Origins of the Irish species
A reconstruction of an excarnation platform at Ballynahatty, Co Down
Perhaps uniquely qualified: JP Mallory
From JP Mallory's book, a 13th-century map suggesting that Ireland was opposite Iberia
HISTORY:Though it comes up with few definitive answers, a superb and witty book that examines our origins as a people shows how important it is that we ask the right questions
The Origins of the Irish, By JP Mallory, Thames & Hudson, 322pp, £19.95
Prof Jim Mallory has written a book on the origin of the Irish, but he tells us that the subject “is not a single question and the reader should not expect a single answer”.
This book has been in gestation since Mallory began graduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1967. Along the way he developed a battery of skills that make him, perhaps uniquely, qualified to write a book that evaluates the contributions of archaeology, genetics, linguistics, geology and history in developing a plausible story of the origins of the people of Ireland at the beginning of the historic period, say in the fifth century AD.
Mallory takes us on a journey from the big bang, through plate tectonics, climate change and millennia of human settlement to reach his target Irishman, the half-British Niall Noígiallach (“of the nine hostages”), who “straddles the boundary between Irish mythology and Irish history”.
When did the Irish begin to think of themselves as such? Did the idea emerge in prehistory? Hardly, because of the fractured political structure we can probably deduce from the archaeology of the period – but without a written record, how can we tell? However, the appearance of a uniquely native form of ritual monument in the final BC centuries at Tara, Knockaulin, Emain Macha and Cruachan suggests some sort of shared vision of the island and the cosmos.
Munster, with its later centre at Cashel, does not fully share in that vision – a fact that is reinforced by the rarity of objects of classic “Celtic” character during its long Iron Age from about 600 BC.
A theory of Irish origins was constructed by the learned classes of the early medieval period, who, like other Europeans of the time, fabricated a derivation from biblical and other ancient histories. In their version the Irish (Scotti) descended from (who else?) the ancient Scythians. They arrived here after a series of implausible wanderings.
It never occurred to the scholars to canvass the Celts of classical authors as possible ancestors. There is, for example, no hint of a connection with the (Celtic-speaking) Welsh, a link recognised only in early modern times. It is very likely that the idea of the Irish as a unitary people gained strength from the use of an early form of the Irish language throughout the island at least by the middle of the first millennium AD, and also by the conflicts of the Viking age.