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Book Reviews Review: Ken McGoogan’s Celtic Lightning an engagingly personal look at how the Celts shaped Canada

Celtic Lightning is engagingly personal. We follow author Ken McGoogan and his wife as they travel enthusiastically throughout Scotland and Ireland.

Title
Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation
Author
Ken McGoogan
Publisher
Patrick Crean Editions
Pages
382
Price
$32.99

In 2009, I was the president of the St. Andrew's Society of Toronto. On the 250th anniversary of the Bard's birth we held our Robert Burns Supper at the top of the CN Tower, possibly the highest Burns event in history. The evening's ultimate door prize was a trip for two to Scotland, where, I should admit, I was born and raised. I fished around in the bowl containing the tickets, drew one out and read aloud the name of the lucky winner: Sheena Fraser McGoogan. Little did I know this would directly lead to a book from Sheena's husband, the journalist and author Ken McGoogan.

In 2010, assisted by his on-the-ground research, he published How the Scots Invented Canada, a book that continues to enjoy great success. Now, with Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation, McGoogan is trying to replicate that success, proving that lighting can indeed strike twice in (almost) the same place.

According to the 2011 census, writes McGoogan, there are "4.7 million Canadians (14.3 per cent) claiming Scottish ancestry, and 4.5 million (13.7 per cent) citing Irish. Those of Scottish and Irish heritage, taken together, constitute the largest minority of Canadians: 28 per cent." With this in mind, he argues we should therefore look carefully at the great figures in Irish and Scottish history, because, in his prologue's fighting words, they "shaped the values on which we have built a Canadian nation."

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This poses two great challenges. The first, obviously, is to blend the two strands of history, Irish and Scottish. This, he achieves brilliantly. The book is divided into five parts, each one dealing with a central theme: Independence, Democracy, Pluralism, Audacity and Perseverance. Each section consists mostly of compressed biographies of major figures, which is hard to do as interestingly as we find here. The range is fascinating, from Robert the Bruce to The Chieftains, and he avoids a strict Irish-then-Scottish rotation. For example, "Democracy" features the lives, and the Canadian influence, of Sir John A. Macdonald, Thomas D'Arcy McGee, John Knox, Robert Burns, Daniel O'Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell. The reader will find it hard to argue with his specific proposal that McGee and Macdonald formed a vital link in creating Canada, and his general belief in the importance of Irish and Scots to the country.

McGoogan's second great challenge is much more difficult: to show us that Canadian society and its culture is based on Celtic values (with, he's careful to note, the added Viking influence that produced "a mixed Norse-Gaelic culture"). Describing any culture's emerging values is always tricky. Quantification and measurement is almost impossible, and "post hoc ergo propter hoc" (this happened first, so it must have caused that) is a constant danger. Merely to list the historical figures cited in "Audacity" is to show how audacious our man McGoogan is: Grace O'Malley (the 16th century Pirate Queen), Flora MacDonald (being rowed over the sea to Skye), Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations), James Boswell (the biographer of Samuel Johnson), Maria Edgeworth (the Irish novelist who preceded Jane Austen), and James Joyce (here comes everybody!). If you were unaware until now of the influence of Ulysses on Canadian daily life, McGoogan would like to grab your shoulder for a friendly moment.

Celtic Lightning is engagingly personal. We follow McGoogan and his wife as they travel enthusiastically throughout Scotland and Ireland, from Grace O'Malley's Connemara and Jonathan Swift's Dublin to the Dumfries of Robert Burns, and even to the St. Andrews castle where John Knox was captured and sent to France as a galley slave. There are many cheery snapshots taken by Sheena of Ken posing beside this or that ancient building, although Sheena's moment arrives when she crouches beside the far-from-cheery Clan Fraser Memorial on the battlefield at Culloden.

This book marks another step in McGoogan's impressive career. Between 1979 and 1999, he was the books editor at The Calgary Herald, proving, through his energy and enthusiasm, that one man can indeed shift the culture of a city by making it a mecca for touring authors.

When a bitter strike brought his Herald time to an end, he moved to Toronto and developed his own career as an author. Soon, with books such as Fatal Passage (2001), Lady Franklin's Revenge (2005) and Race to the Polar Sea (2008), he had established himself as our great popular historian of Arctic exploration, winning the Pierre Berton Award for History, and also winning comparisons with his towering, bowtied predecessor. More recently he has published 50 Canadians Who Changed the World (2013), and now he is back in the stores with this new book, which includes a fascinating story from September, 2014. McGoogan shyly mentions that his written admiration of John Rae, the remarkable Scot who discovered the true Northwest Passage, led to his being an invited speaker when a memorial to Rae was unveiled in Westminster Abbey. Not bad, eh?

I'm glad that in drawing that winning ticket I, literally, had a hand in helping to create this continuously interesting book.

Douglas Gibson is a (formerly red-bearded) Scot who came to Canada in 1967. He is the author of the new book, Across Canada by Story: A Coast-to-Coast Literary Adventure.

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