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From (Almost) the Big Bang to Tara to Patrick: 'The Origins of the Irish'

J.P. Mallory's work serves as a trustworthy, eminently scholarly but accessible guide past tricky diversions and evasive directions in history.


The Origins of the Irish

Publisher: Thames + Hudson
Length: 320 pages
Author: J.P. Mallory
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-04
Amazon

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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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