Reinterpreting the Milesians in Irish pre-history

Irish pre-history is a pain. Because Celtic culture was non-literary, it wasn’t until the arrival of Christianity that Irish myths and legendary history were written down.

As a result, a lot of the myths were Christianised. St Patrick crops up a bit, meeting legendary figures like Oisín.

One myth that has really suffered is that of the Milesians, the last group to “invade” Ireland and establish Irish culture according to the Lebor Gabála (Book of Conquests). It’s loaded with medieval history and links to Spain, Egypt, the Holy Land and has been discounted as being entirely created by monks.

However, new genetic research and archaeological finds (detailed in Alice Roberts’s “The Celts” and the associated BBC TV series) point towards a very different history of Celtic culture than the traditional idea of a Central European origin that spread westward.

The newer theory proposes that Celtic culture emerged along the Atlantic coast during the Bronze Age and spread inland. However, what’s not in doubt is that southern Ireland was a popular place at the time.

Ireland’s copper minds were hugely important to the Bronze Age for obvious reasons – you need copper to make bronze. And, of course, Ireland was an island back then (as it is now), and boats were needed to take the bronze from Ireland.

The maritime industry at the time was largely controlled by the Phoenicians – a people originally from the Levant who became the great sea traders of the late Bronze and Iron ages. It’s very likely the travelled all the way up to Ireland for copper (and to Cornwall for tin).

There’s another interesting part of the myth of the Milesians, which is that, when they arrive in Ireland, the Tuath Dé Danann seek to prevent them. However, they fail and the Tuatha Dé agree to enter the Underworld – marked by burial mounds dotted around the country.

As with new studies of the Celts, we could look at the myth of the Milesians to point to cultural rather than population change. Genetic studies are difficult given the lack of source material. Ireland is a bit better, given the discovery of testable bog bodies, but it’s still a small sample. The myth of invasions that underlies the Lebor Gabála isn’t matched by the archaeological record. Rather than invasions, it appears early Irish history was marked by the arrival of settlers and culture (not necessarily directly connected), but not necessarily violent invasions.

Viewing the Milesians as symbolising cultural influence – the arrival of a new culture from Spain in the Bronze Age, with roots in the Levant, that came to replace the culture of the existing inhabitants fits reasonably well with the Atlantic theory of Celtic development. The mythology clearly distinguishes the Milesians from the earlier populations who built the passage tombs.

The Atlantic theory doesn’t see Ireland as a passive (or forced) recipient of Celtic culture, but perhaps a partial contributor to its development. The modern confusion between Celtic and pre-Celtic imagery in Newgrange and other sites may be instructive. There is some obvious commonality between the spirals, triskelions and other carved imagery and later Celtic designs. It’s very likely they were an influence.

Story-telling played an important role in pre-literary societies. They didn’t just pass on made up stories to explain the world. They also passed on history, though often mythologised, with trends turned into people.

Dismissing the entire mythology because some medieval monks added their own bits and pieces to the myths doesn’t make sense. We’ve learnt not to dismiss the ancient Greek writers of their history because they refer to their gods’ role in events. The gods may not exist, but that doesn’t mean the events didn’t.


19th century Irish history – help needed

I’ve been researching my family for a few years with a view to writing their story. My mother’s family were the Bolands – major figures in the Irish revolutionary movements pre-independence and government ministers in the decades afterwards.

I’m trying to go back over four generations. The more recent generations – Kevin Boland and his father Gerald and uncles Harry and Ned and aunt Kathleen – are fairly straightforward. Much has been written about their lives, including by themselves. And there’s no shortage of information about 1916.

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Last “whites” of the East End

So, after a great NUJ meeting with a brilliantly ethnic diverse turn-out, I turn on the TV and the BBC is showing “Last Whites of the East End“. Despite being fully aware it would annoy me, I watched it. I’ve been trying to think of something to blog about, so here’s another blog about history.

According to the programme, “white British” people are leaving the East London and it’s the end of the “good old East End”. This needs serious unpicking.

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EU migrants to Britain and Irish people

There are some very careful phrased statements being made at the moment about EU migration into the UK. The wording is important, because there is a key different between EU migrants and EU nationals working in the UK.

This difference is the Irish. While Ireland is in the EU and Irish people can correctly be described as EU nationals, in UK law, people born in Ireland are not EU migrants.

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Slaveholders in Ireland

After yesterday’s popular blog about Irish slavery, I wanted to write a short one about another issue with Liam Hogan’s work.

Another thread of his work is researching Irish slaveholders. Where he’s traced information those who left Ireland and “became white” and bought into the slave owning population, that’s all well and good.

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Irish slavery – fact or myth?

There has been a stupid debate going on for over a year now about whether Irish slaves existed or not. Irish historian Liam Hogan has made a name for himself condemning those who talk about the Irish history of slavery.

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A history lesson for Iain Duncan Smith

Iain Duncan Smith has attempted to appeal to the Left with today’s argument that the EU and “uncontrolled immigration” has caused a downward pressure on wages. Despite being at the forefront of taking from the have nots and giving to the haves for years, he’s now blaming the EU.

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