PIRAN AND PTOLEMY

16 March 2011

The photographs of the celebrations of St Piran’s day, 5 March, fill the local newspapers. In fine weather children danced and pranced in the streets, probably organised by their schools but very clearly enjoying themselves. People played cheery music, sang, bedecked themselves, and marched with flags.

This was street patriotism everyone can be happy about, the sort of festive celebration you find all over Britain and the world though you can overdo the marching purposefully with flags.

It is a happy circumstance that Piran is lost in the fog of history and indeed may never have existed. We can ignore the fantastical nonsenses told about him. It is best to take most saints with a pinch of salt: the instincts of the Reformation Protestants were right about this. He is a peg on which to hang this day; belief in him is not required.

I have discussed before the disconnection between being Cornish and being a nationalist. St Piran’s day demonstrated it convincingly. Many people here enjoy being Cornish, are happy to be Cornish, confident in their Cornishness; celebrate it; if asked to choose one only descriptor may very well call themselves Cornish and put it on the flawed censuses; and think Cornwall special, though aware of ubiquitous uniqueness; but do not desire politics here to be a nationalist re-enactment of the middle ages. The vast majority of people in Cornwall, by whatever nationality and ethnicity they call themselves, think the most important things in their lives are the everyday experiences around home, family, work, friends, neighbourhood, and health, as do people in the rest of England.

As for nationalists, they make their case, speak and write freely, demonstrate freely, learn and speak and write Cornish if they wish, fight elections freely. Nationalism presents what I see as the Ptolemaic model of Cornwall with its constitutional positions and its particular interpretation of history – and political nationalism and separatism sink like a millstone. People in Cornwall can indeed distinguish between being Cornish and being a nationalist; the former does not necessarily imply the latter.
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