Kendall Wild: An Irish history
A book just printed this year is a fascinating combination of archaeology and linguistics, and, as you might guess, it’s by a person who is an expert in both those subjects.
“The Origins of the Irish” is by J.P. Mallory, emeritus professor of prehistoric archaeology at Queen’s University in Belfast. One of his earlier works was a study of the language, archaeology and myths of the Indo-Europeans.
The word used in the title of the latest book puts the word “origin” in the plural, and as Professor Mallory makes clear, the Irish are derived from more than one source. It must have been fascinating to be a student in one of his classes. His text is scholarly but full of witticisms that help to lighten the sometimes very abstruse subjects under discussion.
And there were actually two Irelands originally — not the political division we know today, but a geological division, so in telling of origins the author in an early chapter takes up the geological beginnings of the island billions of years ago.
The northeast section was separate from the southeast section, sometimes several thousand miles apart. A map outlines their gradual shift northeastward, from a spot near what is now Australia to the conjoined island’s present location at the west of Europe.
In addition to everything else, you get an interesting outline of the continental drift which is still going on.
Mallory uses as a recurring theme the semi-legendary figure of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who in the years before 450 A.D. founded a dynasty that dominated Ireland for several hundred years. One of the questions the book takes up is: Exactly when, if ever, did the people in what is now Ireland become actually “Irish?”
While there were people inhabiting the island from perhaps 8000 B.C. onward, they were not necessarily of families limited only to that particular island. Some were from Britain or Wales or Scotland, and from mainland Europe. There is a long discussion of the various theories about where the people came from before they settled in what’s now Ireland — and those theories range from North Africa and Spain to southern France and Norway.
One of the author’s strong points is that he is not so much an expounder of a theory as the transit of a variety of theories by other archaeologists and linguists. He liberally quotes other authors by name and explains their ideas, and then tells of the different theories on the same subject by other writers, discussing the strong points and weaknesses of each. And while he often says that while one particular theory explains a subject with the fewest drawbacks, there are certain things that theory does not explain.
The earliest humans in Ireland were hunter-gatherers who arrived in the Middle Stone Age. Thereafter, in the Neolithic (New Stone Age) there came people who were agricultural, growing livestock and cereals. Did they supplant the earlier people, or did the earlier people learn to join them?
That has been under discussion for a long time, and. Mallory leaves open the question whether there was a wave of invaders or whether it was a matter of small groups arriving separately and gradually multiplying. He is inclined to feel more comfortable with the latter explanation. Although at one point he asks: “Are archaeologists really that bad at identifying population incursions? (Don’t try to answer that yet.)”
In a discussion of the linguistic ancestry of Irish, the author takes up the wide range of Indo-European languages, from Celtic in western Europe to Sanskrit in India and Tocharian in western China. Then he says: “That means that the language of Niall of the Nine Hostages shares the same distinct language ancestor with his contemporaries, the Tocharians of the Tarim basin of China, though they are so far apart that if one shouted a word loud enough in the land of the Tocharians it would take over five hours to be heard in Dublin.” The book is full of witticisms like that one.
The book is also blessed with a multitude of maps. The introduction includes a map naming each of the counties on the island. And practically every chapter has a map showing the places in Ireland that are named in that chapter.
The book goes into detail about the legends carried by the Irish themselves as to their origins, and how they probably started as pagan legends but were amended by the Christian monks who wrote them down.
The author thinks there was a lot of Roman contact, not perhaps so much from Rome directly as from Romanized Britons — St. Patrick was the son of a Romanized Briton who was captured and carried as a slave in an Irish raid on Britain. On that subject Mallory quotes the geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria as saying there are no snakes in Ireland, and he wrote that about 100 A.D., centuries before the arrival of St. Patrick.
And Niall of the Nine Hostages was himself the son of a Roman British mother who had been carried off in a raid by his Irish father.
But the professor thinks that by the first couple of centuries before Christ the language of Ireland could be called Irish, so that when Niall went to heaven about 450 A.D. “he entered it as an Irishman.”
There is one very modern footnote to this discussion. The opening page says: “Copyright 2013, Thames & Hudson, Ltd., London.” And then at the bottom of that page comes: “Printed and bound in China.”
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.