Uncanny Mythology

The history of the people of Ireland has come full circle. Well, almost.

First we were Spaniards

First there was an account written in the ancient book, the Labor Gabala, or the Book of Invasions. It claimed to be a record taken from oral historians, of the peoples who settled in Ireland. In summary it suggested that the current population is mainly descended from the ‘Milesians’, who displaced earlier peoples – the fearsome Firbolgs and the noble Tuatha Dé Danann. It claimed the Milesians, our ancestors, came from Spain.

Then we were Central Europeans

For most of the twentieth century this transcribed folklore was largely dismissed. It had a value as mythology but none as history. Furthermore, it was averred by some, the book appeared to be nothing more than a local version of certain classical Greek scripts, inventing a glorious past. The view became established that the ‘Celts’ in fact came from central Europe. This was based mainly on a trail of ‘Celtic’ artefacts across Germany, France, Britain and then Ireland. Interestingly,  even in the mid twentieth century some voices dissented. Linguists protested that neither branches of the Celtic languages bore any clues of so recent a migration from central Europe.

Cold wet Spaniards again

Since the mid 1990’s it has become increasingly easy to map the genetics of people in each region. Genetics removes a lot of the guesswork. In summary, there is a kind of DNA (mitochondrial DNA) that is passed unchanged on the maternal line, allowing you to trace people back to individual women who existed thousands of years ago. Similarly, there is male DNA that is passed accurately from father to son (on the Y chromosome), allowing each man to be tracked back to progenitors thousands of years ago.

What the studies have shown in short, is that the ‘Celtic’ peoples of the islands of Britain and Ireland, largely migrated from what is now the Iberian peninsula. Our closest relatives are in the Basque and Catalan territories of Northern Spain. There were small pockets of hunter gatherers on the islands from over 9,000 years ago. The main ‘invasions’ of farming people came from what is Northern Spain, between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. The small existing population appears to have been assimilated rather than wiped out. Thus, it turns out that they ‘mythology’ was not quite right about a series of invasions but was much closer to the truth than the archaeology. It is now understood that the ‘celtic design’ artefacts did not indicate a large movement of people across Europe so much as a movement of fashion and styles in tools and ornaments – much as happens to this day.

The ‘Celtic’ art of mainland Europe was not produced by the people known as Celts – i.e. the predominant populations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. The word ‘Celt’, by the way, is only a recent invention, really taking hold in the nineteenth century in association with studies of the two main branches of ‘Celtic’ languages – the Welsh/Breton branch and the Irish/Scottish branch. One was called P-Celtic and the other, Q-Celtic.

Plants and Horses tell their own stories

There is other evidence of this migration from Northern Spain. There are species of plants in the Irish midlands that were thought to be unique and only recently discovered to exist in Spain. The Irish Draught Horse, very different from the English Shire horse or the other large draughts from France and Germany, turns out to be most closely related to a Spanish horse. Pure speculation on my part, but I’m going to guess that it will be shown that our indigenous cattle breeds, the Kerry, Maol and Dexter are related to old Spanish breeds. Just look at how similar the Kerry is to the bulls used (and abused) in Pamplona.   

How did they bring horses on Ryanair?

You might wonder who such a large migrantion could have happened, but remember, towards the end of the last mini ice age, the seas were 50 metres lower and the ancestors only had to walk.

Mythology trumps the rest

We might think that the accuracy of the Milesian ‘myth’ is just a coincidence. However, genetic studies in other parts of Europe and Asia have also caused great surprise by showing the mythology in many cases to be closer to the truth than any of the other theories.

Maybe this should not have been such a surprise. We assume that much meaning and accuracy was lost in the oral tradition – where information as well as stories were passed down by word of mouth. However, we forget that the bards and scholars who were given the responsibility, spent up to twenty years learning accurately the verses and cants in which the accounts were relayed. There is every reason to think that they were transmitted very accurately from generation to generation. The geneticists have proved this I believe.