Friday, 29 March 2013

Maritime and religious studies: 'Celtic Christianity' and the 'Titanic'



Donald E. Meek


There are times when extremes meet, and perhaps we can say that this observation applies to the subject of this lecture.  At first sight, it seems almost paradoxical that there can be a link between Columba and Captain Edward Smith.  Columba was the celebrated saint who crossed the short stretch of water between Ireland and Scotland in 563 AD and successfully made landfall in Iona, while Captain Edward Smith was Master of the White Star liner, 'Titanic', which failed to complete her much heralded maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in April 1912, and sank with the loss of 1,500 souls, following a spectacular collision with an iceberg.  The 'Titanic' was what we would call today 'state of the art' in terms of technology; she was the largest liner afloat at the time, and the most sumptuously furnished vessel of her age.  Columba's craft was 'state of the art' for its own time too, but it was no more than a coracle of wood and hide, and the obstacles which Columba had to face on his various sea journeys were not icebergs, but usually whales and other monsters of the deep. Partly because of his saintly power, Columba was able to avoid collisions with whales; but, in spite of his accumulation of many skills, and also his high rank as White Star's Senior Master, at the very pinnacle of his career, Captain Smith was unable to avoid his date with destiny on that starless night in the Atlantic, when icebergs and growlers were lying in wait for unwary and self-satisfied ocean liners.


Yet despite the centuries that separate them, and the very different circumstances of their lives, both Saint Columba and Captain Smith have captured the popular imagination to a remarkable degree over the last twenty years or so, that is, pre-eminently during the 1980s and the 1990s.   Indeed, both have become participants in popular myths which have produced a torrent of books, videos and kitsch of various kinds, as well as cults which have a very strongly religious component.  Numerous societies exist for 'Titantic' enthusiasts, who can replay the fateful encounter in all its riveting horror, and discuss the latest findings about the tragedy, while doting devotedly on the most recent artifacts dredged up from the Atlantic, where, in 1985, the last resting place of the 'Titanic' was discovered by the American explorer, Dr Robert D. Ballard.  They can view James Cameron's blockbuster film, 'Titanic', where the extraordinarily detailed replica of the ship and especially the reproduction of her last moments, in which we can see her breaking apart plate by plate, rivet by rivet,  make up for the very ordinary and uninspiring, if not somewhat tacky, plot.  The so-called 'Celtic Church' of Columba and his many saintly colleagues can be visited in Iona, where the last vestiges of his foundation are extracted from the earth by painstaking archaeologists.  Enthusiasts of the 'Celtic Church' can make new 'Celtic Churches' to allow them to participate in an imaginative reconstruction of Columba, his colleagues and his context.  Making and faking the 'Celtic Church' and even the 'Titanic' are among the great obsessions of our time.



It is, of course, easier to understand why Columba should have become such a powerful part of modern awareness, and especially religious awareness; he has a firm place in ecclesiastical history, and fits into the wider picture of 'Celtic Christianity', the term that is commonly used of the kind of Christianity which is associated, in the popular mind at least, with the Celtic areas of the British Isles.   But it is perhaps harder to comprehend how the 'Titanic' fits into a religious frame. Yet she has undoubtedly become a religious icon.  Indeed, she had hardly reached the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean before she was immortalised in sermons, preached in churches on both sides of the Atlantic, and her watery end became in all senses a religious text. It is, of course, a well-known part of the tale of the 'Titanic' that she sank as the band was allegedly playing the hymn, 'Nearer, my God, to thee'. But the 'Titanic' was more than text, and more than a hymn; she was an experience which somehow seemed to carry religious overtones, even a decade before she was built.  In retrospect, she represented no chance event, no horrid coincidence; she was not an accident merely waiting to happen, but an accident fated to happen, and foretold by the astute observers of contemporary naval aspirations.  Her building, as a gigantic display of human technological achievement, and her collision with something as natural and basic as an iceberg, were actually prophesied, or could be read retrospectively as having been prophesied.  The prophet, an American writer called Morgan Robertson, uttered his oracle as early as 1898, in a book entitled Futility, or the Wreck of the 'Titan'.  With astonishing prescience, Robertson described the mighty 'Titan' of his waking nightmares, in a paragraph which might almost have come out of the Official Enquiry which followed the sinking of the 'Titanic'.  Robertson wrote of the 'Titan':


'Unsinkable - indestructible, she carried as few boats as would satisfy the laws.  These, twenty-four in number, were securely covered and lashed down to their chocks on the upper deck, and if launched would hold five hundred people.  She carried no useless, cumbersome life-rafts; but - because law required it - each of the three thousand berths in the passengers', officers' and crew's quarters contained a cork jacket, while about twenty circular life-buoys were strewn along the rails.'


The claim that the real 'Titanic' of 1912 was 'unsinkable' was to haunt the minds of her builders and owners for many years, and the failure to provide an adequate number of lifeboats was to be identified as the main cause of such high loss of life.   My point, however, is that the prophetic element in the story of the 'Titanic' immediately gives her a religious aura, comparable with the auspicious beginning of Columba himself, and indeed the beginning of even greater religious figures.  Adomnan, Columba's seventh-century biographer, records that there was a 'marvellous prophecy' about Columba which was made by Mochta, a follower of St Patrick, who prophesied thus:


'In the last days of the world, a son will be born whose name Columba will become famous through all the provinces of the ocean's islands, and he will be a bright light in the last days of the world.'


We cannot, of course, be sure that Mochta's prophecy was not constructed after the event, but we do know that Morgan Robertson's prophetic vision of the ill-fated 'Titan' was written fourteen years before it was fulfilled.  I am not aware of any prophecies about the career of Captain Edward Smith, but it is undoubtedly the case that he reached his apogee in the tragedy.  Despite driving his ship at an astonishing 22 knots in an ice-field, despite ignoring ice-warnings sent by radio, he has gone down in history (in every sense) as 'the gallant Captain Smith', the exemplary commander of the finest ship of the Edwardian era.  His memorial, however, fails even to mention his great ship's name.

The main connections between the 'Titanic' and 'Celtic Christianity', between Captain Smith and St Columba, do not lie in the biographies, so to speak.  They lie in the perceptions that have been built around the events and the participants themselves by twentieth-century observers.  It is my own contention that the interest in both 'Celtic Christianity' and the 'Titanic' is symptomatic of certain needs in the human psyché; they both fulfil certain roles for present-day society, and have done so to great effect over the last twenty years.  They exemplify the making of modern myth.  By 'myth', I do not mean merely an 'untruthful story'; I am using the term 'myth' in the technical sense of a story or interpretation which gives meaning to events in the past, and may even function as an exemplar for present-day imitation.



In such a context, there are two 'Titanics'; there is the 'Titanic' of history, and the 'Titanic' of myth.   The sinking of the 'Titanic' was an historical fact, and the 'Titanic' existed in real life; but alongside the historical reality there is another 'Titanic', a 'Titanic' of the imagination, a 'Titanic' which exists in people's minds, a metaphorical 'Titanic' which sails onwards regardless of time and place, ever meeting its iceberg, and ever inspiring our admiration and our emulation, or serving as a grim warning against self-confidence and hubris.  Similarly, there is no need to doubt the existence of Columba, or of the Gaelic church of which he formed a part; but there is another Columba, whose rise to fame was boosted massively by the writing of his seventh-century biographer, Adomnán, and there is another church, 'Celtic', rather than Gaelic. Both the reconstructed Columba and his church are currently very much alive in the popular imagination, and show no sign of being displaced by other attractions.  These images, like the image of the 'Titanic', are constantly reborn, to exemplify virtues, to remind us of spiritual qualites that we must strive to possess for ourselves, to remind us of failures in contemporary life.   'Titanic' and 'Celtic Christianity', in the mythical sense, have become 'moral messages', rather than 'historical happenings'.


The 'moral message' of the 'Titanic' can be interpreted at various levels, but time does not permit me to explore them all.  'Titanic' represented so many things, or was retrospectively seen to represent so many things, that it would take a series of lectures, rather than a single lecture, to discuss them all.  Everyone with an axe to grind found in the ‘Titanic’ excellent iron for sharpening their tools to challenge the ills of society, ills which included the class conflict that was evident in the survival of more first-class passengers than steerage passengers; the ruthless competitiveness that built the great ship, and kept her sailing at a reckless 22 knots in the midst of icebergs (a folly sometimes ascribed to the presence on board of Bruce Ismay, the Managing Director of the White Star line); and the manner in which women were treated by men when it was necessary to abandon ship and take to the lifeboats.  It was wrily observed that somehow 'Votes for women', the great suffragette theme, had been transformed into 'Boats for women', and feminist apologists were not slow to point out that women had been condescendingly demeaned by the self-sacrifice of the men.


But, on balance, the myth of the 'Titanic' worked itself out on the side of bravery and heroism - and English bravery and English heroism at that.  The popular perception of the 'Titanic', certainly on this side of the Atlantic, is that she was pre-eminently an English ship, English in her building, English in her ownership, and English in the manner in which her crew and passengers responded to the desperate plight in which they found themselves.  This view of the 'Titanic' is splendidly represented in an English song current in West Sheffield, which Dr Ian Russell, Director of the Elphinstone Institute, collected from Charles Green in 1971 in the course of his field work for his thesis on 'Traditional Singing in West Sheffield, 1970-2'.  When I mentioned my interest in the modern 'Titanic' myth to Dr Russell, he kindly gave me a copy of the song.  Its three verses (excluding the chorus) will give an impression of how it approaches several of the most prominent popular debating points about the 'Titanic':

A big ship set out on its first maiden voyage,
The world gazed in wonder and pride.
Old England was proud of the ship and its crew,
Whose captain was trusted and tried.
The ship was a city of splendour and light,
Its rich and its poor side by side;
But when the blow came and the vessel went down,
Rich men and poor men like Englishmen died...

Titanic its name and Titanic its size,
As away o'er the waters she rolled,
Four days had gone by since she left the old land
With over two thousand on board;
And then came the crash in the dead of the night,
Yet none on that ship was dismayed.
They trusted the captain, they trusted the crew,
And even the women were not afraid.

Be British, the captain cried out from the bridge
And...British were they.
The women and children, the first for the boat,
And the sailors knew how to obey.
As long as old England sends ships oversea,
The deeds of that night she'll recall;
When rich men and poor men went down side by side,
When rank made no difference, for death levelled all...

These verses (apparently derived from F.V. St Clair's sheet music, 'The Ship that Will Never Return', published in 1912) reinforce the notion that  'Britannia rules the waves', and that brave English sailors manned the 'Titanic'.  They also reactivate a centuries-old accolade, namely that of 'heroic death', in which the manner of dying is more important than the context of death.  To 'be British' - the famous last words of Captain Smith - was to acknowledge the heroic values of the British race, for race was, and remains, part of the myth.


The 'Titanic' of myth is, indeed, very much a racial construct which aims to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and to secure the victory in terms of British values.  But the 'Titanic' of history does not conform comfortably to the myth.  In fact, the real 'Titanic' was built in Belfast, not in England (or specifically Liverpool, as many people still think), and her creation represented the high-water mark of Harland and Wolff's Belfast yard.  It is still possible to visit that yard, as I have done, to see the drawing office where she was designed and the spot where she was launched, and to stand in awe at the side of the Thompson dry-dock, which was built specifically to accommodate the great new liners, of which the 'Titanic' and her sister-ship, the 'Olympic', are perhaps the best known.  Belfast, and Ireland more generally, contributed not only the builders, but also many of the crew, who were thus by no means 'English'.  Stephen Cameron's book, Titanic: Belfast's Own, rescues the 'Titanic' from English clutches, and justly reclaims her for Ireland, pointing out that there 203 Ulstermen among her crew.   But does all this mean that she was Irish?  Was she even British?  The notion that the 'Titanic' was English-owned, or even British-owned, can be questioned, since it is very evident that the consortium which lay behind the White Star Line was heavily funded by American dollars.  As at least one writer has pointed out, all that was British about the White Star line was the appearance of control; through various mergers, the company was in effect owned by American interests, with the immensely wealthy businessman, J.Pierpont Morgan, at the heart of matters. The 'Titanic' was American in all but port of registration (Liverpool) and crew.  And the majority of those males on board on that fateful night were not British - but, if they behaved well, they could be given the honour of being 'British', or at least 'Anglo-Saxon'.


One could linger on such points, but what has been said is surely sufficient to point out the difference between the 'Titanic' of myth and the 'Titanic' of history.  It is, however,  worth noting that the heroic dimension of the 'Titanic' likewise belongs to the field of myth.  The deployment of such lifeboats as she had was, to say the least, hopelessly disorganised and chaotic, and many boats sailed away from the wreck with far less than their full capacity of people.  The myth of heroism, while it may be sustainable in some circumstances, acts as a disguising, and even a sublimating, element which turns a tragedy into a triumph.  It has been heightened by the nature of modern writing, including Walter Lord's splendid and justly famous book, A Night to Remember, first published in 1956, which has done much to stimulate interest in the 'Titanic'.  Lord's acknowledgements, at the end of the book, elevate the survivors to the level of veterans, who have somehow been purified and have attained to a higher level of being by the 'transcendent experience' of the sinking.   Lord wrote: 'It is almost as though, having come through this supreme ordeal, they easily surmounted everything else and are now growing old with calm, tranquil grace.'  This may have been true of some, perhaps even the majority, but it is not true of all; some who survived were deeply shocked by what they had experienced, and refused to talk about it at all, while at least one sailor, Fred Fleet, who was the lookout who saw the iceberg, and sent the fateful message to the bridge, committed suicide in Southampton in the mid-1960s.


There we must leave our discussion of 'Titanic', and turn briefly to 'Celtic Christianity'.  What, then, of 'Celtic Christianity' and Columba?   Christianity was well represented in the Celtic lands in the first millennium AD, and sustained by clergy, monasteries and churches.  It was a very demanding regime, or set of regimes, which put strong emphasis on devotion, obedience, and penance, and expected great self-denial on the part of the participants.  It set high standards for moral behaviour, and Columba is portrayed by Adomnán as catching and sentencing some of the worst criminals of his own day.  He prophesies death for several malefactors, and there is much evidence to show that other Celtic saints were no less strict in the pursuit of justice.  The death penalty was liberally handed out, with divine approval.  Modern writing on 'Celtic Christianity', however, presents a world of primitive simplicity and spiritual harmony which is very different from that which was occupied by Columba and his contemporaries.  Underlying the notion of 'Celtic Christianity' is the concept of an ecclesiastical and spiritual Arcadia, in which the protagonists are friendly to the environment, gentle to animals, tolerant of pagan practices, supportive of arts and crafts, and 'holistic' in their approach to body and soul.  This reading of the past, however, superimposes a set of aspirations which are broadly in tune with the desires of present-day society.  They are not to be found in a close reading of available historical sources; the Columba who is portrayed by Adomnán is by no means pagan-friendly, nor is he gentle to animals, some of which he is glad to kill by the power of his word.  In the popular presentation, the unacceptable aspects of the picture are filtered out, and replaced by softer hues, which conform to the expectations of an environmentally-protective society, anxious to show tolerance at many levels.  It is a society in pursuit, not of the 'Be British' values of Captain Smith's time, but of the 'Be inclusive' values of post-Thatcher Britain.

Despite its contemporary relevance, however, belief in a distinctive Celtic spirituality is not something that has suddenly emerged at the end of the twentieth century.  Its roots lie in the Romantic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which encouraged the reinvention of aspects of earlier Celtic society, including druids. This ceative approach to the past was greatly stimulated by James Macpherson (1736-96), the 'discoverer' (or in the opinion of some the 'forger') of the epic poems of Ossian, a legendary blind poet who celebrated the deeds of noble Gaelic heroes located in Scotland in the third century AD.   Macpherson's work influenced Ernest Renan (1823-92), a native of Brittany and one of the greatest Orientalist scholars of his time. Renan, who rejected Roman Catholic orthodoxy, was the first to perceive a distinctive form of Christianity within the Celtic areas as a whole; Renan emphasised the indigenous purity of Christianity in these areas, stressing that they had received 'Celtic Christianity' (as he called it) independently of Rome, and arguing that this form of Christianity had been much kinder to paganism than western Roman Christianity.  Renan's views were absorbed by Matthew Arnold (1822-88), who contended that a Celtic element was to be found in the spiritual make-up of the English people, and that it was this which differentiated them from the wider body of Germanic culture. Renan and Arnold shaped the perspectives through which scholars and collectors of folklore in the Celtic countries interpreted their material in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  One such collector was Alexander Carmichael, who was active in the Outer Hebrides in the second half of the nineteenth century, and gathered the famous compendium of hymns and prayers called Carmina Gadelica, which he began to publish in 1900.  This compendium lies at the heart of popular presentations of 'Celtic Christianity'.


The perception of a distinctive form of 'Celtic Christianity' formed a quiet substream in the twentieth century, breaking the surface in the works of occasional romantic writers, but after 1960, and most noticeably in the 1980s and 1990s, 'Celtic Christianity' became a very popular alternative form of belief. Its emergence coincided with the growth from about 1980 of a pagan brand of 'Celtic spirituality' drawing some of its power from the regular commemoration of Celtic festivals at such 'druidic' locations as Stonehenge. Its appearance reflected not only widespread disillusionment with existing expressions of the faith, but also the influence of religious pluralism and New Age interest in the environment and 'lost' civilisations. This encouraged the rediscovery and uncritical study of the works of nineteenth-century romantic ideologists, editors and writers. The result was the invention of a postmodern religious primitivism, extolling the faith of the Celtic Fringe as a spiritual panacea, capable of providing answers to most, if not all, the contemporary dilemmas of a techologically advanced society.  Pilgrimages to sacred sites associated with Celtic saints, such as Iona and Lindisfarne, on the western and eastern edges of Britain respectively, strengthened popular devotion, and appealed particularly strongly to those interested in heritage ventures and cultural tourism.


'Celtic Christianity', as popularly promoted since Renan's time, is thus a highly adaptable myth which responds to the needs of its social context, as most myths, including that of the 'Titanic', tend to do. Since 1980 it has been reconstructed as a contemporary spirituality which compensates for the perceived failures of orthodox Christianity, and meets the needs of present-day society, including pre-eminently environmental concerns.  The 'Celts', once despised by core and mainstream British society as backward barbarians, are now seen to possess those spiritually and politically correct virtues which contemporary British society lacks. Consequently the 'Celts' are very much in vogue, especially among disillusioned Anglicans, Roman Catholics and expatriate Irish and Scots in the USA.  If we can judge by the never-ending spate of publications, the cry is not now 'Be British', coming from the bridge of the 'Titanic' as she slips below the waves; rather, the cry is 'Be Celtic', which comes from the reconstructed rowing-bench of Columba's fragile coracle, which seems to be strong enough to ride out even the most ferocious tempests. But 'being Celtic' is certainly not to be confused with speaking a Celtic language; rather, it is code for 'recovering our roots, looking after the environment, and being socially concerned'.   The Celts thus portrayed are not the Celts of history, for whom these various issues were of little significance, but the Celts of myth; Celts as wished for, rather than Celts as they really were.


It is interesting that the two myths, the 'Titanic' and the new, spiritual 'Celts', should have appeared so potently in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  As I said at the outset, they seem to be at opposite extremes from one another.  Yet it could also be argued that they are complementary, and that they both show signs of contemporary adaptation. The earlier interpretation of the myth of the 'Titanic', emphasising heroism and devotion to duty, appears to have held ground until 1985, when Robert Ballard discovered the wreck on the floor of the Atlantic, and wrote another chapter in the history of underwater exploration. Ballard’s discovery was deeply indebted to technological development, and it was in a sense another celebration of human achievement.  Small robotic craft were able to go down to the wreck of the 'Titanic', and to employ what is now called 'telepresence technology' to provide a guided tour of the wreck by means of video cameras.  However, what is seen through the eyes of these spectacular manned submersibles, like 'Alvin' and his kind, which send their probes off to look through silted doors and peer through gloomy, glassless portholes, is hardly a celebration of human achievement. The endless pictures reveal a devastated wreck-site and debris field, showing the 'Titanic', broken into two major sections,  strewn across the ocean floor.  It is a terrifying sight, which makes nonsense of earlier heroic interpretations and rules out celebrations.  The wreck can never be raised.  The once-majestic liner, the pride of Belfast, the gem of Anglo-Saxon engineering, is in ruins.  Old-style heroism, with a stiff upper lip and an unflinching devotion to duty, is dead.

Perhaps the garish sea-bed pictures of the briefly triumphant White Star liner have caused the myth of the ‘Titanic’ to change course, and to run in another direction. Nowadays it induces, not admiration for the great builders of the past, but a fear of the destructive potential of unchecked technological advance as we go into the future.  Myths are being remade as a result.  James Cameron's film, 'Titanic', seems to me to be partly about the new cult of 'inclusivism', since the hero and heroine are able to cross the class barriers, and to do so with a postmodern disregard for decorum. Jack, the working-class, steerage passenger, can be a real hero too, and he can show much deeper, more realistic emotions than his rival for Rose.   The tragedy of the 'Titanic', however, destroys real emotion, real love, real feelings.  Jack's bravery does not in any way spare him from death by drowning at the end.



The message from the wreck of the 'Titanic' in the depths of the ocean, as constructed by James Cameron, is capable of more than one interpretation, but the overall thrust seems clear enough.   The Anglo-Saxons, with all their imperial grand designs and snooty ways, appear to have messed it all up, in their headlong rush for supremacy on the seas.  The 'Titanic' now stands, not for the bravery of the upper classes, but for the tragedy and collective disaster that they have inflicted upon others.   To avoid repeat performances, and to put things together again, we ought to set aside the old barriers.  The modern myth of the 'Celts' heads in much the same direction. According to this paradigm, the 'Celts' supposedly encouraged simplicity, tolerance, and spiritual awareness, and had a slower approach to life, enjoying a saintly existence out there on the remote Celtic Fringe.  They were happier to travel quietly in frail coracles than to surge along competititvely in huge ocean-liners.  Like Jack in the 'Titanic' film, they have been rehabilitated, and given centre stage, as emotional, spiritual beings.  Both myths, the ‘Titanic’on the one hand and 'Celtic Christianity' on the other, thus seem to respond to the spirit of the age.  In their contemporary manifestations, both myths are stimulated by the great hopes and great fears that are awakened in all of us at the beginning of the new millennium.  Perhaps the 'Titanic' is Irish, and naturally 'Celtic', after all.  If so, extremes do meet.


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