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May 21st 2016 print

Robert Murray

Celtic, Celts and the C-Word

Scientific study of ethnic origins has only been possible in recent decades, thanks to carbon dating of archaeological finds and, more recently, computer analysis of language change and DNA scans. The emerging picture, as a new book asserts, will unsettle many ethno-romantics

The Origins of the Irish
by J.P. Mallory
Thames & Hudson, 2013, 320 pages, $29.99

Celts: Art and Identity
Julia Farley & Fraser Hunter (eds.)
British Museum Press, 2015, 304 pages, £25
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celtic crossThe historian J.P. Mallory in The Origins of the Irish carefully leaves what he calls the “C-word” (Celtic) towards the end. He regards it as inaccurate and misleading, folding millennia of history into one convenient label. Instead he sees the Irish people as having evolved over 10,000 years from a small aboriginal population, hunter-gatherers like the Australian Aborigines, and probably only 3000 to 4000 strong until farming began about 6000 years ago. He bases this estimate on a similar estimate for the pre-white Aboriginal population of Tasmania, an area a bit smaller than Ireland but richer in food resources for hunter-gatherers. (The estimated aboriginal population of Britain is proportionately somewhat similar.)

They probably first came to Ireland from nowhere more exotic than the neighbouring Isle of Man Basin, when rising seas at the end of the Ice Age forced them onto dryer land to the west. They adopted an early version of the Irish or Gaelic language probably only around 1000 BC, but possibly even only 100 AD, taken from the common (for want of a better word, Celtic) contemporary languages of Britain and France. The language then developed distinctive Irish characteristics, mainly through conservatively retaining more of the early tongue than its neighbours did.

Earlier language or languages may have been more like Basque—which is also suggested for England—but there is no reliable evidence. This estimated starting date of 10,000 years ago for modern mankind in Ireland is 3000 years earlier than was thought only a few years ago, as is the 13,000 years ago given here for England.

New people moved to Ireland over the millennia, most but not all from Britain, but in relatively small numbers at various times and for various reasons, including trade, economic opportunities, small-scale conquest, refuge or rescue, wife-snatching or kidnapping. Nevertheless, the genes of the aboriginal people continued prominent in the mix.

Mallory says there is no evidence for the version beloved of Irish nationalists, that a big, romantic tribe of Celtic warriors invaded from the European continent in the later centuries BC to become an elite and set the tone of Irish culture.

Indeed, most of his book debunks the popular stories of Irish beginnings. These began as old folk tales of heroes and dramas, which early Christian missionaries then embellished with biblical spin. A prolific and lasting tradition of “Celtic” origin stories rich in romance but short on facts began throughout the British Isles only about three hundred years ago. Many have survived in popular history, despite archaeologists hammering away with more mundane versions.

Mallory is Emeritus Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at Queen’s University, Belfast, and is noted as a “world expert on the interconnection of archaeology and linguistics”. His method is to take several competing versions of Irish origins and then examine each with the evidence now available from extensive archaeology, language, genetic and climate study, water depths and popular versions.

He says the origin of the first people from the Isle of Man Basin is the “least improbable” version. He dismisses a popular version that the people came from France via an island chain now sunken beneath the sea:

We might have granted [this theory] a quiet death except for one rather unscientific reason: there is a sizable constituency that finds it incomparably more attractive to seek the origins of the earliest people in Ireland anywhere on planet earth other than the somewhat larger island to the immediate east of Ireland.

Ireland and Britain are far enough apart to be separate countries, but not far enough apart to have separate histories, he comments.

He also dismisses an older version, that the dominant prehistoric population came from Spain; it was based on medieval misunderstanding of the geography and a belief that Spain was adjacent to Iceland. If true at all, it would be only in the sense of an immensely longer period, when forebears of the Atlantic population took refuge in Spain or southern France during the Ice Age, 20,000 years or more ago, and then moved north as the climate moderated.

Mallory’s message is that ethnicity in the modern sense (not race!) does not come from any pure Eden in the remote past but evolves over aeons, usually slowly but not always, in response to numerous causes. Needless to say, he ridicules the head-measuring approach of a century ago. “Pure blood” is hard to come by.

Scientific study of ethnic origins has only been possible in recent decades, with for example, carbon dating of archaeological finds since the 1950s and more recently computer analysis of language change and DNA evidence of genetics. There are also vastly more people studying it now.

Modern study has found the Irish-Celtic story wanting, but also England’s Anglo-Saxon story and many others. But even now, Mallory gives an impression of groping in the dark. He frequently laments the lack of evidence and the need for more study, and notes frequent disagreement among the experts in rapidly changing approaches to pre-history.

Mallory takes as a measuring-rod Irishman the Celtic (that word again) folk hero and legendarily fertile procreator Niall of the Nine Hostages, forebear of the politically ambitious O’Neills and other big clans. Niall died about 450 AD, just as pre-history was ending and Christianity was being established along with the beginnings of written history. Surely Niall is unquestionably Irish, but then it seems his mother was British, taken in a raid on the neighbouring island. St Patrick himself was also by birth a Brit, originally in Ireland as a slave. Since then, newcomers have tended to be seen as add-ons, some as intruders and some, not entirely without reason, as conquerors.

The question of who is a Celt also taxes Celts: Art and Identity, the handsomely illustrated accompanying book to the 2015 display at the British Museum of 250 beautiful items of so-called Celtic art, dating from about 500 BC to the early Christian era 1300 years later.

The authors acknowledge that there is no satisfactory definition of “Celtic”. “The evidence for language and art does not match up,” they say. The problem is that the name has been applied promiscuously for a very long time. The Greeks and Romans applied it to everybody between them and the Germans but there seems no basis for the tradition that big tribes of Celts lived in central Europe and emigrated westwards. Yet this is where part of the so-called “Celtic art”—typically curvilinear brooches, jewels, knives, shields, decorations—comes from, broadly similar to art of the same period found in France and the British Isles.

The “Celtic” languages of pre-history have been pinned down to the British Isles, France and Spain, but not spoken all the time or everywhere. There are also islands of it, of unknown origin, in Italy and Galatia in Turkey; one theory is that Celtic-type people emigrated east as well as north and west from their Atlantic Ice Age refuge. But today, the art book says, “Being Celtic is a real element of people’s identity in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Brittany and across the world for people who trace their ancestry to these places.”

Robert Murray is the author of 150 Years of Spring Street: Victorian Government 1850s to 2005 and The Making of Australia: A Concise History.