Saturday, March 17, 2007

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day, so the saying goes. But what does it mean to be Irish? And who exactly was St. Patrick?

St. Patrick first: after reading How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill several years ago, I became convinced that we probably know about as much about the actual St. Patrick than we do about the actual St. Nicholas. The biggest difference seems to be that people still connect the legend of St. Pat with the historical man much, much more than they do for ole St. Nick. I think it's about time that changed. I am going on the record right now to declare that St. Patty is still with us. He lives on an uncharted isle off the coast of Ireland. And most important of all, St. Patrick is a Leprechaun!

Now what does it mean to be Irish? One way to get an answer to that question is to go up to an Irishman and say "I like your accent. Are you English?"

The English and the Irish have a long history of enmity. I've always considered the Greens and Oranges are basically the same people who happened to attend different churches on Sundays, but the English and the Irish, they actually are ethnically distinct. That was until I read this article by Nicholas Wade (not to be confused with St. Nick).

Historians teach that they are mostly descended from different peoples: the Irish from the Celts and the English from the Anglo-Saxons who invaded from northern Europe and drove the Celts to the country's western and northern fringes.

But geneticists who have tested DNA throughout the British Isles are edging toward a different conclusion. Many are struck by the overall genetic similarities, leading some to claim that both Britain and Ireland have been inhabited for thousands of years by a single people that have remained in the majority, with only minor additions from later invaders like Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans. The implication that the Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh have a great deal in common with each other, at least from the geneticist's point of view, seems likely to please no one.

I was intrigued reading this. It turns out, according to University of Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer, that the traditional view is totally bogus.

In Dr. Oppenheimer's reconstruction of events, the principal ancestors of today's British and Irish populations arrived from Spain about 16,000 years ago, speaking a language related to Basque.

The British Isles were unpopulated then, wiped clean of people by glaciers that had smothered northern Europe for about 4,000 years and forced the former inhabitants into southern refuges in Spain and Italy. When the climate warmed and the glaciers retreated, people moved back north. The new arrivals in the British Isles would have found an empty territory, which they could have reached just by walking along the Atlantic coastline, since the English Channel and the Irish Sea were still land.

This new population, who lived by hunting and gathering, survived a sharp cold spell called the Younger Dryas that lasted from 12,300 to 11,000 years ago. Much later, some 6,000 years ago, agriculture finally reached the British Isles from its birthplace in the Near East. Agriculture may have been introduced by people speaking Celtic, in Dr. Oppenheimer's view. Although the Celtic immigrants may have been few in number, they spread their farming techniques and their language throughout Ireland and the western coast of Britain. Later immigrants arrived from northern Europe had more influence on the eastern and southern coasts. They too spread their language, a branch of German, but these invaders' numbers were also small compared with the local population.

So essentially, it looks like this:
  1. During the Ice Age, the British Isles were uninhabitable.
  2. When the glaciers cleared, a single peoples repopulated the isles via a land bridge from Iberia.
  3. Every subsequent invader has had to arrive by boat.
  4. These later groups may have conquered and brought their languages and cultures, but didn't really add to the population make-up.
  5. So today they are all still the same peoples, and genetic testing backs this up.

The thing about that theory, is that when you really think about it, it makes perfect sense. The next part of the article, about a theory by Anglia Ruskin University geneticist Peter Foster, still blows me away.

English is usually assumed to have developed in England, from the language of the Angles and Saxons, about 1,500 years ago. But Dr. Forster argues that the Angles and the Saxons were both really Viking peoples who began raiding Britain ahead of the accepted historical schedule. They did not bring their language to England because English, in his view, was already spoken there, probably introduced before the arrival of the Romans by tribes such as the Belgae, whom Caesar describes as being present on both sides of the Channel.

The Belgae perhaps introduced some socially transforming technique, such as iron-working, which led to their language replacing that of the indigenous inhabitants, but Dr. Forster said he had not yet identified any specific innovation from the archaeological record.

Germanic is usually assumed to have split into three branches: West Germanic, which includes German and Dutch; East Germanic, the language of the Goths and Vandals; and North Germanic, consisting of the Scandinavian languages. Dr. Forster's analysis shows English is not an offshoot of West Germanic, as usually assumed, but is a branch independent of the other three, which also implies a greater antiquity. Germanic split into its four branches some 2,000 to 6,000 years ago, Dr. Forster estimates.

If that turns out to be true, then so much of what I learned about ancient British history will have been turned on its head. But back to St. Patty's Day, take it away Colbert.


Beaman said...

There is nothing an Irishman likes better than for the Irish rugby team to beat England.

"I like your accent. Are you English?"

This had me laughing. :)

Anonymous said...

Saw your blog listed at happy st patrick's day