Monday, March 17, 2014

A Saint Patrick's Day Question: Where Did The Irish Come From?

I won't draw out the suspense...the simple answer is Spain. I think the evidence is now pretty definitive that Ireland was populated from the Iberian peninsula fairly soon after the ice retreated at the beginning of the current Holocene Epoch. In the last five years DNA evidence has shown convincingly that from an Ice Age refuge somewhere in the current Basque region the original founder population of Ireland migrated up the Atlantic coast before settling along the Irish littoral. The great Irish neolithic monuments are the work of these people. But you don't just have to rely on the DNA evidence. A little noticed paper published in the journal PLOS ONE about snails also gives credence to this Spanish story. Apparently edible white lipped snails are found only in two places in Europe - the west of Ireland and the Basque Country. Scientists doing DNA research into these snails have concluded that they originally came from Spain and were carried to Ireland by migrating populations as a food source around the time that the first people also entered Ireland.
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All of this should be familiar to people who have read the work of historian Barry Cunliffe who has long spoken about an Atlantic civilization and ancient sea links between the British Isles, western France and northern Spain. Cunliffe turns the map of Europe on its side and points out that the Atlantic and the rivers flowing into the Atlantic and the North Sea were the most efficient way for ancient peoples to travel in a Europe that was covered by dense forests. Cunliffe argues that rather than seeing the Atlantic coast on the edge of Europe (as we do today) we instead should see it - as Neolithic people saw it - as an important sea lane between cultures. I find Cunliffe's work compelling and I wasn't surprised to see it referenced favourably in Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways. Macfarlane notes the similar folk traditions on the Celtic fringe of Europe's western periphery from Galicia to Orkney and speculates that it represents a unified culture connected by ancient sea routes that transcends the current temporary arbitrary national boundaries. 
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If you're not convinced by the DNA evidence, the snails or Barry Cunliffe's Atlantic civilization, you could also rely on Irish mythology and oral histories (written down much later) that speak of the "Milesian Peoples" who apparently were the last invaders of Ireland. The Milesians were a dark haired civilization who came from Spain. Long discounted as completely fictional these "Invasion Myths" perhaps reflect a folk memory that goes back thousands of years when the first peoples from Spain arrived in Ireland not too long after the retreat of the glaciers. 
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And who were these hardy Ice Age survivors? They were the descendants of the homo sapiens who first entered Europe about 40-50,000 years ago from Africa. The cave painters of Lascaux and Chauvet, the makers of bone flutes and the carvers of ivory jewelry and the Venus of Willendorf. People who'd entered a Europe filled with rhinos and lions, zebra and antelope, that didn't look that different from the place where they'd travelled from. So, ultimately, of course, the answer to the question of where the Irish came from is where we all came from: the savanna lands of The Great Rift Valley in East Africa.

48 comments:

Alan said...

Adrian,I do not find this so surprising as we have Breton friends who claim that in speaking their "langue de souche" they can understand a bit of Welsh." Perhaps unfortunately I think that the intense Spanish fanaticism was also inherited along with the snails.I am also amazed that strong cultural differences can exist among such similar people as the Scots and the indigenous Irish.Best Alan

Cary Watson said...

The delightful thing about studies like this one is that it helps rubbish the beliefs of racists and bigots. Any given European country may be linguistically or culturally homogeneous, but it's damn sure it's pure Heinz 57 when it comes to DNA.

Kate said...

Nice post!
I'd thought Europeans descended from much more recent west Asian settlers. But S. Oppenheimer has said: Celts, Angles, etc. made no real DNA impact in the Isles - yet the languages of Britain have existed in their respective regions for many thousands of years longer than previously thought. So I wonder if the Irish language and culture aren't "Celtic" (central European) at all?

Deb Klemperer said...

Barry Cunliffe is a really insightful and brilliant man. He was Professor of Archaeology at Southampton University by the time he was 27. Later, he was Professor of European archaeology at Oxford for 35 years! Yep, of course I have met him.

My mum was a Dublin girl. There was a family story of Spanish ancestry, not Ice Age, but from shipwrecked sailors of the Armada washing up on rocky shores - and into the arms of Irish girls.

Travel by river or coast in preference to roads (later supplemented by canals in several countries) was common until tarmacadam.

seana graham said...

My favorite part of all this is the rethinking the map aspect. Turning it on its side, and seeing a connected sea culture instead of a European edge.

It reminds me a bit of a piece I once saw Richard Rodriguez do about the cultures of North and South America, which said that in the longer view of history there is a great tidal movement of populations between north and south that is virtually unstoppable. It ended with a big group of young people from below the border just walking straight up the highway into North America.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Language is a slightly different issue. Its been well established for a while now that Gaelic speakers can intercommunicate in Galicia, Brittany, Cornwall, The Isle of Man, Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

Welsh, Cornish ancient Galician and Breton are one branch of Celtic.

Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic are another.

adrian mckinty said...

Cary

To be a racist is to be blind to the science. DNA has rubbished race as a meaningful category. I'll bet you every single KKK follower has West African DNA in their ancestory somewhere and anyone from the British Isles or indeed Europe is a cheerful mongrel.

adrian mckinty said...

Kate

Yeah Celts brought their language and later Anglo Saxons brought their language but both had little genetic impact according to Oppenheimer.

adrian mckinty said...

Deb

I love Cunliffe's stuff. He's been plugging away at this Atlantic sea road stuff for a while now and its a shame it isnt part of the accepted consensus because its so obvious and he is right.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

In Macfarlane's book he makes the point that nowadays we saw the Hebrides etc. as isolated islands on the fringe of the world but if you do Cunliffe's trick you see them as existing on the edge of a major throughfare connecting Western Europe by sea which is how they seem themselves - connected seaborn people.

seana graham said...

Of course, the American perspective is somewhat different. It's kind of, here's the British Isles and then there's the EU countries, and then there's the rest of that huge landmass that we can never be bothered to learn the geography of. So in some ways the "edge" goes the opposite way.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I dont think the Mercator projection helps demystify the rest of the landmass or Africa for that matter.

seana graham said...

No.

I happen to be reading Creation by Gore Vidal, and its really interesting to view the world from the point of view of a Persian traveler. How everything around it fits together geographically and other ways is not one of my strong points.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm freshly back from Brittany and Ireland, and I heard a bit of wistful piping in the former as well as the latter, not to mention the Breton place names that look like Gaelic, particularly in the matter of word endings..

And criminy, I've looked at Neolithic rock carvings in Ireland, Portugal, and France. It takes no great imagination to see common roots.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Though I can't believe white-lipped snails were ever considered edible.

seana graham said...

I didn't notice a huge escargot eating culture when I was there. White-lipped or otherwise.

I actually don't like to think of snails' lips much.

Peter Rozovsky said...

White-lipped? What were they so scared of?

Peter Rozovsky said...

Where Did The Irish Come From?

I won't draw out the suspense, the simple answer is Spain.


So all those Irish and English tourists who flock to Ibiza are following an atavistic yearning to return to their homeland (and get plastered at the same time)?

lil Gluckstern said...

I find these things so fascinating. You have presented a treatise which concludes that we are all pretty much related under the skin. Too bad those who need to see this won't read it and wouldn't believe it anyway.

lil Gluckstern said...

Seana-I loved Creation! Vidal was a wonderful story teller and very, very knowledgeable.

seana graham said...

You and me and who else read it, Lil? Certainly not the rest of my book group, who didn't even try after fifty pages or so. I was really happy I did, though, because not too long after, I found myself at the Getty Villa in Southern California, where they had a special exhibit featuring the Cyrus Cylinder, which predates the setting of Vidal's book by about 200 years. I wrote a little blog post on the experience here.No obligation to read it, of course, but you might like to see the video of the cylinder that I found for it.

lil Gluckstern said...

Seana-I read the book when it first came out, and I was enchanted by the almost parallel development of philosophical thoughts and growth of religions. I enjoyed your review, and understand how the book can bog down. But for me, it was a slow journey, and I had great admiration for Vidal. When I was in my twenties, he would make appearances on TV, and I saw him on Dick Cavett in the morning. Yes, it was a long time ago; he was my connection beyond raising children. Vidal's humor was dryer than the desert, and he was brilliant. Cavett was a great straight man for him. Great shows.

seana graham said...

Lil, it was a funny book for me, because I was dazzled by his erudition but it WAS long. I don't know if you've ever been in a reading group, but a book that might come across very differently if you were reading it at your own leisurely pace can seem quite a burden when it's an obligation. But like I say, I was glad to have read it in the end, enough so, that I went and checked out the gift shop at the Getty to see if they were stocking it--not that I knew who I would have foisted a copy on. No such luck.

I remember Vidal the raconteur from those days as well. A brilliant if not entirely kind man.

There doesn't seem to be a way to tie this into the Ireland theme here. Sorry about that.

seana graham said...

I'm getting behind on my NYRB reads because of other commitments, but I am still try trying to fit them in. I have no preferences, although it does look like some people might be up for Life and Fate. I have heard its great.

We did read Ebenezer La Page before here if that is still a question.

Rob James said...

Not forgetting of course that your man, Patrick, was Welsh.

Not that I'm finding an excuse to celebrate or anything.

Peter Rozovsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I bought Xenophon’s book about the education of Cyrus at the Getty Villa not long after the Cyrus exhibition closed. I think small models of the Cyrus cylinder were also available, but no Gore Vidal? Interesting.

Here, by the way, is a view I snapped at the Getty Villa. I was there late in the day.

seana graham said...

Nice pic. I think it's probably always pretty nice there though.

So are you reading it on the Ancient Greek side of the Xenephon or the translation side?

Peter Rozovsky said...

I read the English side, but I read just enough Greek that I can extract a kernel of meaning from a sentence now and then. I had a small epiphany from one such reading in a different Loeb Classical Library volume that I likely would not have had if I could read Greek better. I should make a blog post out it.

seana graham said...

You should, Peter. I can read
ancient Greek but that's not to say I understand it.

Peter Rozovsky said...

In that case, I recommend ΘΕΟΦΡΑΣΤΟΥ

ΧΑΡΑΚΤΗΡΕΣ.

seana graham said...

Thanks. I didn't know anything about Theoprastus' Characters, but sounds interesting. If it's good enough for George Eliot, it's good enough for me. Well, more than good enough, really. Too good.

Anne said...

I find this Irish/Spanish connection very convincing, from a purely subjective and personal angle: my eldest son, whose father was from Cork, once dated a Spanish girl and they looked like they were twins.

adrian mckinty said...

Rob

Or Cumbrian.

adrian mckinty said...

Anne

The DNA stuff in particular is very convincing.

adrian mckinty said...

Lil

The essays are terrific. A must read really along with Orwell's essays and I think Hitchens.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I've read Life and Fate. Its ok. The perspective is excellent but its pretty draggy in places.

The famous gas chamber scene however is as extraordinary as it is billed.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I was on local radio recently with a philosopher talking about his book on philosophy and sport. He happened to say that "we only know Socrates through the works of Plato."

I waited until we were off the air to remind(?) him of Xenophon and Aristophanes.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, if no other work from Classical Greece makes you laugh, the Characters ought to do it.

Theophrastus has had an interesting afterlife. He succeeded Aristotle at the Lyceum, wrote books on botany that were consulted for many hundreds of years, and he wrote those wonderfully funny character-type sketches.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Interesting to think of Aristophanes as a vehicle through which we know Socrates.

Theophrastus, and now Aristophanes: The two funniest ancient Greeks?

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Like Lenny Bruce I'm not sure Aristophanes's humour has aged that well.

Peter Rozovsky said...

But Theophrastus' has.

seana graham said...

I remember seeing The Birds in college and thinking that it hadn't. Aged well, that is. I believe something could still be done with Lysistrata, though. It's funny that some of the Roman comedies hold up. I suspect the Romans were more like us. Which isn't necessarily a compliment.

I've seen two plays in the last two days, and though both were okay in their way, dragginess was a big factor in the middle. It's a worse problem in a play than a book, I think, because a book you can at least put down for awhile.Of course, you can always walk out of a play, but it's not very cool, is it?

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Brendan O'Leary said...

A less academic (not academic at all really) but enjoyable work which explores the "sea roads" theme (albeit in historic rather than prehistoric eras) is The Sea Kingdoms by Alistair Moffat. His other book, "Before Scotland" attempts the same for the prehistoric eras.


Seemingly "remote" places like Stornoway were in their day central to sea routes. It was the inland places that were remote.

One example that sticks in my brain is when he states that until the mid 1800s, the fastest way from NYC to San Francisco was around Cape Horn.

Again, in relatively recent times, Hobart and Melbourne, now seemingly at the arse end of the continent, were "nearer" to Europe and this served as ports of entry for ships coming round The Cape and going south for the Roaring Forties before coming "up" to Australia.

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adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

Robert Macfarlane makes this point in the Old Ways. The inner and outer Hebridies seem like the fringe of Britain and Europe now about 1000 years ago they were at the centre of the old seaways.

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