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.

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