Monday, 31 July 2017

Book Review: In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology and Early Irish Literature

In Search of the Irish Dreamtime: Archaeology and Early Irish Literature
J.P. Mallory

I've previously reviewed another book by the same author – The Origins of the Irish – and I really really liked it (for its witty and engaging tone as much as the content in general). So in some respects it's hard not to compare the two, perhaps especially so when this particular book has been written as something of a companion piece to the first one.

Back in the 1960s Kenneth Jackson came out with the idea that early Irish literature provided us with a "window on the Iron Age," since (he argued) the tales preserved pre-Christian beliefs and concepts that had been passed on by an oral tradition that valued consistency and integrity of the content it conveyed. While Christian elements had been added, strip them away and you could get something close to the pre-Christian original...

It's an idea that's been much-debated in academia since, and Mallory himself has weighed in on the subject previously, in an article in Ulidia ("Windows on the Iron Age: 1964–1994"), as well as his Aspects of The Táin (as the editor and a contributor), for example. Dreamtime, then, is essentially an expansion of his previous work, taking a critical look at what the literature tells us about material culture (and to a lesser extent, beliefs), and whether or not the archaeology supports what the tales tell us. For example, tales that take place at well-known sites such as Emain Macha or Tara give the impression that these places were occupied as (essentially) royal centres in the Iron Age. They also mention things like weaponry that we might assume are indeed Iron Age in origin, if we can actually assume that the tales were composed in that time frame and were never changed to any significant degree.

I'll try not to give too many spoilers here, but the results that Mallory outlines may or may not shock you, depending on what your opinions are on the matter... Regardless, it's pretty thorough and convincing.

For the non-expert, the book does a good job of giving an introduction to the major elements that you need to know in order to form your own opinions (if that's your thing) and keep up with what's going on – the history of the manuscript tradition itself, an overview of the stories, and the context in which they were written. Then we focus on the major areas where archaeology and mythology collide, so we can explore how the two may or may not match up. This includes material culture in general (clothing, dyes, jewellery, games, etc.), warfare and weaponry, transport, the landscape and environment, and matters surrounding death and burial, based on what we see as archaeologists, and what the literature tells us.

It's an interesting idea for a book and over all it does a good job of proving its point. The first few chapters, with the introductory material, really runs the risk of being overdone and boring but Mallory's wit and engaging style really helps to put a fresh spin on things. Like his The Origins of the Irish, we're introduced to a character who helps take the reader on the book's journey. In Origins, it was Niall of the Nine Hostages, our quintessential Irishman, while here we have various incarnations of Katu-butos, Cattubuttas, or (ultimately) Cathbad – a theoretical fili, or professional poet and tradition-bearer, who would have been responsible for telling the stories we're dealing with. The different names relate to the different linguistic periods we're dealing with – Proto-Irish through to medieval Irish, based on the evidence we have to hand (linguistic, literary, archaeological, though primarily the latter two), and thus the audiences the storyteller is targeting specifically.

Over all, I found some parts of the book more interesting to read than others. It got off to a great start, and it takes an unusual approach in looking at the Lebor Gabála (for example) and emphasising its supposed historical context for each of the invasions the story outlines, based on the Irish annals. Creating an explicit timeline for that is pretty interesting when you compare it to what was actually happening at the time as far as we know from the archaeological record, and it helps set the tone for what we find in later chapters. It's all very thorough, but in doing so I felt that some of the later chapters got bogged down in details I wasn't particularly interested in, and it began to drag a little. To an extent that may be because the subject matter was something I wasn't overly keen on, but then again the writing did sometimes veer into simply listing facts, rather than commenting much on them. Even so, that didn't last for long, and even where I felt things got bogged down I can definitely see that if anyone's interested in the finer points of life in the Iron Age or early medieval period, this is absolutely invaluable – or if you're a fiction author looking to write an authentic period novel, or a re-enactor of some sort, say, then it has almost everything you need to know about where people lived, what they wore, and what they ate, and so forth. And of course, it appeals to the geeks and nerds like me.

Considering the scope of the book, it more than fulfils its stated aims, and it really does offer a lot to the reader. It's also rather unique in its focus and the information it gives, and I can certainly appreciate that. Books like this – presenting reliable, factual information that's easily accessible and (mostly) engaging to the non-expert as much as the expert – are few and far between.

Whereas Origins offers a far broader scope, Dreamtime narrows in on a more specific area and offers a lot more detail. The title of this particular volume, as you might gather, takes inspiration from the Australian aboriginal peoples, "who recognized a sacred time in which both the natural world and human culture and traditions originated and that these beginnings still resonate in the spiritual life of people today." Mallory sees a similarity between these aboriginal stories (their purpose and aims) and this concept, and the myths of the Irish that survive into modern times. I see his point even though I wonder about the value in bothering to use the term in the first place. He recognises that appropriating (or mis-appropriating) the term may not be the best way to frame the Irish traditions we're dealing with here, and he apologises for that, but nonetheless ultimately can't resist the concept. I do wonder why he bothered, given the fact that he acknowledges the potentially problematic nature of it, but I'm not Australian or Aboriginal and I don't really feel qualified to condone or condemn on that front. Still, I can't help but feel that choosing such a title both detracts and distracts from the contents of the book as whole.

Nonetheless, I did enjoy it, and I think it will be one of those books that I'll come back to time and time again. It's not always easy for an archaeologist to really delve into literature and give a decent, critical overview of it, as well as the issues surrounding it (Miranda Green...) so Mallory deserves recognition for that. But more than that, it's just a good read.