Institute of Cornish Studies Annual Conference 2014 – A Review

This year’s Annual Conference, held at the Institute’s base at the University of Exeter’s Tremough Campus was an exceptional series of lectures and debates.

This weekend was an absolute boon for me as, at times it does prove difficult studying and researching Cornwall some 300 miles away from it’s beautiful territory.

The Saturday had ten sessions, opening with the 2014 Caroline Kemp Lecture entitled The Ancient Cornish World and was delivered by Dr. Caradoc Peters of The University of Plymouth. He raised a number of fascinating insights into looking at Cornwall – as a ‘place’, and as an ethnicity. He introduced the notion of the “foreign” – and how in old times Falmouth and Penryn were ‘foreign’ to each other. (The pair are 2 miles apart as the crow flies) Redruth and Camborne were not mentioned, but given the ancient rivalry between the towns, they didn’t need to be! Discussion was sparked around whether or not Cornwall refers to a “separate Celtic country.” Dr. Peters went on to examine the influence of outsiders in Cornwall, through the Roman period, the arrival of the Danes as well as notions of Ethnicity and Celticity. He provided an excellent reminder of his 2005 work The Archaeology of Cornwall where he presented evidence that the West Penwith region of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles were once surrounded by a formalised boundary, which is still visible to this day. Therefore Cornwall, with its historic border with England, appears to have yet another border within its territory!

The second session, How Brittany Can Help Us Produce A New Narrative For Cornwall’s First Golden Age, was presented by a remarkable man, who, to me is ‘The Godfather of Academic Study on Cornwall’ – Dr. Bernard Deacon, now retired from the Institute of Cornish Studies (ICS). Dr. Deacon outlined three historic Golden Ages in the history of Cornwall – 6th-8th Century (Cornish Independence), 1497-1640s (Transition of Cornwall from Medieval To Modern) and 1730s-1860s (The Industrial Boom). Deacon presented the remarkable similarities between Cornwall and their Celtic cousins in Brittany in the past – both having ‘invisible kings’, both having egalitarian communities where decisions were taken at hamlet level rather than by a king, and the fact that both Cornwall & Brittany had clergy who played a huge role in local life, but very few Bishops.

Session Three followed as another example of the close links between Cornwall and Brittany as Mike Tripp from the ICS examined the historic relationship between Cornish Wrestling and the Breton Gouren. He explained the history of Inter-Celtic Wrestling tournaments from 1928 to the present day, and introduced the audience to a real hero of Cornish sport – Francis Gregory. Gregory was undefeated in the Inter-Celtic championships for many years, and also was a star player for Redruth RFC before embarking on a Rugby League career.

The final presentation before coffee concluded the Cornish-Breton theme of the morning, as Bob Keys of the Cornish Story project looked at the 1945 Ealing Comedy ‘Johnny Frenchman’ and its representation of the Cornish and Bretons in it.

Session Five saw a series short presentations from staff at The Royal Cornwall Museum detailing their specific research at the present time ahead of a fascinating insight by PhD student Kate Neale into her planned research on Musical Experiences In The Cornish Diaspora. Neale reminded us all of the Cornish communities which built up in the USA, South Africa and Australia when miners (known as ‘Cousin Jacks’) moved overseas for work, and how they took native Cornish music, singing and other specific elements of Cornish culture to their new homes. This music and culture exists in these faraway lands to this very day.

As at any academic conference, there was some important discussion over lunch. The leader of the ICS, Dr. Garry Tregidga outlined the Institute’s plans for a ‘Cornish World’ research project, linking those studying Cornwall at an academic level around the world. This is something I will be playing a part in. There was impassioned debate over what makes someone ‘Cornish’. Apparently, I qualify, so this rather made my day! Once this, and a super lunch of pasties, scones, jam and clotted cream, plus the wonderful Cornish yarg cheese was digested, it was back for Session Seven.

Here, Dr. John Ault (ICS) and History student Louis Allen presented the premiere of their film Falmouth In The Great War telling the story of some of the 230+ Falmouth men who lost their lives in World War I. There is no doubt that the people of Falmouth will treasure this special film. Session Eight was led by the ICS’ Sharon Lowena who presented on The Newlyn School and the Boer War. She noted how the natives of Cornish fishing villages were described as having “people with the darkest skin in England” and that a 1903 survey of Britain marked the Cornish out as “liable to fall out with each other, and take some time to make up”. The penultimate presentation was delivered by Lawrence Illsley & Ben Harris on Troika & Its International Reach. Beginning in the 1960s as abstract pottery in St. Ives, it grew to a huge international market. In order to keep up with demand, the factory moved to bigger premises in Newlyn in 1970, before closing in 1983. This was a real Cornish international success story. The Conference closed with a superb short film by Sarah Chapman entitled Atlantic Narratives: Stories of Migration & Kinship. Here, Chapman interviews two sisters aged 80 years old, whose ancestors migrated to the USA  as miners.Through a 1907 photo album of the family’s return to Cornwall on a holiday, we see what life was like then, with added commentaries from the sisters from correspondence received. One such piece noted how, back in 1907, “They knew so much about fashion in Redruth.” This brought the house down.

It was a wonderful weekend, and great to connect with the Cornish academic community.

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