Irish Roots: The Origins of the Irish

An entire book devoted to The Origins of the Irish is just asking for trouble


In his introduction to the work of the same name that he has just published (Thames and Hudson, €25.15), J.P. Mallory writes “an entire book devoted to The Origins of the Irish is just asking for trouble”. And then dives right in.

The book provides a comprehensive overview of all the current evidence for the origins of the people(s) who inhabited Ireland in the 5th century A.D., around the time of Niall of the Nine Hostages. Mallory covers cosmology, physics, geology, plate tectonics, climate change, archaeology, Irish origin stories, medical genetics, DNA studies, and the history of the Irish language.

Such breadth is only possible because of his genius for synthesis and summary, lightened with a touch of sharp wit. One example: in looking at the constituent elements of a human body, he works out that it would take the uranium contained in 80 million bodies to produce an atom bomb. And then points out that 70 million people claim Irish descent. The implication is that UN weapons inspectors should be on the lookout, in case we reach critical mass.

His own academic expertise is in archaeology and Indo-European linguistics (he is Emeritus Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at QUB) and these are the parts in which the evidence is most closely argued. But every single section is scrupulous about evidence and logic.

Nonetheless, the book remains joyously non-academic, while still managing to retain some of the best elements of a textbook. Each of the 10 chapters ends with a bullet-point summary of the conclusions reached or uncertainties still remaining. Wickedly, and tellingly, the end of the chapter on genetic evidence provides two mutually contradictory sets of conclusions.

With unmatched clarity and humour, the book challenges every single received notion of ‘Irishness’. It is a masterpiece and I’ll be going back to it again and again.