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The Origins of the Irish

J.P. Mallory

(Thames + Hudson; US: Apr 2013)

Combining archeology with linguistics, adding genetics to explain the connections between these two fields, this expert in Indo-European Studies turns to his homeland to wonder how its earliest inhabitants wound up on this North Atlantic island. With attention to demystification but with an affection for the myths, J. P. Mallory builds on nearly a half-century of his research to present an academic study that anybody curious about his title will welcome. Learned but lively, Mallory’s contribution remains throughout cautious in its surmises but diligent in his analyses.


He begins about as far back as the Big Bang, if in passing. Much of the first hundred pages explain how recently Ireland (and Britain, always its fractious or friendly neighbor) split off from the Continent—itself long in the making as the tectonic plates shifted slowly. Two parts of Ireland at one time faced each other, if from a distance as far apart as Australia from the island today.


After the last Ice Age, the land bridge between northwest France and Ireland cannot be firmly dated, but it broke apart over approximately 12,000 years ago. That means whomever settled as what Mallory calls the “Irelanders”—prior to the relatively recent national formation of the “Irish” under Niall of the Nine Hostages, the first figure straddling legendary and historical times and allegedly the kidnapper of Calpurnius’ Romano-Briton son to be known as Patrick—had to migrate into that thawed-out expanse after the melting glaciers filled the Irish Sea.


For only 1/43,000th of its existence as a land mass has Ireland occupied its present site and shape. Poorer in flora and fauna than Britain or the Continent, it could not have supported many prehistoric families. As few as 3,000 people may have lived in Ireland for the first 40 percent of its existence as we know it. Recently settled in Eurasian terms, colonists may have voyaged from the nearby Isle of Man as global warming wiped out part of that territory. Generally, Mallory favors looking closest—to the western Scottish and Welsh shores for those who would populate Ireland first.


As for farming, around 3800 BCE marks a revolution in agriculture. It may have spread rapidly, within 200 years, and again probably westward from a British base. Brittany at the tip of today’s France may have contributed, as the longer sea passages navigated back and forth in turn may have stimulated Irish-British trade all the more.


Any archeological treatment of Northern Europe debates the origins and provenance of the Beakers, the pottery goblets with a bell-like shape. Suffice to say Mallory delves into this with gusto and wit, no small feat for what can be deadly dull material for those of us outside the trenches. He loves citing his more imaginative predecessors to telling effect about the romantic interpretations of sherds and grooves. “Drink, fighting and the Irish Sweepstakes would certainly tally with Irish stereotypes,” he comments as he surveys the eagerness of his gullible colleagues to imagine (ca. 2500 BCE) brutal invaders, tipsy warriors, and horse-drawn shock and awe descending upon cowering scrabblers.


Metallurgy ushers in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the siting of dramatic hillforts may show cultural shifts for population changes and ritual behaviors at this time. While Mallory downplays the exotic or martial, he notes how, given hoards found, Continental foreigners could have visited or stayed. He consistently edges away from a scenario of invasion (despite the Irish legends and their “nine waves” of conquerors) to one of gradual diffusion of goods and contacts. Ironically, Niall’s own inheritance centuries later would signal the end of this mythical time, as a cult from Southwest Asia and the customs and language of a dying empire would transform Ireland into the “Irish”, whose legacy would be distorted by Christian interpretations of what has come to be known as a “Celtic” past.


Earlier than often assumed, by those celebrating Patrick’s freedom from Niall’s enslavement and his return to Ireland to convert its “pagan” natives, Roman influence entered Ireland as it had Patrick’s homeland, wherever it was across the Irish Sea.In fact, perhaps by way of earlier slaves than that fabled missionary to the Hibernians in 432, Christians lived on the island; a bishop was sent there the year before Patrick to minister to that flock. Niall and his ilk engaged in an active sea-slave trade.


Mallory shows that while a pre-Christian Roman presence left a fraction of what imperial centuries of occupation over Britain had, nonetheless Irish evidence for Roman trade and settlement can be marshaled. From the classical reports of Ptolemy and the Romanized variations on the savage British and Irish tribes and places, we get the first glimpse into what “civilization” regarded as Hibernia, a damp backward dump on the world’s edge. “Why the Romans or indeed anyone else should have wanted to come to Ireland is a mystery if the early classical descriptions of the island had provided copy for Roman travel brochures”, Mallory remarks with typical flair.


We also owe the classical historians another label, if an elusive one. They named the diverse peoples across Europe speaking similar languages as Celts. Mallory follows Kim McCone in matching this to a root meaning of “hidden” and therefore “offspring of the hidden one”, identifying this allusion with the lord of the dead, Donn, the “dark brown one”.


Speaking of enduring identifiers, generations looked south to Spain (anywhere but east!) for Irish origins, but this Latin confusion does not fool Mallory. He dismisses origin myths as modeled by monks on the biblical wanderings of the Jews. He also blames the Wikipedia equivalent of the 7th century, Isidore’s Etymologies, with this persistent but false derivation of supposedly adjacent Hibernians from venerable Iberians.


Deepening his application of language, the latter third of Mallory’s study finds him tackling the spread of the Celtic tongue into Ireland. These final hundred pages pack a tremendous amount of data—DNA as well as glottochronology—into a few chapters. Microliths give way to haplotypes.


es us with two possibilities about the spread of Proto-Irish during the first millennium BCE. Mallory posits social prestige and identification with trend setters as likely explanations for a native adoption of a Celtic language. He suggests that an initial impact around 1000 BCE is one of two “most likely” windows of opportunity, in tandem with the emergence of hillforts. The second may be around the 3rd century BCE as Tara and other highly visible “ritual enclosures” dominated the landscape and consolidated a mental perspective that would endure as the “Irish” looked around in Niall’s pivotal era to adapt the four provinces circling around a fifth center as their nation’s model.


This valuable book does not leap from a petri dish or a soggy excavation site to any bold conclusion. This Belfast-based professor knows his subject all too well to trust in what genetic findings from next year’s lab or carbon dating from this season’s dig may override. Mallory relies on commonsense and judicial balancing of the more fervid proposals of his colleagues. The Origins of the Irish serves as a trustworthy, eminently scholarly but accessible guide past tricky diversions and evasive directions.

Rating:

Born in Los Angeles but should have been born in my parental Ireland. Find me at:"Blogtrotter".


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