The Origins of the Irish: a review

by frankbeswick

This is a well-written book that delivers its message in a concise style, and is interesting to read.

Those of us who are of some degree of Irish heritage naturally take an interest in the history and origins of the Irish people and their culture and language. This book by J.P. Mallory, a professor of archaeology, makes a serious endeavour to satisfy this need. The book sets the story of the Irish people in the geology of Ireland, but also sets it in the wider culture of the British Isles and its shared ethnic heritage.This may upset some people of nationalist inclinations, but he is correct to make a few significant digs at those who still cling to the outdated error of the belief that the Irish, or any other people for that matter, are a pure race.

Photo of a Dolmen on the Burren, County Clare, courtesy of Rajah from Pixabey.

The Beginnings

The author seems to have a strong urge to bust myths,one of which is the notion that any nation has a claim to be special. Britain did not rise from the azure main with an imperial mission, and Ireland did not arise in a glorious Celtic dreamtime with a clear sense of  its role in the world. In fact, he begins with a foray through geological time showing how the island was for eons part of supercontinents that meandered through plate tectonics until it found its present location. Mallory skilfully works his narrative through the Ice Ages to lead to the introduction of humans. But the skilful weaving of the narrative leads to the question of who counts as an Irish person, and he discounts claims that the stone age visitor many  millennia ago who left a trace of a transient hunting visit to the ice-locked isle could be classed as an Irishman. He finally settles on the sixth century Niall of the Nine Hostages, who anyway was half British, the son of  an abducted princess got on her by an Irish king.

The book pays serious attention to the initial stages of the peopling of the land and the establishment of its fauna. This is welcome because this issue is oft-neglected. The glaciers destroyed all life on the island, both animal and fish, meaning that the early settlers came to a land which was prone to famine. The fact that Ireland was sundered from the European mainland earlier than Britain was led to a paucity of large mammalian food resources. Wild pigs came early and  the Irish elk followed, but cattle are not native to Erin. Badgers were imported as a food source and migratory fish, such as salmon and eels, were able to arrive on their own. 

But the peopling was a source of doubt. Palaeolithic hunters almost certainly came to Ireland on passing visits as hunters ventured north seeking meat. But they were transient. Only in the early Mesolithic period about 8000 BC  did small groups make the venture from Britain to Ireland. The issue is how they crossed the Irish Sea  How did they cross? Some scholars have suggested that there were several shallow crossing points in the Irish Sea,but this is unlikely as  the Irish Sea is deep and even if not flooded it would have been boggy, even if it was then shallow enough. The shortest crossing is from South West Scotland to North East Ireland, but the channel between the two islands there is deepened by the Beaufort Dyke, a glacially gouged channel of significant depth. Boats would have been needed. Another possibility  is that there were shallow  patches and islets spreading from the Mull of Kintyre to the Irish coast that made short hops to Ireland, but this has not been proved. What seems to be a viable hypothesis is that the peopling of Ireland initially came from the Isle of Man. As sea levels rose the already populated Isle of Man lost land to the sea, creating population pressure among the Mesolithic inhabitants of the Isle. A boat trip from the Isle of Man to Ireland is short and as safe as sea travel can be, so this looks like a viable route. As an explanation of the crossing route it fits with the fact that most early inhabitation sites  are in the North. 


The Settlers

Mallory makes the point that it is most likely that Ireland's Mesolithic settlers migrated via Britain, and he regards the relationship between the two islands as locked in a long-standing though often less than amicable relationship.  He follows the norm for prehistorians in thinking that  the Mesolithic inhabitants of both isles as having made little contribution to the genetics of Ireland,  but he sees more contribution in the genetic history provided by the Neolithic farmers, who came to the British Isles from the Middle East bearing agriculture with them. It is these who made the great neolithic monuments of the two isles. Significant trade routes emerged and there was a common culture between Britain and Ireland, though in the later Neolithic some cultural divergences  arose. Mallory does not analyse cultural divergences in detail, as he is more concerned with origins. However, he discusses the significance of the third group of incomers, the Beaker Folk, a group who introduced metallurgy and possibly brewing to the British Isles. 

It is this group who were to give him the kind of bad luck that bedevils historical authors, for he concluded his work only for archaeologists discovered that the Beaker Folk, or a related culture, may have been the beneficiaries of a major pandemic, possibly Yersinia pestis, the Black Death, which swept through the British Isles subsequent to the construction of Stonehenge, possibly killing ninety per cent of the Neolithic inhabitants of Britain and eighty per cent of the Irish population.    A hasty amendment had to be made to the book. Unlike the Neolithic folk, who were almost certainly brown, these folk originating in the steppes were white and they were responsible for the white skin of the British and Irish up to our time.   

Mallory is luckier in his dealing with the Celtic Invasion, which did not happen. Nineteenth century historians postulated a Celtic invasion of Ireland to account for Celtic cultural elements in Irish art, but later scholars have replaced the invasion with cultural influences in the first century BC. The Irish were not ever a Celtic people, though there were probably cultural affinities with the Celtic tribes of Gall and Spain.

The book deals well with one puzzling element in the relationship between the two islands. Why were there on the East coast of Ireland a few tribes with British names, such as the Brigantes, a tribe from North East England corresponding to the Brigantes of South East Ireland. Mallory raises the issue  in the context of political relationships in the British Isles in the pre-Roman period, but the issue is not resolved. He also relates this question to the issue of the languages spoken in Ireland.

One subject that Mallory deals with is the issue of the Romans in Ireland. There was a Roman presence in the isle, but it was not one of conquest, but rather of trade. The author does well to highlight this subject, which has hardly been a topic for popular history. It is known that Rome had cultural impact beyond its boundaries in states outside the empire, so it is not beyond belief that Roman cultural elements occur in Ireland. 


A language is integral to a people's identity and this is so with Irish, which has survived against the odds despite at times being written off for extinction.The puzzle is when did the Gaelic language come to Ireland.It seems that the Celtic tongues are members of the Indo-European family, but the origins of this family, which seems to have expanded with the spread of agriculture, seem to lie in modern day Turkey, though Turkish is not one of them. Maĺlory discounts any statement that Gaelic arose from the Mesolithic population of Ireland, as they were pre-agricultural. But he also rejects the belief that these languages came with the Neolithic settlers .A theory is that the Neolithic folk spoke a Northwest African tongue, but this does not meet Mallory's approval, and he gives short shrift to the claim, though I believe that the issue has not been satisfactorily resolved yet.

One theory is that it arose as a patois for those working and trading along the coasts of Western Europe, but Mallory dismisses this as it does  not have some of the linguistic signs of a language that arose as a trading medium. Instead, Mallory opts for a late date in the Irish Iron Age. This does not convince me and I think that  the issue is resolved yet and it may never be.

The palaeogenetic discovery  of the disruption of European populations in Britain and Ireland, probably by plague, which is revealed near the end of the book, may have an answer. The new population who swamped the earlier settlers, were almost certainly part of an Indo-European speaking population  and thus would most certainly have introduced their language to the British Isles. It  is not necessary to postulate that Gaelic arose there and then, but its roots certainly lie there. There was certainly more linguistic evolution to go on, especially the phonetic development which saw the Celtic tongues evolve in the linguistic split between P Celtic and Q Celtic tongues, to the latter of which Gaelic belongs. But there is more work remaining to be done. 

This was an informative, enjoyable and well written work well worth reading and available at a reasonable price. I commend it to readers. 


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Updated: 06/30/2023, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 08/06/2023

I do not think that there is currently any difference between the diets.

DerdriuMarriner on 08/05/2023

The land and the sea animal populations of ancient and modern Ireland intrigue me.

Would you say that the northern and the republican Irish get their protein more from land or from sea life? In other words, would I find more land- or more sea-based protein sources if I would access northern and republican Irish recipes throughout time?

frankbeswick on 08/03/2023

The land was short of animals for food, but the ocean was stocked with fish that swam where they chose.

DerdriuMarriner on 08/02/2023

The second paragraph to your first subheading, The Beginnings, considers that "The book pays serious attention to the initial stages of the peopling of the land and the establishment of its fauna. This is welcome because this issue is oft-neglected. The glaciers destroyed all life on the island, both animal and fish, meaning that the early settlers came to a land which was prone to famine."

Is the sea world around Ireland inhabited only by non-native fishes? If so, who might have introduced them from where?

frankbeswick on 07/22/2023

The Tocharian and Gaelic languages belong to the Indo European group which originated in Anatolia, so there is ban affinity, but they do not have a specially definable connection.

DerdriuMarriner on 07/22/2023

I do not have access to the Barber book at this moment.

But my memory is that she listed among the mysteries of the light-eyed, light-skinned, slender, tall Urumchi mummies of the Tarim River Basin between India and China that they speak a language most related to the group to which Gaelic belongs even as they seem to have an ancient Iranian connection.

Would that suggest some predecessory kinship with the ancestors of the Irish or would it suggest that perhaps Tocharian was not their native language?

frankbeswick on 07/21/2023

Horses are an Irish passion, but the geographical distance between the Irish and the
Tarim river people's implies a large difference in time between the contacts between the people's.I think that the Trojan connection is a red herring, as Trojans were not a distinct race or culture, they were a town in the broader cultural life of Anatolia that was destroyed.. no connections with Ireland can be discerned

DerdriuMarriner on 07/21/2023

Elizabeth Wayland Barber associates ancient Irish, Tarim River Basin peoples and Trojans with perfecters of horse-raising and textile-making, with residents near salt licks and with settlers of strategic sites with stunning views.

She identifies Tarim River Basin peoples, known as the Urumchi mummies, as speaking the Tocharian language, close to no language apart the group to which Gaelic belongs.

Would you say that her associations of horses, salt, sites and textiles apply to what we know to be true of the ancient Irish?

frankbeswick on 07/21/2023

Your suggestion that a folk memory is augmented by subsequent memories is absolutely correct. Several different ones become fused into one single memory.

There is no memory of a giant flood in the British Isles, we had the story of Noah for that. Anyway, the story of Atlantis tells of a spectacular and unique event. However we have tales of localized flooding. There is a folk memory of flooding in Cardigan Bay which is supported by evidence from oceanography , and in Cornwalll legend speaks of the drowning of the land of Lyonesse

DerdriuMarriner on 07/20/2023

I like that suggestion of a folk memory.

Might there be a folk memory of such destruction in the British Isles or would such destruction be unthinkable in the context of how the waters around the British Isles behave?

Regarding Atlantis, would it be a case of one folk beginning that memory and others adding to it? Or would it be just the one memory and, if so, with what ancient country or ancient continental area?

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