Celtic Lightning

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Title: Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation
Published by: HarperCollins Canada, Patrick Crean Editions
Release Date: 2015


With Celtic Lightning, Ken McGoogan plunges into the perpetual debate about Canadian roots and identity: who do we think we are? He argues that Canadians have never investigated the demographic reality that informs this book -- the fact that more than nine million Canadians claim Scottish or Irish heritage. Did the ancestors of more than one quarter of our population arrive without cultural baggage? No history, no values, no vision? Impossible.

McGoogan writes that, to understand who we are and where we are going, Canadians must look to cultural genealogy. He builds on the work of Richard Dawkins, who contends that ideas and values (“memes”) can be transmitted from one generation to another. Scottish and Irish immigrants arrived in Canada with values they had learned from their forebears. And they did so early enough, and in sufficient numbers, to shape an emerging Canadian nation.

McGoogan highlights five of the values they imported as foundational: independence, democracy, pluralism, audacity, and perseverance. He shows that these values are thriving in contemporary Canada, and traces their evolution through the lives of thirty prominent individuals -- heroes, rebels, poets, inventors, explorers, pirate queens -- who played formative roles in the histories of Scotland and Ireland.

In the 19th century, two charged traditions came together in Canada. That reconnection, Scottish with Irish, sparked Celtic lightning . . . and gave rise to a Canadian nation.


“[McGoogan] describes Celtic Lightning as “cultural genealogy,” an exploration of the values and ideas that Scottish and Irish emigrants took with them from their homelands. He zeroes in on five inherited “bedrock” values that he believes form the foundation of modern Canada – audacity, independence, perseverance, democracy and pluralism. The result is an engaging mixture of history, memoir and travelogue as McGoogan explores his own Scots-Irish roots and visits historic sites across Ireland and Scotland.”
DEAN JOBB, The Scotsman

“[The challenge] is to blend the two strands of history, Irish and Scottish. This, he achieves brilliantly. . . . Celtic Lightning is engagingly personal. . . . The book marks another step in McGoogan’s impressive career.”
DOUGLAS GIBSON, Globe and Mail


“Ken McGoogan credits influence of Scotland, Ireland for what makes Canada” —Vancouver Sun, Sept. 25, 2015

In his new book Celtic Lightning, Ken McGoogan looks at the influence of Scottish and Irish immigrants on the new Canadian nation.

Q: Why did you write Celtic Lightning?
A: I wrote this book to rectify an omission. I have always been intrigued by that perpetual Canadian question: Who do we think we are? Some have suggested that surviving against the wilderness created our national character. Others have argued that the French-English divide is our defining characteristic. We have heard that we are a Metis nation, and even that the idea of a national narrative is obsolete. What is missing from this discussion? The influence of cultural genealogy. We have failed to track our formative history across the Atlantic. More specifically, we have neglected the influence of the Scots and the Irish, who arrived early enough and in sufficient numbers to shape our Canadian nation.

Q: In making your case, you tell the stories of numerous individuals. What led you to this storytelling approach?
A: Back in the day, when I was taking my MFA in creative writing at UBC, and writing a novel as my thesis, I believed that fiction and non-fiction were radically different genres. In the 1990s, when I began publishing books, I kept the two separate, producing one non-fiction book and three novels. Meanwhile, I earned my daily bread as a literary journalist. With Fatal Passage (2001), I applied the craft I had learned from reviewing and writing fiction to a non-fiction narrative. Bingo! The book won a number of awards and inspired a docudrama. It registered in the real world, and continues to sell especially well in Canada and the U.K. Through my next five books, I built on what I had learned from writing that book. Today, I find myself specializing in narrative non-fiction.

While writing How the Scots Invented Canada (2010), and investigating my own ancestry (Scottish, Irish, French), I realized that an ocean is an artificial barrier. Thanks to digital technology, we readily cross any body of water and go back five generations, seven generations, nine. We trace our personal stories to people who lived centuries ago. Why don’t we do the same with our collective history? Instead of accepting the limitations of geography and sociology, why not follow the example of genealogy?

I found support for this in the work of Richard Dawkins. He argues that memes, or ideas and values, are transmitted from one person to another through time and across space. More than nine million Canadians claim Scottish or Irish heritage. In British Columbia, the numbers are typical: more than 20 per cent claim Scottish ancestry, and 15 per cent Irish. Did the ancestors of more than one-quarter of our population arrive without cultural baggage? No shared attitudes and beliefs, no common vision? Impossible. They gleaned their values from their leaders and heroes. And they brought them across the Atlantic to Canada.

Q: What are the values that have shaped this country?
A: In Celtic Lightning, I identify five foundational values: independence, democracy, pluralism, audacity and perseverance. I show how they flourish in this country, and trace their evolution in Scotland and Ireland through separate parades of heroes and heroines: Robert the Bruce and Theobald Wolfe Tone, Daniel O’Connell and Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift and James Boswell, Flora MacDonald and Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen. I argue that these figures rightly belong to Canadian history, and that the two parades come together in Canada.

Q: How do these foundational values make Canada different from, say, the United States?
A: Canada is more similar to the United States than to any other country, and that is partly because Irish and Scottish immigrants played a crucial role in shaping both. Other demographic factors account for many of the differences. English puritans had a much greater presence in the early U.S., and in that country today, we see far more Christian fundamentalism. The largest linguistic minority in the U.S. is Hispanic (17 per cent); in Canada, it is French Canadian (22 per cent). More differences. Also, slavery never took hold in Canada the way it did in the U.S.

But I am ranging outside the book. In Celtic Lightning, we encounter James Douglas, a.k.a. the Father of British Columbia, who embodied a distinctly Canadian ideal of pluralism: half-Scottish, half-West Indian, he married an aboriginal woman and battled American expansionism. And we meet that Irish-born visionary Thomas D’Arcy McGee, one of the most underrated Canadians of all time. After living in the U.S., he realized that Canada tolerated religious difference in a way that the larger country never would. He denounced the American doctrine of manifest destiny, and envisaged a separate Canadian province governed by aboriginal people. If McGee had lived, the story of Louis Riel would have played out differently. But he was assassinated by Fenians — Irish Republican Americans incapable of appreciating his greatness.