Thursday, 24 March 2016

Book Review: The Origins of the Irish

The Origins of the Irish
J. P. Mallory

Given the recent announcement that proof of an Irish Paleolithic has finally been discovered, this review is both timely and a perfect example of how quickly things can change and our whole idea of history (or prehistory, in this case) can be rewritten thanks to something so small and seemingly insignificant as a few scratches on a bear bone...

So all in all, in spite of the fact that this book was only released in 2013 it's already out of date in some respects. Such is the way of things in this field, no?

Up until recently I'd heard of this book but didn't know much about it. More than that, I have to admit the title kind of put me off wanting to know more because it struck me as one of those books that was going to be little more than guff and wind that failed to hide a sad and slightly racist agenda behind some dodgy attempts at science. If I hadn't picked it up in a bookshop I would probably still be thinking that.

I'm glad to say I was wrong in my assumption, and that I did, in fact, really enjoy this book. In searching for the origins of the Irish  where, exactly, the people of Ireland came from, including how they got there  Mallory takes a look at the archaeology, the early historical evidence, linguistics, and (still fairly fledgling area of) genetics. Before we get to all of that, though, we begin right at the beginning, with a whistlestop tour of the Big Bang and how the Earth changed over the first few billions of years until we reach the general layout of continents we have today. We are, ultimately, star dust, after all.

The book is pretty ambitious in its scope, in trying to weave all of these various strands together to give a coherent answer to the initial question. The answer we end up with isn't conclusive, by any means, but it would hardly be reasonable to expect one given the kind of evidence we're dealing with here. It's inevitable that a book like this is going to raise more questions than it answers, and there's a risk that the reader will be left confused or dissatisfied rather than illuminated. My feeling, by the end of it all, is that there may be uncertainty, unknowns, and unknowables, but it's a great ride. This is an extremely well-written book  engaging, witty, clearly and logically structured with the minimum of jargon thrown at the reader. It's not glossy or colourful, perhaps, but it doesn't need to be.

Right at the beginning we're introduced to Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish king who Mallory suggests is our ideal "Irishman"  an identifiably historical figure who lived right at the cusp of Ireland's early historical period when, it's suggested, Irish people had a definite sense of being "Irish." This is, of course, open to debate, but for the sake of argument let's just go with it. Throughout the book we return to Niall as we wonder about all the things that had to happen throughout the pre-history of Ireland for such a person, in such a time and such a place, to come about  someone who, as Mallory points out, had a non-Irish mother. It's not ethnicity we're looking for here; it's about identity. With all the various peoples and influences that have had a bearing on Ireland, the real point of this book is how do we define an "Irish" person anyway?

A good chunk of the book is taken up with the archaeology as we stroll through the Mesolithic period, the Neolithic, the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age (bearing in mind, of course, that there was no discernible Paleolithic period in Ireland at the time of writing). Mallory does a good job of laying out the evidence for what life was like for people of each of these periods  how they lived, what they might have believed, how society and technology changed and evolved, and why these things happened. Of course, we can only deal with theories and speculation for the most part here, and Mallory deftly outlines old theories and new, and discusses the pros and cons for each of them. It's clear which theories Mallory himself favours as we go along but he allows room for the reader to draw their own conclusions, too.

Once we've dealt with the archaeology, there's a chapter on the literary evidence  looking at the origin story of Lebor Gabála Érenn especially  followed by chapters on genetics and linguistics. I have to admit that I instinctively balk when genetics tend to come up, because it's so often used as thinly veiled attempts at arguing about genetic purity and crap like that, but I think Mallory deals with the subject sensitively and evenly here. I'm no linguist but the content here is solid and brings up some nifty points, too. Finally, the last chapter brings everything together to make the final conclusions,

A book like this could easily be dry and dense, but that's really not the case here. It packs in a lot of detail, and I think perhaps it would be of benefit if you have at least a vague idea of archaeology and the basics of the field; the jargon is kept to a minimum but for the total noob it might be a bit overwhelming or distracting; not a major problem, but something some might appreciate knowing going in. Each chapter finishes with a very simplified summary of the major points raised, which is a definite plus.

I can't say I agreed wholeheartedly with everything in the book. In particular I quibbled with a few details in the chapter on the literature, but any disagreements I had were minor and there's nothing that I'd say was just plain wrong. Over all this is a fantastic overview of the subject and it's something I've been looking for for a long time. This is a book I'd highly recommend to anyone.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Book Review: The Celtic Evil Eye and Related Mythological Motifs in Medieval Ireland

The Celtic Evil Eye and Related Mythological Motifs in Medieval Ireland
Jacqueline Borsje

Not the pithiest of titles, but it tells you just about everything you need to know here; what you see is what you get.

I'd had my eye on this book for a good while now, but given the price tag – not actually that bad, for an academic book, but more than I usually spend on myself – I'd been hoping it would turn up at the university library sooner rather than later. I'm often hesitant to buy books without a good preview because you never know what you're going to get – there's a book, The Seer in Celtic and Other Traditions by Hilda Ellis-Davidson that I was intrigued by for a long while, and it costs just a wee bit more than this one. When I found a copy at the library, though, it turned out there was only one or two essays in it that I was interested in (the book mostly deals with "Other Traditions"). If I'd bought it myself I would've been disappointed.

This time, though, Borsje's book didn't seem like it was going to be available via the library any time soon so I eventually broke down and decided to splurge; as much as I may be cautious, I'm also kind of impatient... I figured that given everything I've ever read by Jacqueline Borsje, I wasn't likely to be disappointed here – I'm a big fan of her work. And lucky for me I wasn't disappointed at all – this one is well worth the price tag (would that I could afford this one, though. That's definitely going to be a "wait for the university library").

So here's a quick idea of what this book is all about – it's a collection of articles written by Borsje over the years, all of them dealing with various aspects or elements about the concept of the evil eye, or drochshúil, in Irish mythology. Each article forms a chapter, and you might already be familiar with some of them since some of the articles are available elsewhere (though I'm not sure most of them are published in English?). Chapter One, for instance, is 'The Evil Eye' in early Irish literature and law, co-written with Fergus Kelly, though here Kelly's contributions (on the law texts that deal with the subject of the evil eye) have been updated and are split off into an appendix. The other articles have been adapted a little as well, so that they make a more coherent volume all together. The final chapter is specially written for the book, and while Borsje notes that the book can be read in any order – each chapter is self-contained – the over all layout has a logic and flow to it that works well.

really enjoyed this book and found so much here that's useful to my interests or just plain interesting. I started off using little post-its to tag bits I knew I'd want to come back to and ended up giving up trying to colour code things with some semblance of order because I ran out of post-its in the requisite colour. Given the nature of the evil eye the book touches on folk practice (and how it relates to, or reflects, the beliefs articulated in the myths) as well as the mythology itself, and it also deals with certain areas of magical practice – corrgúinecht and the power of words in particular. The ritual nature of this practice, and the bestowing of the evil eye (in certain instances) is also dealt with. As much as it might be tempting to thing of the evil eye as little more than a literary motif, it's clear from the early Irish laws as much as folk practice that the concept is very real. Even today it's still a very relevant part of everyday life (as I've experienced myself – when the kids were babies people were always very keen to bless them and show their goodwill by giving them a silver coin).

As far as the mythology goes, there's a lot of focus on The Second Battle of Mag Tured (CMT) and The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel (TBDD) because of the characters found there – Balor of the Evil Eye in CMT, and Nár Túathcháech in TBDD, for example – and the instances of corrgúinecht that are mentioned (or implied), which may involve the casting of the evil eye. There are plenty of other tales referenced as well, like the Death of Cú Chulainn, but given the importance of the first two, Borsje includes translations of both tales in the appendices. These are primarily based on the translations given by Whitley Stokes (partly because they're out of copyright now), with some updates and additional bits (mainly the more obscure rosc parts, though not all of them, unfortunately) based on the work of academics like Kim McCone and Ralph O'Connor (who's book on Da Derga's Hostel is referenced in glowing terms). The translation of TBDD includes a note, from O'Connor's book, on the meaning of the stream of names given by the hag (Cailb, though identified as Badb, or the Morrígan), which is something I've been looking for for a while; O'Connor's book is definitely bumped up my reading list now. Really, the translations and notes that accompany them are almost worth buying Borsje's book for that alone.

Because the chapters were originally published as individual articles there's a bit of repetition in places, especially (I noticed) when it comes to the discussion of the meaning and nuances of the term "túathcháech." It's not so repetitive that I minded it, though, and there's some genuinely meaty stuff to get stuck into. In particular, I'd wondered about the relation between the Tuatha Dé Danann being said to have come from the "north" and the traditionally negative connotations of that direction for a while now, and this is something that Borsje touches on (chapter 4, 'Encounters with One-Eyed Beings'). There's also a good discussion on why it's the eyes, or specifically an eye, that's so intricately associated with ill-wishing or cursing.

The last chapter, which is titled 'The Power of Words: The Intricacy of the Motif of the Evil Eye' (though it covers somewhat similar ground as in Druids, Deer, and Words of Power) was an especially good read, though it's hard for me to pick just one stand-out chapter. It gives a good overview of who might cast the evil eye the methods used to protect against the evil eye, in the form of prayer like St Patrick's Lorica (otherwise known as The Deer's Cry, or Faíd Fiada), amongst others. A common element of these prayers is protecting against the evil eye by surrounding oneself in spiritual armour – binding blessings to yourself in every direction, and every part of the body. This "surrounding" is also founds in other means of protection, like the crios Bríde ('girdle of Bríde') and the practice of leaving things like ribbons out for the saint's blessing – something that has intriguing implications about how old these practices might be. It brought up a lot of comparisons with the caimeachadh prayers in the Carmina Gadelica for me, which I think may be an avenue to explore.

One thing I would've liked to have seen is more of a discussion on the way Boann loses an eye (and a leg and an arm) in the Dindshenchas tale about the Boyne, and the similarities between that and the stance taken during the performance of córrguinecht and the prophecy performed by Cailb in TBDD. It's something I've wondered about for a while, and it was something that came to the fore again when Borsje delved into the symbolism of "one-eyedness" and its association with knowledge (just one possible meaning, and depending on context). An index would have been nice too...

This is a very dense read – engaging but certainly not the kind of thing you're likely to devour in one sitting – and I think it's only going to appeal to people who have a real interest in the subject. If you do have any interest in this kind of thing, though, then I think it's an essential book to add to your shelf. It's certainly a book I'm going to be referring back to a lot.