Celtic Surprise: A Visit to Jersey

A Traveller’s Tale by Greg Byrnes

In these days of restricted travel, it is pleasant to look back over wonderful journeys made not long before the border closures. 

In 2018, I had the good fortune to visit Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy. My goal was to participate in a celebration of the naturalist-author Gerald Durrell, founder of Jersey Zoo. As it was an organised trip, I did little research beforehand and on arrival I was quite surprised to discover much of Celtic interest there.

On the first evening I went for a walk along Gorey Beach, a bracing remedy for jet lag. It was there I first noticed a Jersey characteristic: giant tides over extensive shelves. This means that one can walk a very long way out to sea, and of course risk being drowned through erroneous time management. For millennia, the islanders have harvested marine resources in this way, even establishing certain tracks for carts, and rescue poles in case of the worst. As I explored those fascinating, and unnerving, marine-scapes over the next days, with their mini-islands that appear and disappear, I wondered if they may have had some prehistoric influence on Celtic stories about ‘the land under the sea’.

Next morning I set off for a hike along walled lanes through the lush countryside of farmland to La Hougue Bie, a Neolithic mound over a passage tomb, with medieval chapels on top [see photo]. I stooped to enter the tunnel and made my way cautiously along to a point where I could stand comfortably. I admit I kept the exit firmly in my peripheral vision, and in fact on that day, 23 June, just after the summer solstice, a reassuring shaft of sunlight shone well into the darkness.

As I surveyed the massive slabs that form the central chamber, I pondered their possible meaning. There is consensus that the structure dates back about 5000 years before the present, but as to its exact purpose or use, there is much debate. It must be related in some way to similar megaliths in Britain and Ireland but the details are still being researched.

Whether or not one accepts that there were ‘Celts’ at such early periods, the mound itself was part of the landscape when speakers of Celtic languages did become recognizable in the Iron Age. The excellent museum at this site, with friendly personnel, an abundance of guidebooks, and refreshments, conserves the world’s largest single hoard of Celtic coins: the ‘Catillon II’ , unearthed a short distance away in a farmer’s field at Grouville, which I had passed on my walk.

Discovered in 2012 as a solid mass of congealed metal, some 68,000 coins and several gold rings and torques and glass beads have been painstakingly separated by specialist. From the dating of the coins, it is thought that the hoard might be a war chest assembled by Celts of the mainland coast to fund their resistance to Julius Caesar’s invasion of Gaul in the mid first century BCE.

Jersey was a safe location for this deposit because it had no convenient harbour and was quite difficult to access. Speculation aside, there is no doubting the beauty of the swirling designs of human heads and horses on the coinage and the splendour of the jewellery. Similar rings and torques are typical in Irish archaeology but coinage was not used in Ireland before Viking times, except as a raw material like any other form of metal. Most of the Catillon II pieces are associated with the Coriosolites tribe, the first part of which name is distantly related to the Irish word cuire : a troop, as of warriors. Their nearest neighbours, the Venelli, share the same root word as Irish fine : family or kindred, as in ‘Fine Gael’. Both these peoples are mentioned by Caesar, as is Ireland ( ‘Hibernia’), but famously, of course, the Romans never made a military conquest of that more distant island.

The chapels on the mound ( C12 and C16) are just two of dozens throughout Jersey. Their founders were sometimes from Normandy, or Brittany, Cornwall or Wales and perhaps beyond. St Brelade, for example, is thought to have been Welsh, and there is a Jersey tradition that his church is in an unusual coastal location because the original site of choice was too close to a pre-Christian dolmen and the fairies moved each day’s construction until the builders gave up and settled for the present position. St Brelade’s Church preserves a lovely medieval fresco of The Annunciation.

The visitor to Jersey is impressed by the frequency of apparently French placenames and even French phrases for various aspects of culture on the island. Enquiring about this, one learns that it is actually Jersey’s own language, a branch of Norman, le jèrriais, which was the mother-tongue of about half the population until the Second World War, after which its use rapidly declined. Revivalists are active, and I saw one column in the language in a local newspaper. In the long view, it something like the Norman speech and literature that was brought to Ireland in 1169. The medieval Norman poet Wace was born on Jersey and his Roman de Brut includes the first reference to King Arthur’s Round Table, a reminder of the fascinating and complex interconnections between these insular cultures.

The delightful week passed too quickly and soon I found myself back on a plane to Birmingham, going, as some locals say, ‘to the UK’.

Greg Byrnes

Greg is from Sydney NSW where he completed an MPhil in Celtic Studies. He has published articles on Irish and Irish-Australian literature. In recent years he has taught English to speakers of other languages (TESOL).