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

Evolving Irishness (9) the disintegration of ‘faithinireland’

A few months ago I did a series on evolving Irishness – one that never quite got finished. I think it ended with this post.

I was going to look at the unravelling of the three cords that held classic Irish nationalism together – the territorial, the sacral, and the noble historical narrative of freedom and liberation.

Well to fast forward via some symbolic moments – two in the last week:

Territorial: sorted and parked gratefully in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the moderation of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution to include Unionist consent.

Sacral: on 21 March 2012 the publication of the Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland didn’t quite put it this way, but I would – the narrative of a triumphalistic 20th century ‘Catholic Ireland’ ended in a “a great sense of pain and shame”. Whatever the future of Catholicism in Ireland it is going to be a profoundly different sort of story in the 21st century.

Historical: As Diarmuid Ferriter concludes in this Irish Times article, the publication last week of the Mahon Report on top of Moriarty and others, may well lead to a fundamental re-assessment of the entire historical narrative.

As late as 1997 Tom Garvin was proposing convincingly that Irish politicians, despite mistakes and sins, managed to create and sustain a viable independent state against all the odds.

Now we have the most popular Taoiseach of the modern era jumping before he was pushed out of his own political party and being one of the most (conveniently) reviled figures in Ireland alongside Seanie Fitzpatrick of Anglo Irish Bank.

Ferriter writes

But the cumulative affect of the various tribunal reports, most recently Mahon, may require political scientists and historians to question or qualify some of their earlier assumptions about the achievements of independence.

For fundamental questions are everywhere today on what sort of Irish State developed since Partition. These are words from Mahon and he’s being all judicial and polite:

“systemic and endemic corruption”

a devaluing of democracy itself

“corruption affected every level of Irish political life”

“little appetite on the part of the State’s political or investigative authorities to combat it effectively or to sanction those involved.”

“general apathy on the part of the public towards . . . corruption” and its “corrosive and destructive” consequences

I said ‘conveniently’ above about Bertie, because a lot of people voted him and Fianna Fail in repeatedly, especially in the 2007 election when what Mahon was talking about was public knowledge. Mahon poses questions about the very structure of Irish political and social life – one’s Fintan O’Toole picks up and says this

And what, finally, of the other big part of the story: public tolerance for toxic political behaviour? It seems obvious now to point to the rage and contempt hurled in Ahern’s direction as evidence of a great sea change in attitudes.

A sceptic might point to Michael Lowry’s 14,104 votes in North Tipperary last year. And a cynic might ask the most uncomfortable question of all: would Bertie still be elected taoiseach today if the Celtic Tiger were still roaring along? Given the choice between easy money and hard morality, it is not at all obvious that the Irish people would not, yet again, suspend its disbelief in Bertie’s laughable lies.

Ferriter concludes:

As we edge towards the centenary of the events that comprised the revolution of the early 20th century, we face a stark conclusion: this is a State bereft of meaningful sovereignty due to its bankruptcy and a State whose governing culture has been exposed as rotten.

We may have little to cheer about in 2016.

Blimey – when you have Irish judges, historians and left-leaning journalists all sounding like Ian Paisley c 1960s ranting about the corruption, authoritarianism and darkness of ‘Catholic Ireland’, whatever you may think of Dev, you know things have gone rather pear-shaped for his vision of Irish sovereignty, freedom and integrity fueled by strong spiritual values.

Given the title of this blog, allow me this 😉 – faithinireland has disintegrated. ‘Catholic Ireland’, in terms of an overarching complete package identity of national identity, culture and religion, has been tried and found wanting.

There is a sense of a need for a new beginning and a fresh narrative around today and it isn’t clear (to me anyway) what it might be or where it might come from. Given the austerity being imposed by the Troika, being enthusiastic Europeans  is less appealing. Sinn Fein are doing well but only in a reactive way.

If that’s one rather bleak sketch of the current culture, what implications has this for ‘gospel ministry’? Or to put it another way, what has the Christian narrative to offer in a culture suffering from a crisis of hope?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

More being Irish in 2012

On this St Patrick’s Day here are some more definitions of Irishness from an Irish woman I happen to know.

Irishness is…

Describing someone with longstanding, persistent and untreated psychosis as “a character”.

Saying “There’s definitely no recession here!” every time you see more than 5 people in a pub.

Saying “Ah but he’s very good to his mother” about some utter langer

That mini heart attack you get if you go out and forget to turn off the immersion

“You’re not drinking??? Are you on antibiotics?”

Wallpaper on your school books

Being Grand!!

Boil everything in a huge pot for 3 hours

Being absolutely terrified of a wooden spoon.

Learning a language for 12 years and not being fluent

Knowing that Flat 7UP heals all illnesses

Calling Joe Duffy or any radio station instead of the guards 🙂