Book review: The Origins of the Irish


Book review: The Origins of the Irish

The Origins of the Irish

JP Mallory Thames & Hudson, €19.60

JP MALLORY’S The origins of the Irish is a brilliant exploration of the pre-history of Ireland and the Irish. The story that Mallory tells is not about what it means to be Irish today or about the historical roots of contemporary Irish national identities.

Rather, Mallory looks at the forces and peoples who come before the first person who we can claim to be both a real Irish historical figure, rather than a mythic one.

Mallory identifies Niall Noígiallach (‘Niall of the nine hostages’) as the first Irishman to begin to step out of myth and become a part of conventional historical record.

There are plenty of myths about Niall and how he came to succeed his father and claim the high kingship of Ireland, but he did exist. Niall created a dynasty, the Ui Néill (Niall’s descendants), which ruled for 600 years after his death around 450AD.

From Niall Noígiallach on we can recount the history of Ireland from historical records and narratives; it was one of his sons who refused baptism from St Patrick at Tara.

Before Niall Noígiallach, piecing together what made Ireland and the Irish is a matter of geology, geography, archaeology and linguistics. These are all complex subjects, but Mallory leads us through them gently and with humour.

Geology comes first. Ireland’s location shaped who could people the island, where they came from and what they needed to bring with them. As so often in history, Irish unity was long in the making and its place in the world changeable.

It took millions of years for the landmass that was to become Ireland to form and many more millions for it to be pushed by geological forces from what is today the coast of Australia to our current location. Once in place the landscape was shaped by ice ages.

As the ice ages ended, glaciers melted and began to form the seas that make Ireland an island. Before the seas were fully formed there may have been land bridges that linked Ireland to Britain and possibly to France.

These land bridges would have allowed plants and animals to colonise Ireland. Ireland was, however, disadvantaged by its location.

Plant and animal life spread out from the south of Europe so that Ireland was the last location to be populated by flora and fauna. As plant and animal life moved north and west biodiversity declined.

France has around 3,500 native plant species, Ireland 815; Britain has 32 species of mammals, Ireland 14. Some plant and animal life found Ireland’s environment inhospitable or simply could not make it over seas or soggy land bridges. Snakes never made it at all, so St Patrick didn’t have much of a job casting them out.

The limited biodiversity of Ireland strongly influenced its population by humans. People, like flora and fauna, came to Ireland later than to other parts of Europe. There is evidence of human habitation in southern Britain from around 270,000 years ago, but no evidence of humans in Ireland until 10,000 years ago.

Some of these early human settlers may have come across land bridges, but more probably came by sea routes.

Mallory reviews all of the contending claims about where the first peoples of Ireland came from and argues that the most likely jump-off point for the population of Ireland was the area around the basin stretching from southern Scotland to northern Wales and encompassing the Isle of Man.

Similar tools to those used in these areas have been found by Irish archaeologists, and some of the people living in the Isle of Man basin may have been encouraged to migrate to Ireland as they were pushed out of their homes by rising seas.

Wherever the first settlers came from, they were few in number. Ireland’s more limited supply of game and plants made it a harder place for hunter-gatherers to survive. They may well have brought wild pigs with them to enrich their diet.

It is little wonder that farming spread quickly when the Neolithic agricultural revolution reached Ireland about 3,800 BC, with agriculture replacing the older hunter-gatherer lifestyle within a couple of centuries.

Agriculture brought cattle, beer and bread, and later horses. There is less doubt that farming reached Ireland predominantly from Britain, than there is about the arrival of the first humans. Early farming settlements and tools found in Ireland closely resemble those found in Britain.

Strong contacts between Ireland, Britain and the continent endured through the Bronze and Iron Ages, including trading links with the Romans, which helped to change Irish dress and weaponry.

New products and technologies, whether they were the drinking and storage vessels of the ‘Beaker’ people, or bronze weapons, styles of settlement, burial and ritual were imported through migration and assimilation, or introduced by travelling craftsmen or groups of elite warriors.

These included many of the artefacts and sites that we associate with Irish pre-history: hillforts, the ritual sites at Newgrange and Tara, gold torcs and metal swords.

Genetic and linguistic records support the idea of Ireland developing with the rest of Europe through trade and the migration of small numbers of people like craftsmen and warriors.

Although there are arguments over the precise genetic origins of the first Irish peoples, it is fairly certain there were no great waves of migration after the Neolithic.

A language related to Irish probably developed at the same time as the Neolithic agricultural revolution and was part of the Celtic family of Indo-European languages.

The spread of hillforts and the emergence of a class of elite warriors, some of whom probably came from Britain and the continent, helped to transform this common language into what would become old Irish.

Together geography, language, agriculture and genes all made Niall Noígiallach, Mallory’s first historic Irish man. Niall is not just the first historic Irishman for Mallory because he crosses the threshold between myth and record.

Mallory argues that Niall also lived in a geography that endures, an Ireland of provinces that could be unified under his high kingship. Niall’s Ireland had five provinces, Connacht, Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Meath.

Each of the provinces had a peculiar characteristic associated with it. Connacht’s was learning, Munster’s music, Ulster’s battle and Leinster’s prosperity (some things change less than others). Meath, the central province, was associated with kingship.

The idea of the provinces and their character created what Mallory calls a ‘politico-cosmology’, a political sense of how Ireland was a single space that could be ruled.

Although this ‘politico-cosmology’ was only described after Niall’s death in the middle ages, Mallory argues convincingly that it was part of the mental map of the high kings of Tara, based on ancient sites in the provinces that can be identified by archaeology.

The Ui Néill, he argues, were tapping into older ideas about the unity of Ireland when they justified their rule at Tara as unifying the four other provinces. It would still be some centuries before there was an Irish nation.

That would need nationalism, but by Niall’s death there was a something of a ‘national consciousness’, an idea that the inhabitants of Ireland were a people.

Many people will disagree with this and see Irish national consciousness as coming later, in the face of Viking or Norman incursions and conquest.

Others will see the very idea that there can be any kind of national consciousness before ideas of nationalism develop as an anachronism. But whether you agree with Mallory’s final conclusion or not, his book is a fine guide to the earliest inhabitants of this island.

Neil Robinson is professor of politics at the University of Limerick

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