Our national epic tells us that Ireland was settled by waves of invaders, each struggling against the other for ownership of Ireland. In the final struggle, the goddess Éiru gave the Sons of Mil permission to settle Ireland, in return for the nation being named after her. These people would become the Gaels. 

Genetic studies have revealed three major migrations to prehistoric Ireland. Ireland was initially settled 10,000 years ago by a wave of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer people. These people came from the Europeans who’d taken refuge in the caves of Southern France during the Ice Age. When the Ice Age started to thaw, they migrated north to Ireland. The second wave came four thousand years later with migrants from the east who introduced agriculture to Ireland. They travelled across the Mediterranean Sea and up the Atlantic coast to get to Ireland. These Neolithic farmers built the megalithic structures, such as Newgrange and Dowth, that dot the country to this day. 

These two groups of settlers in Ireland were almost entirely replaced between 2500 to 2000 BC by a final group of Indo-European invaders – The Beaker Folk. The Beaker Folk brought gold smithing, a stronger warrior tradition, and a solar culture to Ireland. The genetic legacy of these three groups of settlers form the basis of the entire Irish genome to this day. In 2017, a study by the Royal College of Surgeons and the Genealogical Society of Ireland looked at the genetics of Irish people whose eight great-grandparents lived within 50km of each other, finding that these original settlers comprised approximately 70% of the modern Irish genome, demonstrating the strength and persistence of ethnicity as a defining element of Irish nationality.*

Irish-American archeologist, J.P. Mallory notes how a “sense of nationality” is often dependent on an “Us-versus-Them” conflict as a driving force in its formation. A national identity must answer two questions: who are we, and who will be excluded from this identity? 

Clear historical evidence of an all-island Irish ethnic identity, or nationhood, emerged with the arrival of the Vikings in Ireland in the 8th century. The ethnic and cultural differences between the Irish People and the Vikings created the perfect context for a strong sense of national identity to develop.  Native Irish writers frequently referred to the Vikings and their descendants as the “Gall”, or the “foreigners”, whereas the Irish were self-designated as “Gaels”. We see this when Niall of the Nine Hostages’ son occupies Tara as ‘Caput Scottorum” (Capital of the Geal), or when Diarmuit Mac Cearbaill is crowned ‘Totius Scotie Regnatorem’ (King of the Gaels). 

However, Celtic scholar Pronsias Mac Cana argues that a “consciousness of Irish nationality” emerged much earlier than the Viking age, with the development of the Irish language and native paganism. Mac Cana believed that a dominant Irish learned class of druids and poets were so interconnected that they were able to integrate the entire island into one system of values, despite the island being divided politically into smaller tribes. Mac Cana believed that this was evidenced in the old Irish word for province “coiced”, which derives from the word meaning five. This would suggest an ideological view of Ireland’s provinces being each a fifth of a whole. Evidence of this view of Ireland can be traced back to the prehistoric era. This shows that the early Gaels of Ireland did have an idea of being united, at least in the ethnic and cultural sense.

The philosopher Johann Herder argues that because of climactic, environmental differences and varying historical developments, nations will eventually acquire a unique national character. Herder compared the different nationalities and cultures to flowers, each able to grow healthiest and strongest in their own environments. Therefore, over the millennia as the Gaels selected for physical and personality traits best suited for life in Ireland, the Irish ethnic group physically became the living, breathing culmination of Ireland, finely tuned for life in Ireland, a human representation of the landscape’s character. 

Herder’s philosophy of nationality is echoed in the works of Pádraig Pearse as he establishes the ethnic and hereditary element of Irish nationality.  In “The Sovereign People”, Pearse asserts “the nation is a natural division, as natural as the family… a nation is knit together by natural ties, ties mystic and spiritual, and ties human and kindly… the nation is the family at large”.  This point is again reinforced in ‘The Spiritual Nation’, when he equates the Gael to Ireland. “But had the last repositor of the Gaelic tradition, the last unconquered Gael, died, the Irish nation was no more. Any free state that might thereafter be erected in Ireland, whatever it might call itself, would certainly not be the historic Irish nation.”

Our ancestors left the caves of southern France to create a nation. This island was given to our people by the Goddess Éiru. For ten thousand years, our people have bled, cried and laughed on this island. We have moulded this land, and in turn it has moulded us. This is our island. 

*These statistics were taken from an all-Ireland study, and so may be skewed by samples taken from those descendent from British planters. If you have any further corrections to this article you feel should be made, please email info@theburkean.ie

Posted by Déaghán Ó Céatfhadha

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