Irish Roots

May 2nd, 2011

John Grenham


How Irish are you? For a large part of the 20th century, in the Republic at least, there was a simple way of calculating. Just add how Catholic you were to how much you hated England. A caricature, perhaps, but with some truth, and there were certainly people for whom a low score was costly and painful. But this was not just blinkered chauvinism, it also aped the empire it hated. So let us remember how that empire saw us.

John Beddoe (1826-1911), one of the founders of anthropology, believed passionately in the power of objective data. He carried out a meticulously detailed series of measurements of human physical features - eye, skin and hair pigmentation, head and face shape, skull size - across all of Britain and Ireland. The aim was to clarify racial origins and his findings led him to produce a statistical "Index of Nigrescence", designed to quantify how close people were to being Negro. Unsurprisingly, scores rose steadily as he moved from east to west, with the highest point on the index achieved by inhabitants of the West of Ireland. Prominent Irish jaws, beetling brows, sallow skin and dark hair provided proof of the "Africanoid" origins of the Celts, and thus their essential inferiority to the Anglo-Saxons and Teutons. Q.E.D.

Beddoe was no crank: he was the founder of the Ethnological Society and a president of the Royal Anthropological Institute, a bastion of respectability. This was mainstream science, replete with bar-charts, detailed accounts of methodology and calculated margins of error.

The notion of race is not absurd in itself. On the largest scale, there are clearly visible differences in culture and physique between large groups of people. These should be examined and celebrated, not denied. What's utterly toxic is the notion of some ethnic essence that can be measured: racial purity.

Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.


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