Unconscious racism at the heart of conventional Celtic wisdom

WorldView: For the past 20 years I had thought that my Atlantean Irish ideas were de trop in Irish intellectual circles because…

WorldView: For the past 20 years I had thought that my Atlantean Irish ideas were de trop in Irish intellectual circles because they were regarded as unscholarly. True, I have no letters after my name; true I overly relied on common sense, plus imagination, to make connections between Ireland and the Near East. However, three excellent Irish Times articles within the past month have reminded me of the possibility that unconscious racism rather than academic exclusiveness may have been the root cause of my ideas being either ignored or dismissed in respectable circles.

The recent pieces by Michael Viney, Paul Gillespie and Frank McNally have publicly undermined the "Celtic" perspective, ie that we may not be full-blooded descendants of culturally superior invaders from central Europe in or about 500BC.

More than 20 years ago I produced a book and three films which said precisely that. As long ago as 1982 I derived my anti-Celt perspective from two experts in the National Museum, Dublin: from the director, the late Joe Raftery (father of Barry Raftery, the present professor of "Celtic" archaeology in UCD) and from Dr Michael Ryan (now director of the Chester Beatty Library). Joe Raftery dismissed the Celtic invasion theory as the "Thomas Cook school of archaeology". Michael Ryan described same as "wishful thinking". The fact was, and is, that no self-respecting Irish archaeologist believed in, or had physical evidence for, a formative Celtic influence in Ireland. So how has the Celtic origin myth been perpetuated on this island?

The classical Greeks referred to most transalpine "barbarians" as "Keltoi".


Circa 1700, Edward Lluyd of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, a proud Welsh philologist, revived the term "Celtic" to distinguish his own and the other unique forms of language spoken on the Atlantic fringes from those of continental Europe.

It would have been a harmless linguistic categorisation for us had not, as Gillespie reminds us, the Gaelic revivalists of the 1890s cleverly proposed an interchangeability between the terms "Gael" and "Celt". That was a critical phase in the history of the national self-image.

WB Yeats apparently cemented the imaginative concept with his collection of stories The Celtic Twilight. The term "twilight" had useful divine origin resonances, deriving from the German Gotterdammrung, with all its Aryan and later Wagnerian triumphal connotations.

However, I have searched Yeats's poetry and prose for substantive use of the term "Celt" and failed to find such.

It transpires that a London publisher was responsible for the title The Celtic Twilight; even a century ago, as Frank McNally wittily notes, the term was marketable. Furthermore, the "quaint Celt" invented by Matthew Arnold was still perhaps the only prudent prism through which the dour British could understand the wild Irish.

Consequently, many Irish scholars who are published in the UK traditionally have the term "Celtic" inserted - without protest - in the titles of their works. European scholars - including Irish - contributed to I Celti, the greatest ever Celtic exhibition in Italy in 1991. One scholar let the cat out of the fragile Celtic bag by saying, in relation to one artefact, that "an a priori Celticism must be assumed".

As McNally pointed out, it is now realised, at least by archaeologists, that the single unexplained phenomenon of our culture is the Irish language. But, taking the "a priori" path, even he assumes it is "indisputably Celtic". In fact, the Celticism of Irish is very disputable and has been since 1899. In that year Dr Morris Jones (in The Welsh People) first highlighted the strange evidence of a Hamito-Semitic (ie Berber, Arabic and Hebraic) linguistic substratum under our beautiful language.

The late Jules Pokorny, Heinrich Wagner and the contemporary linguistic scholars Theo Vennemann and Orin Gensler have in their own research come to a similar conclusions: Irish has such an amount of syntactical differences (notably the verb/subject order) from European languages (except perhaps Finno/Ugrian) that its relationship to north African and Middle Eastern languages must be more than coincidental.

Naturally, these scholars' lifelong research has up to now been treated with great good humour by purveyors of conventional Celtic wisdom. The Irish language has become the last-ditch stand of the Celticists - and vice versa.

But Michael Viney's summary of contemporary research into post-glacial (ie the past 10,000 years) immigration to this island gives archaeology an exciting new maritime perspective. More importantly, it may also persuade conventional linguistic scholarship to revise its thinking.

Viney reports on the evidence of many examples of our flora and fauna, such as pine, elm and oak, coming directly by sea from Iberia. But if, as is now indicated, many of the species introduced in antiquity came with pioneer human colonisers from the south, bypassing Britain and Europe, linguists may also be persuaded to investigate the new perspective.

What language did the architects of Brú na Bóinne speak? Could fundamental structures of a language or languages brought with the earliest immigrants from the south survive at least 5,000 years?

Why not? Syntax best survives the ravages of time: in Anglo-Hibernian for instance, even in the Dart patois.

One theme that is emerging in all fields of study on this island is a continuity of development. In other words, physical evidence for a disruptive invasion in 500BC that allegedly forged Irish culture and personality is almost non-existent.

Even DNA has its part to play. The human genome researches of Dr Dan Bradley of Trinity College point to Connacht as a concentrated source of ancient genetic markers, suggesting a remarkable continuity of habitation.

The idea of a homogeneous Celtic empire on continental Europe is wishful thinking. No such ancient peoples ever called themselves "Celts". The evidence of a "Celtic" origin for the Irish language is, I suggest, equally porous. And here is where I return to my original suggestion: racism or, at the very least, xenophobia.

As the crude Aryan philosophy was in fashion in the late 19th century, when Irish became a formal badge of nationhood, any suggestion (such as Morris Jones's) that the language had, to put it crudely, a touch of the tar, must have been shocking. However now, in our emerging multicultural society, the Atlantean Irish maritime perspective may be viewed less harshly, and may in fact be seen as simple common sense.

In the 50,000 years of homo sapiens' history these concerns may seem small, but if we don't get the past right, our present and future may be equally skewed.

Bob Quinn is a film-maker, writer and author of The Atlantean Irish, Ireland's Oriental & Maritime Heritage, published by Lilliput Press