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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Irish - or Celtic?

Recently a news article hit both the Irish cultural community and the pagan community. Titled 'Man’s discovery of bones under his pub could forever change what we know about the Irish' the article discusses an archaeological find, the genetic analysis of the bones found, and one main academic response to it. The response focused on is that of Barry Cunliffe, professor of Archaeology at Oxford University, who sees the find as supporting a lack of Celtic presence in Ireland; however what many readers don't seem aware of is that Cunliffe has been advocating for this view since at least 2001. John Koch, who is also quoted in the article, was the co-editor of 'Celtic from the West' with Cunliffe and is another strong proponent of the theory. So it should be clear that the article has some serious issues with bias out of the gate. While reading the article may indeed give the impression that this find is hugely significant for Irish culture it really doesn't seem to be, and offers little that is new or revolutionary.

In the 15 years that Cunliffe's 'Celtic From the West' theory has been circulating, so far nothing has radically changed in academia regarding the Irish as Celts. This finding really isn't that groundbreaking - we already knew that at that time in Ireland the people were pre-Celtic and while its interesting that there's a genetic tie to modern Ireland other studies have also shown a strong genetic tie to Spain which does support a Celtic migration to Ireland. So its all still up in the air - and none of the genetics really explains the cultural end anyway.

Some basic points about all this:
  1.  The bones were found in 2006; Cunliffe's first 'Celtic from the West' anthology was published in 2010 as a follow up and expansion to his 'Facing the Ocean' published in 2001. So in short this idea of Celtic culture originating on the Atlantic seaboard is not new at all, nor is the idea that the Irish may have been the origin of Celtic culture or perhaps even that what we call insular Celtic may have been a separate culture that merged or influenced Celtic culture on the continent. 
  2. DNA is not culture. Just because the bones show that 2,000 years ago people had a genetic tie that isn't to known Celtic peoples and is related to modern Irish people doesn't actually mean anything from a cultural perspective. Culture isn't transmitted genetically. Also, again this is old news dating back several years at least when genetic studies started to come into vogue.
  3.  The Irish don't stop being a Celtic culture just because Ireland had pre-Celtic inhabitants and modern Irish people are genetically related to them. Celtic is a language group with loosely associated cultural markers like shared art forms and related myth. What made a culture Celtic was speaking a language within the Celtic branch of Indo-European languages. Irish is a Celtic language, and while the article does suggest that this may be re-assessed until it is and until the Celtic languages are reclassified as non-Indo-European and specifically until the Goidelic and Brittonic languages are re-classified as non-Celtic by the standard academic definition Ireland did have a period where Celtic culture influenced it and is still considered a Celtic country today*. I would personally be really, really surprised if that ever changed. 
  4. Let me repeat: Celtic is a language group with loosely associated cultural markers like shared art forms and related myth. What makes Irish paganism Celtic from a certain point on is the language spoken and patterns of myth and deity that are shared with other Celtic cultures, although it should be noted that the language is the main factor. This really only matters to scholars, for the most part. The modern pagan idea of 'Celtic paganism' has always been a vague generality that causes more problems then it fixes. The only thing this article does for Irish pagans is to highlight the fact that Irish paganism is and has always been its own thing, only tangentially related to its 'cousin' Celtic cultures (although for a variety of reasons that have little to do with anything in this article). 
 In the end the article is interesting but it is far from groundbreaking and should in no way effect you personally as an Irish pagan (or pagan following Irish Gods). We already knew that the pre-Celtic people's at the very least had influenced and shaped the Irish Celts into the unique culture that they became. How much or how little is an intriguing question but one that ultimately shouldn't change how we as individuals approach our spirituality. It is still tied to the land, to the myths, to the folklore. It is still everything it was before, whether we call it Celtic or we call it Irish or we call it something else. Academia will be arguing over this for a long time to come and short of necromancy will probably never know for certain what language those pub bodies spoke or what Gods they honored, whether they were the source of what we now call Celtic or whether it grew in Eastern Europe and spread west - and for us, even as Reconsctructionists - it doesn't really matter. I'm an Irish Reconstructionist Polytheist, however you slice it, and while there's a convenience in using the term Celtic I've always been aware of its limitations and pitfalls. Nothing about my beliefs or practices is changed by this article, nor should yours be, because knowing the ultimate source of Irish culture as we understand it historically is interesting but in the end neither essential nor impactful to modern paganism. 

*Celtic outside academic classifications does have some problematic connotations and misuses, but its beyond the scope of this article to address those, and as well the misuse of the term in my opinion shouldn't in this case effect its usefulness as an academic discritpor.

1 comment:

  1. The archeological evidence is all going to verify the Irish mythology as factually accurate. And disprove the english-speaking peoples version of Irish history while it is doing so.