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So all in all, in spite of the fact that this book was only released in 2013 it's already out of date in some respects.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.