Celtic Proximity: 10 Years of the Québec City Celtic Festival

Celtic Proximity: 10 Years of the Québec City Celtic Festival

LiQ_Mag_July_2015_CoverThis article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Anna Merovic

The Québec City Celtic Festival began 10 years ago with a shoestring budget and a vision. Guy Morisset, founder and current chairman of the festival, had an ambitious goal: to expand how Québécois thought of their social and cultural origins. He wanted us to think of ourselves not just as Latin, but also as Celtic.

Celtic peoples have lived in northern and eastern Europe for thousands of years. Archeological evidence shows that during the early Iron Age, Celtic influence spread from Portugal to the Balkans, and from the Alps to the northernmost islands of what is today Great Britain.

The earliest historical accounts of the Celts were written by the Romans, whose empire extended into Celtic territories after 50 BC. Today, the term “Celtic” is most commonly applied to peoples living in areas where Roman influence was historically minimal – Ireland, Scotland, and certain areas of northern France, Spain and Portugal. In these areas, Celtic cultural origins still have a strong influence.

Many Québécois would associate Celtic heritage with Brittany, or with Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, or the Isle of Man. If some view it as an immigrant culture that grafted onto the French reality of Québec’s historical origins, Morisset says they’ve missed a key part of the picture: since most early French settlers to the area came from northern France, they themselves were also Celtic. Celtic culture, he argues, isn’t a foreign addition to Québécois identity – it’s an integral part of it.

This idea of internalizing Celtic culture has led the festival to adopt a fascinating proximity to those who take part. It wouldn’t be quite accurate to refer to festival-goers as spectators; they are more like participants. Whether it’s in workshops, sports, music, or food-and-drink events, participants are very much part of the festival experience.

Expanding a festival from a small community party into a major urban event is no easy task. Morisset describes the Celtic Festival’s approach as similar to a consumer electronics show: bring new ideas to consumers, launch an idea and see if it takes. Unsuccessful events are retooled, reworked, or abandoned, while successful events grow and grow. It’s easy to expand successful events, Morisset says, because they energize volunteers as well as participants.

Morisset points to the festival’s approach to sport as an example. The first year the festival added sport to its events, a single competitor demonstrated traditional Highland Games sports. Essentially a brawnier, more rugged form of track and field, Highland Games sports usually involve tests of strength like the sheaf toss (throwing a bale of hay as high as possible), the stone put (like shot put, but with a rough, unshaped stone), and the iconic caber toss, in which a 20-foot tree trunk is thrown end over end, with the toss judged on distance and accuracy.LiQ_Mag_Sub_Banner

Visitors to the first Highland Games held at Quebec City’s Celtic Festival were able to try the caber toss themselves, using a much smaller, safer tree trunk. The following year, half a dozen Highland Games athletes from Atlantic Canada and Ontario held a competition in front of hundreds of spectators. The year after that, festival organizers dedicated two separate sites to athletic events held over a two-day period.

Morisset says the festival’s goal is always to show how similar Celtic cultural practices are to Québec’s traditions. He points out that Québec has a well-established and respected ‘strong-man’ tradition that mirrors those of Celtic nations, but the similarities don’t end there. Music is often the rallying point of people in any culture. Anyone with an ear for music will hear how close Québec’s traditional fiddle tunes are to Irish reels and jigs.

It’s unsurprising, then, that music has also become a mainstay of the festival. Perhaps the best example of this, as well as the Celtic Festival’s proximity to the people, is the street ceilidh. The word ‘ceilidh’ (pronounced KAY-lee) is a Gaelic term meaning “house party.” Guests are expected to provide their own entertainment by bringing their musical instruments and dancing shoes.

During the street ceilidhs, a stage is set up on Rue St-Jean. Many musicians participating in the festival are invited to perform. The festival asks performers to change their performer-oriented mindset and to give place for the crowd to participate. Allie Mombourquette, a fiddle player from Cap Breton and long-time friend of the festival, says “If people do not dance, you are not a good ceilidh musician.”

And surprises occur. During last year’s street ceilidh, members of a local Irish dance troupe had heard about the event and showed up, completely unannounced, to spontaneously break into their traditional dances with nothing more than a knowing nod from Mombourquette, who happened to be onstage at the time. By the end of the night, dozens of onlookers were dancing in the street as musicians who barely knew each other hours before improvised sets and music.

While the Celtic Festival may not yet be on the same level as the Fêtes de la Nouvelle-France or the Festival d’été, its organizers now consider that they’re not that far from being in the same league. To Morisset, that means in addition to its cultural mission, the Celtic Festival has taken on a new role as a revenue generator for the city. The festival has begun drawing people from across northeastern North America, and an increasing number of participants plan weekends or vacations around the festival.

Despite this growth, the festival remains true to its original mission. No matter how big the festival becomes, the organizers want it to keep its proximity to participants and encourage Québécois to recognize and value this Celtic heritage.

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