Book Review: In Search of Ancient Ireland

by J.W. Jamieson

17 April 2004

[from The Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2003]

In Search of Ancient Ireland: The Origins of the Irish from Neolithic Times to the Coming of the English
Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton

Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, Chicago

Those who live only in the present have only the shallowest understanding of the deeper intellectual pleasures of life. Indeed, people are not cultured beings unless they have some idea of history, and of their own place in history. Everything has a causal context, and the present is only a fleeting moment in the ongoing causal continuum that extends from the past into the future. Consequently, any reader of even part-Irish ancestry will find this book fascinating, and all who have enquiring minds, no matter what their ancestry, will find it an easy read and an absorbing study.

One of the major areas of academic dispute concerns the origin of the Celts in Ireland. When we enter historic times, it is well established that Celtic was the language of Ireland, and that Celtic mythology spoke of an earlier people who had inhabited Ireland before the arrival of the Celts. Until recent times, anthropologists and historians believed that prior to the arrival of the Celts, the Western Atlantic coast of central and southern Europe and much of the Mediterranean was occupied by an earlier Caucasoid race, dark and stocky, and hence named Atlanto-Mediterranean. In Ireland and the rest of the Atlantic European coastlands, it was assumed that members of that earlier population were overrun and either exterminated or reduced to lower-class status by the arrival of a taller, fair-haired Celtic warrior aristocracy. It was explained that their genes would have eventually mingled with those of the Celtic invaders, particularly in mountainous and more unattractive regions such as the bogs of Ireland and the mountains of Wales, thus explaining the presence of darker hair and eye coloring in areas in which the Celtic language survived the subsequent wave of conquest and settlement by Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Franks and Goths.

However, it is a fact that archaeology cannot tell us anything direct about language in prehistoric times, unless evidence of a written language survives -- and because the ancient Celts memorized their history and religious dicta in lengthy poetry and left no written records, archaeology cannot tell us when Celtic was first spoken in Ireland. Of course, this does not mean that archaeology does not provide us with prehistoric evidence of the culture that we associate with Celtic-speaking societies at the dawn of history. Yet, this lacuna has been grasped by those amongst present-day archaeologists who seek to play down the importance of the race and physical anthropology, and deny the reality of human conquest and human migration. Denying the reality of race means denying the reality of group competition in history and prehistory, and so it has become fashionable in a politicized academe to argue that even the concept of a "Celtic" people is unsound. Thus John Waddell has suggested that "There was a prolonged pattern of contact between the peoples of Ireland, Britain and the continent extending over perhaps thousands of years. This contact could have allowed a Celtic language to slowly emerge in these various localities."

Such a theory is without either anthropological or linguistic foundation. No languages that were distinct from each other could ever have emerged if there were no social or geographical barriers in history and prehistory. Much more realistic is the view of Donnchadh O Caorrain that the transference of language could only have taken place by the settlement of Britain -- and from thence, Ireland, from the continent, where the epicenter of the Celtic languages, both Brythonic (British) and Goidelic (Gaelic), can be demonstrated linguistically to have originated. This occurred when it separated from the proto-Germanic and other related Western Indo-European languages. This migration would have to have involved not merely warriors but whole families, because as the authors observe, "languages tend to travel with women and not with men." It is from the mothers that children learn to speak. Germanic-speaking Vikings later arrived in Ireland as conquerors, but interbred with Irish women so that their offspring became Irish and learned to speak the Celtic Irish language in place of their own Norse language.

As the Roman armies pulled out of mainland Britain, Celtic-speaking Irish raiders harassed the British coastline, carrying away slaves to Ireland, including a sixteen-year-old Christian boy called Patrick, who was to convert Ireland to Christianity, and remains the patron saint of Ireland to this day. Other Irish raiders, known to the Romans by the Latin Scoti, actually settled in what we today know as Argyllshire, bringing the Gaelic language with them, and became such a powerful force that the entire northern part of the British mainland came to be known as Scotland.

In Search of Ancient Ireland actually concentrates more on subsequent early history than on prehistory. The role of early Christianity and the conflict between the Celts, who did not live in towns, and the Viking settlers who were great traders and founded all of modern Ireland's coastal cities, is documented colorfully. So also is the story of the Christian monks, many of whom established monasteries along the wild coasts of Ireland. In time, they learned to fear the raids of the pagan Vikings, as testified by the comment written by a relieved Irish monk in a Latin gospel:

The wind is fierce tonight
It tosses the sea's white hair
So I fear no wild Vikings
Sailing the quiet main.

Dublin, which was to become the capital of Ireland, was founded by Vikings in 841 AD. Names such as Doyle, MacAuliffe, MacIvor and Reynolds are actually of Irish origin, and the Irish of today are as much Germanic as Celtic and pre-Celtic. But Ireland, like India, has a way of absorbing immigrants, and the Celts and the Germans came from a common stock, so that they could not be told apart by their physical appearance. Only the Atlanto-Mediterranean component gives some present-day Irish people a somewhat different appearance from the Celts, Vikings, Norman-French and Anglo-Saxons who subsequently came to Ireland and intermarried with the earlier settlers. Dark hair and blue eyes is an unusual combination that is fairly common trait in Ireland.

It is a tragic example of the decadence of modern Western society that when builders excavating in the old center of Dublin in the latter part of the Twentieth Century uncovered the site of the early Viking settlement of Dublin, protests by academics from the university against further destruction of this historic site were overriden by the Dublin government, and only scant exploration of the remains was permitted before building was allowed to continue. The building was intended to house new offices for the city administration. An original Viking brick wall had been found intact, but since it stood in the way of the foundations that had to be laid for the new high-rise building, pleas to save it were overruled. One concession was made: in their magnanimity the city authorities decreed that it should be demolished brick by brick, and re-erected on a different site, using modern techniques of bricklaying! This is a dire reflection on the intellectual and cultural level of those who lead not just Ireland but so much of Europe today.

In real terms, the prevalent opinion is that Celts, bringing with them a Gaelic version of the Celtic language and Iron Age technology, most probably settled Ireland between 700 and 300 BC. However, other authorities have suggested a much earlier date, around 1200 to 1000 BC, based on archaeological investigation that provides evidence of the existence of a warrior aristocracy so typical of sites on the continent that have direct links to historically-known Celtic societies. Suggestions that a Celtic proto-language might have arrived even earlier, with bronze-age technology, are not taken seriously because the Celtic languages are believed to have only separated from the Germanic languages in the second half of the second millenium BC.

In Search of Ireland comprises a well-balanced and very readable study for the non-specialist.


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