Origins of the Irish

It’s hard enough anymore knowing what it means to be Irish today, but how do you figure out where the Irish came from in prehistory?  And when do you identify people who lived on this island as Irish?

These are not dry academic questions. Rather a lot politically has been hung on that particular question over the years. All nationalist narratives love ripping simple stories from the complexities of the past. And there continues to be a lot of hokum talked about the essential character of ‘us’ Irish, Scottish and Welsh ‘Celts’.

Away back in the nearly prehistoric past, I did a degree in Irish archaeology. One of my lecturers was J P Mallory. [I remember spending three summers on my knees digging up a Neolithic settlement in Co. Antrim under his direction – come sun, hail or rain we kept going!] He has recently published the fruit of a lifetime’s study, The Origins of the Irish.

You get a flavour of the book and the man in the Preface. The book, Mallory assures the reader, will not be full of stories of chats in the back of pubs over a pint of Guinness in which Paddy Seandalai (Irish for archaeologist) pulls out a beautiful stone axe with a twinkle in this eye. ” I don’t do twinkle” says Mallory.

He does do wit though and the book is a joy to read.

In it he covers everything from geology (the origins of Ireland itself – Ireland used to be down by Australia apparently), to the archaeology of first colonists (there might have been the odd hunter setting foot in Ireland c 11,000BC but the first firm evidence of residents is in the Mesolithic c. 8,000BC probably from Scotland or the Isle of Man or Wales). The story thereafter is one of constant contact and influence between Ireland and Britain (and wider Europe) through the Neolithic, Bronze Age, iron Age.

He also considers what ‘The Native Version’ of Irish origins – basically a 8th-11th Cent Christianised version of history can tell us about Irish origins (not a lot)

A chapter on the origins of the Irish language is fascinating and complex with the most probable date for the introduction of Irish between c 1000 BC and the 1st Cent AD.

Things get more high-tech in a chapter on ‘Skulls, blood and genes’.  Theories are in development here, tracing possible movements of population via genetic markers. It is here that it becomes apparent how arbitrary and subjective it is to define any form of ‘Irish genetic purity’.

Mallory, cleverly and for sake of argument throughout the book, has identified 5th Century Niall of the Nine Hostages as a true Irish man. He pre-dates later Northumbrian, Viking, Anglo-Norman raids and settlements. Yet even Niall was half-British (his mother Cairenn had been carried off from Britain by his father Eochaid).

In other words, it all depends on where and when you say ‘Irishness’ exists. Such decisions are purely arbitrary.

Modern nationalist narratives are just that – modern innovations. Mallory asks the reader to imagine a Martian scientist analysing ancient DNA from 2525 of Brendan O’Hare, Seamus Naujokaitis, Ciaran Kostrzewski and Sean Wang.  Everyone of these 4 had an equal claim to being ‘native Irish’ in 2525. Equally, going back in time Mallory concludes

Distinguishing a Lithuanian, Pole or Chinese from a ‘real’ Irishman would be as idle and meaningless as distinguishing someone whose genes had come from an early Mesolithic colonist from northern Britain, a Neolithic farmer from Scotland, a pilgrim from the Church of the Holy Megalith from Brittany, a mead-drinking Beaker-using metallurgist from the Rhineland, or anyone else who had  sunk their roots into Ireland by the time Eochaid had dragged poor Cairenn from Britain.

In other words, us Irish are all immigrants.

Now what, I wonder, are the contemporary political implications of that conclusion?

Comments, as ever, welcome

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3 thoughts on “Origins of the Irish

  1. I am a first time visitor to your blog and, if it not an imposition, I think I will stay a while. My wife and I have just returned from a 15 day holiday to Ireland and had a great, SUNNY memorable time. Reflecting from this particular post regarding origins, my name of Roe finds it’s root in Dublin as well as New Ross. My distant grandfather was the founder of Roe whiskey working along side back in the early days, Guinness. He took a sizable amount of his fortune and put it into the restoration of Christ Church. I don’t have many details unlike my older brother Micheal, who has done extensive research into the family. He does work out of his second office at the University of Ulster. He lives in the state of Washington and is a prof at Seattle Pacific University. I will continue to read throughout your blog. Do you ever use this means of blogging as a communication tool? I have some questions about Irish identity and the current movement of spiritual direction/formation.

    Have a grand day, or night for that matter.

    Steve Roe
    Washington State

    • Hello Steve and welcome. Very interesting Irish-American family story.
      Hopefully you’ll find some relevant pieces about Irish identity & faith in contemporary Ireland – glad to email

  2. We all have our centricities. How could Niall be half british – using the same arguments Mallory uses in a much appreciated book. When all the British were French. A person can and does often “wonder” about their past. Most do look for an attachment to a group link in that past (and hope it will be glorious). I have. This idea of a national identity is a very new one – from an archaeological point of view. Did anyone care in the past what political entity they would inadvertently help forging in the distant future? Would they like to be placed under a name and set of ideas that for them didn’t exist? Would you?
    I liked the book and enjoyed your post. Thank you.

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