Book Review: The Origins of the Irish

The Origins of the Irish, J. P. Mallory, Thames & Hudson: London, 2013, ISBN:9780500051757

To give away the game before starting, I would like to say that this book would be an excellent addition to the library of anyone who has an interest in the pre-history of Ireland. While it is not my area of expertise, it illuminated much which I had already gleaned from the writings of others; however, this was done in a highly engaging and effective way. One of the main advantages of this book is the way in which the key points are gathered at the end of each chapter which reminds the reader of all the foregoing material. This would easily make this a book which should appear in any Celtic Studies course. The additional factor which makes this book even more valuable is the easy style and humour of one who has an absolute command of the primary and secondary material. However, this is not a book without its flaws which will be discussed anon.

To allow himself some kind of bounding box for his enquiry, Mallory chooses to take the reign of Niall Noígiallach as his terminus ante quem of his study. This nicely sets the boundary at about the point at which early Irish literature, broadly construed, begins to discuss historical matters rather than creation and group identity myths. At this point he asks the question: would a person in Ireland at this point consider themselves Irish? This might sound strange to the ear of a modern Irish person. This, however, is a key point: we have no idea and will never have any idea about the group identity of the people living in Ireland before the period of the Iron Age, where it becomes easier to imagine the people living then to be more like those about whom we read in the literature. Even, as Mallory discusses, DNA does not help in many cases and is often misused and misconstrued as evidence in claims about “Celticity”.

In terms of flaws, the first chapter is one of them. The quip attributed to Carl Sagan comes to mind: “to make an apple pie by scratch, you first have to create the universe”. This is what the first chapter does. It takes you from the beginning of the universe up to c. 10,000 years ago with the advent of the first evidence of human settlement in Ireland. This was unnecessary. While a geologic description of Ireland would have nicely set the stage for the rest of the book, this is, as the adage goes, “over-egging the pudding”. While the chapter was rather amusing, it could probably have been removed or heavily revised to a more straightforward account of the geology of Ireland around the time of human settlement.

The second chapter discusses the first colonists to Ireland, which, as noted, was the last colonized area of Eurasia. Much of this chapter covers the debates around how the colonists first arrived. The most likely of these are Scotland, the Isle of Man, or Wales. These are rather obvious although Brittany is also discussed as a possible launching point.

The third chapter covers the first farmers and the introduction of farming techniques into Ireland. Much of the material culture between Ireland and Britain at this time point to a heavy cross-sea connections (and some to Brittany). Again, while there is some controversy surrounding the details, it seems to be agreed that, once farming was introduced by outside peoples, the farming colonists simply outbred and outfed their neighbours. Additionally, the farming communities and the previous inhabitants did not have much mutual contact.

The fourth chapter covers the more mysterious and controversial Beaker-culture which spread across Europe after 2500 BCE. This brought metallurgy (copper, silver, gold) to Ireland and connected Ireland and all of the British Isles into a large cultural network which extended from Norway to Spain and Ireland to Hungary. While the invasion hypothesis has lost favor, it is not entirely clear how the Beaker-culture came to Ireland and there are very few Beaker-culture artefacts left in Ireland. This leads to the question: how could the Beaker-culture have such an outsized effect on Ireland? The introduction of metallurgy is my preferred answer in this case. Transforming rock into metal is one of the most powerful things a human being can do and if you can do this, it gives you tremendous power over others both in the sense of weaponry and ritually.

The fifth chapter covers the Bronze Age in Ireland. This was a more quiescent period in pre-historic Ireland. The waves of people more or less stopped but the interchange between the Continent and the British Isles continued unabated. Hillforts begin to be constructed and there seems to be a rise of a warrior culture. This could be construed, especially for the late Bronze Age, as an early “Celtic” culture. However, as I, and many scholars maintain, “Celtic” is a purely linguistic term and not a very good one at that as the controversy over the term “Celtic”, now seems to be entering its third decade.

The sixth chapter is devoted to the Iron Age and is one of the longest in the book. While we are now a far cry from Jackson’s “The Oldest Irish Tradition: A Window on the Iron Age”, much of what appears in the Iron Age is kept and brought forward in to the historical period. However, the quiescence continues into this age. There is no evidence for an invasion, only a continuation of incremental improvements to technology. Hallstatt and La Téne cultures seem to have been imported and assimilated without difficulty. This would argue for a deep cultural connection between the British Isles and the Continent. One must remember here that the sea is not a barrier but highway and boat making was a more widespread skill than within the last few hundred years in the British Isles.

In chapter seven we get a very condensed version of Leabor Gabála Érenn. This relies heavily on the work of John Carey for translation and some commentary and Kim McCone for the “Irish Old Testament” interpretation. While this is laudable, it does not mention the seminal articles by Scowcroft (see here and here) which cover a large amount of ground concerning the manuscript tradition. These articles are the touchstone for any discussion of Leabor Gabala Érenn and probably should have been included. Mallory seems to be leaning heavily on Celtic Studies here but he still shows a deft hand at communicating the basic story without getting lost in the details.

Chapter eight is where much of the value of this book derives. This chapter covers the recent discoveries using DNA evidence, which is mainly derived from what can be extracted from ancient bones and teeth. There are two sets of contradictory conclusions that can be made and many of the sensationalist claims (such as those surrounding Niall Noígiallach himself) should be taken with a rather large dose of salt. This kind of DNA evidence shows that cultural change cannot be predicated on changes in DNA. Most of the populations of Europe carry very similar haplogroups and there is little in the way of evidence that Ireland is substantially different than any other group in Europe since the last Ice Age. Much of the debate around ancient DNA evidence has a tinge of race based thinking behind it which makes me rather uncomfortable especially since the technology and the current interpretive techniques lack subtlety and maturity. More evidence and less hyperbole is needed.

The last chapter which contains the meat of the book is the chapter devoted to language. Here, he takes the reader through the various evidence from Ptolemy’s geography to the language of the Old Irish period. Most of this is what you would get in an undergraduate course on Celtic as a language group with a focus on Irish. The only place where Mallory and I differ is that he believes that there was a group of Brittonic speakers in the southeast of the country at the time of the Ptolemaic geography. I would say that this may show that Insular Celtic was still in the latter stages of breaking up rather than being Brittonic as such.

To conclude, this is an excellent book and brings a much needed synthesis of all the current knowledge in various areas surrounding pre-historic and near historic Ireland. It brings a corrective tone to the sensationalist claims of DNA enthusiasts (rarely it seems scientists themselves). This book is well worth the cover price and should be in the syllabus of any beginning course on Celtic Studies.

Christopher Guy Yocum ORCID

1 Comment

I read this book from beginning to end and enjoyed it, and I agree with the comments in this review.

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About cyocum

user-pic Celticist, Computer Scientist, Nerd, sometimes a poet…