviour and enemy to Ireland; there is one growing school of thought that translates the "snakes" he drove out of Ireland as being Celtic gods, goddesses, and pagan beliefs. Even if you love St. Paddy, the Amercian celebration of this holiday is symbolized more by green beer and green plastic bowler hats than any real connection to its origin.

Truthfully, I didn't think St. Patrick was much of a reason to trot out The Celts, so I waited for another milestone, Scotland's Tartan Day. Tartan Day is observed on April 16, the anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, when Scotland's Jacobite armies were slaughtered by English troops in Bonnie Prince Charlie's attempt to take back the throne for the Stuarts. Like the submersion of the village in Wales or the suppression of the Gaelic languages of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland up until a few decades ago, Culloden is also a metaphor for the suppression of Celtic culture and one more true to the indomitable Celtic spirit. For last year's column on Tartan Day, I reviewed Braveheart, Rob Roy, and even a few Scottish movies where men didn't wear kilts. Having sat through all 330 minutes of The Celts twice (that's five hours and 50 minutes of narration), it's an understatement to say there is much more to the race than kilts, leprechauns, and Stonehenge.

Artistic rendering of the graves found at Hallstatt, Austria, among the most ancient evidence of Celtic culture.

No wonder -- the very definition of "Celt" is questionable. Its contemporary perception is confined largely to the native races of the British Isles but Part 1 of The Celts:The Man With the Golden Shoes begins in the cradle of Celtic civilization, Hallstatt, Austria. From there, it traces their nomadic lifestyle through the Balkans, across Western Europe, and, in Part 2, The Birth of Nations, into Britian. The remote and forbidding terrains of Scotland and Wales were contributing factors in the preservation of the culture that developed when the tribes took root, keeping residents safe from invaders and providing infinite opportunity for strongholds of belief.

With the settling of the Celts across Britian rose a spirituality that has become synonymous with the culture. In Part 3, Once Upon a Time, the focus turns to nature and animals, and how they symbolized faith; Part 4's They Paint Horses, Don't They? explores the more familar and long-lasting influence of the Celts through literature and the arts. It's only at this point in The Celts that I became comfortable with the chummy narrative of the series. An unidentified narrator has been onscreen throughout the show, scrolling with monks, waving away smoke at druid rituals, walking amongst a typical Celtic village, and is the unseen voyeur at what seems to be a pagan rave, even though the post-punk look screams mid-Eighties. Moreover, there's a vaguely self-righteous tone to the BBC production that seems most ironic when focused on the near-obliteration of Welsh culture and the revival of Bretonic culture in light of fighting in Northern Ireland and Scots' fight for independence and home rule.

As the last two segments of The Celts -- The Final Conflict and The Legacy -- casts its 20th-century light over more modern manifestations of the Celts, the images and theories are intriguing. Is it possible that rock & roll was powerful enough a force in the Sixties to make the youth of Britian turn their backs forever on the old ways? Rock & roll doubtless had a significant effect on kids, but the eternal search for meaning in life often leads -- as childhood grows into adulthood -- back to where we came from, so that the anarchy of the dance floor may be more closely connected to religious ritual than we realize. Another speculation is that the Celtic war cry noted by the Romans manifested itself centuries later as the rebel yell of the Confederates, an army whose military m.o. seemed be directly patterned on the Celts. And so goes history, repeating itself, revising itself. With its ethereal soundtrack scored by Enya, The Celts seems to be as much an attempt to make peace with the past as to inform the present. In just under six hours. -- Margaret Moser

The Battlefield Band

Rain, Hail or Shine

Temple Records CD-ROM (PC only)

If it's true that most people learn history from the screen, CD-ROMS may yet have a future. The Battlefield Band, a Scottish quartet who has already clocked almost 30 years performing, has no hesitation about using the most modern of technologies to preserve the past. Longtime Battlefield fans will find in Rain, Hail, or Shine 46 minutes of doggedly traditional Scottish music with a pronounced irreverence, a bit like finding the perfect pint of Belhaven when you think you're gonna get Bud. After kicking in with a three-song medley, BB vocalist Davey Steele weaves his Highland magic on "Heave Ya Ho," leading the way through airs, reels, and ballads ("Wee Michael's March," "The Lass o' Glencoe," "Twenty Pounds of Gin") so evocative you can squint at bluebonnets and pretend they're heather. The thing is, while most of us Southerners know that the only joke about the accordion is that Yankees who make fun of it have never been to a good, belly-rubbin' zydeco dance, bagpipes are still a big source of humor. Not that I care, I'll use any excuse to play the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards or Black Watch or even the Braveheart soundtrack, so bless the Battlefield Band. The bonus for PC CD-ROM players is that while the wistful tinwhistle of "Magheracloone" may move you to tears, you can reach for a tissue as you click your way through an audio-visual history of the band while weeping. It comes in eight short segments, which is good because the audio segments don't offer an easy way out or fast-forward. Neither does Rain display razzle-dazzle graphics but the visuals depicted with the oral recitation of the band's determination through an impressive number of personnel changes over three decades has a familiar ring. The three CD-ROM-only tracks are a delightful bonus from a criminally overlooked band, but it still pisses me off that Mac users can't make use of it. -- Margaret Moser

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