DES KEENAN'S BOOKS ON IRISH HISTORY online version
True Origins LINKS TO INDIVIDUAL CHAPTERS
CLICK True Origins TO RETURN TO BOOK LIST; CLICK Home Page TO RETURN TO Home Page
[The True Origins of Irish Society
Copyright © 2003 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from Xlibris.com and
Hard copy of book available from Xlibris.com and
One of the aims of this book is to exclude the false assumptions of racist nationalism that pervaded so much of Irish history-writing for the past one hundred and fifty years. Assumptions that there was such a thing as a Celtic race, that the present day Catholics of Ireland are descended from them, that this race had an exclusive right to the land of Ireland, and that consequently such Catholics had a right to kill others they deemed aliens.
Therefore this book has four aims, (1) to provide a chronology, (2) to trace the origin of the main features of Irish society, (3) to provide contexts within which local evidence either written or material artefacts can be interpreted, and (4) to try to provide an overall picture of Irish society, the bad aspects as well as the good, warts and all.
Writing a book based on ascertained facts is difficult compared with writing propaganda history. In the latter, the author starts with the answer he wants, and selects and omits anything that fits or does not fit the picture he wants to project. There is a clear story-line. The land of a good and just and peaceful people is invaded by a wicked foreign race. This foreign race holds them in captivity and slavery, but the afflicted people remain faithful to the country and their God. Finally, there is a great struggle in which the unjust invaders are overcome and thrown out, and all the evils the good people suffered come to an end. The derivation of this perspective from the Bible is clear.
The true historian above all seeks evidence for every assertion and every conclusion. He draws on all possible sources of evidence. This is especially true if he is studying the history of groups who did not use writing. Nearly always the evidence is sparse and one source of evidence, for example archaeology, does not necessarily confirm conclusions drawn from documents. In Ireland, at any given time, there were up to a hundred chiefs fighting each other almost at random. But over the centuries some patterns emerge as some families became more successful and swallowed up less successful ones. But even in the Twelfth Century there were still at least half-a-dozen major families, and each of these defied by several lesser families. Any of these could seek help from outsiders as it suited their own family’s interest.
The various sources of information, for example Annals, Genealogies, and Lives of Saints, where they can be relied on, give only snippets of information. Again, however, it is usually possible to see patterns in the developments and changes, especially when placed in the context of the neighbouring countries.
To come to conclusions on these points I have relied on printed sources and endeavoured to fit the evidence they gave and the conclusions they arrived at to the four aims just mentioned. There is therefore nothing original in the evidence, but the conclusions drawn from the evidence of the original researchers are my own. Their evaluation of the reliability of various documents with regard to history has been carefully noted. No scholar nowadays would consider the story of the Tain to be factual history, though he might consider it had some factual basis. Some might go further and question whether there was ever Celtic invasion, or whether the legend of St Patrick should be jettisoned completely.
The first point is clear enough, and needs no elaboration. After the sixth century AD dates are reasonably certain. Before that date, the usual methods of the archaeologists have to be relied on.
The second point is that all the main features of Irish society, hunting, farming, warfare, the use of metals, the use of writing, the ideas of religion and so on, originated elsewhere and archaeologists for over a hundred years have been studying those origins. Our duty is to try to establish how and when they came to Ireland.
The third point is to try to establish a context in which various pieces of evidence concerning Ireland can be interpreted. For example, why were megalithic monuments constructed? If they were religious monuments of one kind or another, what kind of religious ideas were around at the time? There were no written records in Ireland before the Christian period, but there were records in Egypt and Mesopotamia that at least tell us about current religious speculation. From 1000BC onwards there is a marvellous and easily accessible collection of records, laws, religious songs, worldly wisdom, etc available in the Bible. For the purpose of this book they are regarded as ordinary records of the ancient Near East. We must remember too that between 600 AD and 1200 AD the Bible was the great source of information available to the Irish people.
In particular I try to trace the principal developments in the countries immediately in contact with Ireland. These are in the first instance Wales, Scotland and England. Then slightly further afield and north-western France, the Low Countries and north-western Germany, and the Scandinavian lands. The last three shared with Ireland the fact that they had been just outside the Roman Empire, so the conditions for example surrounding the spread of Christianity would have been the same.
The fourth point is just the conclusion of the gathering and evaluation of the evidence, and to present a picture as far as possible of the social conditions and the often-chaotic warfare of the period.
I have, in the summary of various chapters, suggested judicious skipping by the reader when it comes to the details of the incessant internecine warfare. But it was not possible for the writer to practice such skipping. Despite efforts by nationalist writers to portray Ireland as a single kingdom from the dawn of time this was far from being the case. The unification of Ireland may be regarded as commencing in 1690. Even in the mid-seventeenth century the provincial chiefs were acting independently of each other. By that date the larger provincial powers had largely absorbed the lesser chiefdoms. But in the twelfth century, when grants of land were given they were usually of lesser tuatha not yet fully absorbed by the provincial chief. Much of the warfare between 500 AD and 1200 AD was directed by the greater chiefs against the lesser. This must be described as well as the emergence of the strong provincial chiefs. But it is not necessary to remember much of it as it can always be looked up when need arises.
As an ancient historian once said, when preparing a synopsis of five books written by others, ‘At this point therefore let us begin our narrative, adding only so much to what has been already said; for it is foolish to lengthen the preface while cutting short the book itself’ (2 Maccabees 2.31-32).
Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.