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Interview: Celine Kearney talks about Southern Celts


Celine Kearney is the granddaughter of three Irish-born grandparents, and one born to an immigrant Irish family in Central Otago. Born and brought up on the east coast of Otago, she has experience as a journalist and a researcher, and has taught English language to adults with migrant and refugee backgrounds, and international students for over thirty years. Celine talks to NZ Booklovers.


Tell us a little about Southern Celts.

Southern Celts is the artefact I created for my PhD narrative inquiry (2010- 2016), awarded through Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia. I explored how New Zealanders with Irish and Scottish backgrounds live out their cultural connections to the cultures of the northern hemisphere homelands here in Aotearoa New Zealand. Southern Celts is an exploration of cultural identity.To do that I created a book of 24 interviews and wrote a critical exegesis of the process, and the book.


What inspired you to write this book?

I've always been interested in my family’s Irish backgrounds. I did oral history interviews in of my parents, the children of Irish immigrants: my father Pat in the late 1990’s and my mother Eileen, in the early 2000’s. I grew up with multi-generational New Zealand Irish Catholic families in both the South and the North Islands, for which I am very grateful.


My interest in Irishness has been a constant throughout my life. Penelope Todd wrote in, ‘Digging for Spain: A Writer’s Journey,’(Longacre 2008), “I have my own past, my own capacities for work…my own temperament that I need to write out of…” I really resonated with that. Likewise, “Whatever others are writing I need to write what expresses me, in the style that I’m attracted to.” A writer by nature, and with earlier experience as a journalist, interviews were the obvious way for me to approach the inquiry.


What research was involved?

My PhD was practice-led so I was not constrained to one discipline. I was able to read widely. Two theories that underpin the inquiry are the construction of culture and identity, and narrative as method and text. Culture is not one thing, nor static, it changes; it is as much about the past as it is the present. Feminist theorist Christine Weedon wrote that culture is constantly reproduced in everyday life, education, the media, the arts, history, and the museum & heritage sectors. So, I looked for a range of people to interview. Identity too is multilayered. According to Canadian educationalists Patricia Clandinin and Michael Connelly, life is a lived and told story. Hence collecting interviews of people’s life experiences and telling my own story too.

I read books about the Northern European tribes, the Celts, written in various disciplines. As an applied linguist I was interested in the different branches of Celtic languages: one of them is Gaelic Languages: Irish, Scots Gaelic & Manx from the Isle of Man. The title Southern Celts: Southern for Southern Hemisphere, where Aotearoa is in the southwest Pacific; and Celts or more specifically Gaels for the Irish and the Scots. I also read New Zealand historians and researchers on the Irish and Scots in New Zealand.


Who did you decide to interview?

I chose people who had lived involvement with aspects of these cultures over time. For the academic artefact I travelled around New Zealand collecting 38 interviews, including 2 by email. I tried to make sure I had a range of experiences, from different parts of Aotearoa, because I think place is a significant influence on how you experience life. I tried for an equal number of women and men. These included business owners, speakers and teachers of Irish and Scots Gaelic, musicians, writers and poets, a documentary maker, a master carver, a sculptor, sports people, a Presbyterian minister, a Religious Studies teacher, a Treaty of Waitangi educator, and a museum archivist. When I contacted the interviewees about 10 years later, one chose not to be included, so there are 23 stories plus my family story in this collection.

I’m thankful to each person for sharing their story. These are the heart of this book. Six people have died since the first interviews (2010-2013): Rest in peace Keri Hulme, Evelyn Entwistle and Robert Field, Stewart McKnight, Robert Consedine and Malcolm Adams.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I write better in the very early hours, any time from 5 am to 7am, before the working day gets started. My mind is clearer then. This was my routine for my PhD work. Mary Egan Publishers agreed to publish the book in 2020. I did the work for this book mostly one day a week, my research day, an oasis in a hectic week of teaching English language and academic skills to adults. I contacted each of the interviewees to ask if they wished to be included in the published book, and if they had anything to add to their narratives. It took over a year of to-ing and fro-ing with interview narratives, by email and by post, to collect all the interview narratives, and to ensure that they accurately recorded the interviewees’ ideas and experience. Also, to collect photos. Some work in the weekends… but not much.


If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book name a song or two you would include?

Sinead O’Connor’s - The Parting Glass; Van Morrison’s - Stay a While with Your Own Ones; anyone singing The Fields of Athenry; Andy Stewart’s -The Scottish Soldier; Kenneth McKellar’s - Flower of Scotland; The Proclaimers’ - 500 Miles.


What did you enjoy most about writing Southern Celts?

Meeting and interviewing people. The reading for the PhD artefact, which included academic articles and books, fiction, and poetry. Time to sit and think and reflect, a precious opportunity that still has positive effects for me on many levels; mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I have a stronger sense of connection to my family members who have died.


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I’ve got Long Covid…so I haven’t had much energy to celebrate. I have really enjoyed sending a copy of the book to each interviewee though there a still a few to track down yet. I will enjoy launching the book at Toitu Settlers Museum in Dunedin…that will be my celebration…I think.


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I re-read Rebecca Macfie’s biography of Helen Kelly. I find this book is valuable not only because it records Helen’s brave life, ended too soon, but also because it chronicles the cruel outcomes for people as a consequence of the neoliberal policies that have wreaked havoc on a large proportion of New Zealanders’ financial security since the early 1990’s. Helen valiantly worked for people in the face of callous policies and bureaucrats. To calm my anger and my sadness after Rebecca’s book I read a beautifully written novel, ‘Breaking Light’ by Karin Attenberg (Quercus 2014) that uncannily describes degrees of light and shade in both physical environments and human moods. A satisfying ending.


What’s next on your agenda?

I’m collecting stories of businesses which have bio-circular/sustainable practices integrated into their business model.


Mary Egan Publishing

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