What It Means To Be Celtic: An Exploration of The Origins of the Irish
In J. P. Mallory’s book, The Origins of the Irish, he takes on the interesting, although highly controversial, question of the roots of the Irish people, culture, and language. He draws careful attention to the nationalistic sense that the Irish people have over their origin, mentioning over the question of Celtic decent “no one in Ireland ever imagined that they shared any particular kinship with their British neighbors, irrespective of what cover name might be applied.” With his, conceivably, slightly less biased perspective, Mallory sets out to explore all possible origins of the Irish, looking to geological, archaeological, historical or mythical, genetic and linguistic evidence as the key to his question. Most notable, perhaps, is his linguistic analysis of the Celtic languages placed against key archeological evidence that not only narrows down the time frame during which the Irish Language entered Ireland, but closely links the Irish-speaking people to their dreaded British, French, and even Iberian neighbors, proving the Irish not as insular as they are thought to be.
After noting an old Irish saying (ní tir gan teanga) that “there is no country without a language”, Mallory sets out, in his chapter The Evidence of Language, to investigate the origins of the Irish language as a means of deciphering the origin of the Irish people – or, at least, the origins of an Irish-speaking people. Most of his evidence, however, both linguistic and archeological, in fact entirely counters his opening old Irish saying. It is the path of logic he takes to arrive at this conclusion, that indeed the Irish language is not particularly native to the Irish isles and additionally that “for 40% of the time Ireland has been occupied, it had not been occupied by anyone who spoke anything remotely related to Irish”, that makes this chapter so striking. He begins by diving into the issue of the Celts, an identity that the Irish have bizzarely clung to, while continental Celts (and the more likely original Celts), have dismissed this identity so sacked by the likes of 19th-centuary anthropologist Daniel Garrison Brinton as “fanatic and bigoted” among other insults.
If we truly delve into the definition of Celts, as any who speak a Celtic language or associate with the culture, we are left with the list of Goidelic (Irish), Celt-Iberian (Iberian/Hispano), Gaulish & Lepontic(loosely French), and Brittonic, completing the linguistically sound (meaning that comparisons and cognates cannot deny the language relatedness) Celtic branch of the Indo-European family. What is interesting about this grouping is that the sound shifts often place the Irish along side the Hispano-Celtics rather than, for example, the British with whom they might actually be more related. Mallory explains that “Irish and Hispano-Celtic are grouped together because they are peripheral to the spread of *kw>p and not because the Irish derived from an earlier form of Celt-Iberian or Hispano-Celtic.” If the Irish language cannot be conclusively derived from either the Iberians or the Brittonics, it is clear that “no widely accepted geographical homeland for the Irish that can be established purely on the basis of the interrelationships among the Celtic languages”. In order to truly discover the origins of the Irish language, Mallory must look further than linguistic analysis.
Mallory takes his next stab at a dating of the naissance of the Irish language, as archeological evidence could be used in this case to further narrow the date and assist in finding the “homeland” of the Irish—and Celtic—language, whether that be Ireland itself or some distant continental Celtic land. He analyzes first specific vocabulary, specifically agricultural vocabulary for objects like a plough and domesticated animals. Many of the domesticated animals, for which the…