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Britain and Ireland Begin

Rory McTurk

Britain Begins, by Barry Cunliffe, Oxford University Press, xii + 554 pp, £20.00, ISBN: 978-0199679454
The Origins of the Irish, JP Mallory, Thames and Hudson, 320 pp, £19.95, ISBN: 978-0500051757

A comparison of these two books might begin with a discussion of their treatment of language, to which each of them devotes a chapter. The chapter in question occupies a central place in Cunliffe’s book (chapter 7 out of 14 chapters) and a climactic one in Mallory’s (chapter 9, the penultimate one in the book, preceding the brief, concluding chapter).

Cunliffe’s view of the development of the Celtic languages is essentially as follows: in the period 4500-3000 BC there developed along the Atlantic coasts and seaways of Europe a lingua franca deriving from the branch of Indo-European spoken in the Tagus region of what is now Portugal. Cunliffe calls this language “Atlantian” to emphasise its Atlantic origins, as he sees them, and to replace the emotionally charged term “Celtic”. From c2500 BC, he argues, this language branched northeastwards from the Tagus region into the continent of Europe, developing in the process its own characteristics to an extent that makes it possible to speak of two dialects, the continental and the coastal. By c2000 BC, he further argues, the continental dialect had been adopted in southern and eastern Britain, as well as in much of France and Belgium, and had spread into what are now southern Germany, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic, while the coastal dialect continued to be spoken along the Atlantic façade, as he calls it.

This, he suggests, explains the branching of the language in question into what are known as P-Celtic (from which descend Welsh, Cornish and Breton) and Q-Celtic (from which descend Irish and Scottish Gaelic, as well as Manx). The latter branch, known as Goidelic, is characterised by the velar sound represented in Irish by the letter c (as in mac, the word for “son”) and reflecting an older pronunciation that might be represented in English spelling as qu or kw, while the former branch, known as Brythonic (or Brittonic) is characterised by the plosive sound (represented in Welsh by p or b) in positions where the velar sound would be found in the Q-group (as in Welsh mab “son”), the difference having its origin in a closing (and reopening) of the lips following the rounding of them that was characteristic of the older, Q-Celtic pronunciation. (The differences are illustrated more fully by Mallory.)

The implication of Cunliffe’s remarks, taken together with his map, is that coastal Atlantian is the ancestor of the Q-Celtic (Goidelic) group of languages, and continental Atlantian of the P-Celtic (Brythonic) group. There are difficulties here. Unless his “southern Britain” (see above) includes Wales and Cornwall, and his “much of France” includes Brittany, all of which are Atlantic-facing (Cornwall and Brittany, it is true, more directly than Wales), he would have to explain why Welsh, Cornish, and Breton are P-Celtic languages, rather than, as his remarks might lead one to expect, Q-Celtic.

Cunliffe offers these remarks as a counter-argument to the traditional view, descending from the Oxford antiquarian Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709), according to whom the Celts arose in continental Europe, and introduced the Celtic languages to Britain and Ireland in a sequence of movements westward, first to Ireland by way of Spain and later to Britain by way of Gaul, bringing with them in the former instance the language that would now be known as Q-Celtic and in the latter a later, developed form of it, now known as P-Celtic. This view has remained influential ever since. According to Cunliffe, the reverse of what it implies is more likely to be true: he envisages an eastward spread of “Atlantian” speakers into Europe, rather than a westward movement by originally continental Celts, and would see the modern speakers of Celtic languages as the descendants of indigenous populations rather than of immigrants or invaders.

Mallory, like Cunliffe, moves away from the traditional model just described, but in a different way. Whereas Cunliffe’s book, in spite of its title, covers the early history of Ireland as well as Britain, Mallory’s book, in line with its own title, is focused more exclusively on Ireland. Mallory is not particularly concerned with the ultimate origins of the Celts or their language – for which he is prepared to use the term “Celtic”, provided the use is restricted to the context of language – though he notes that the Gaulish and Lepontic branches of continental Celtic, for which the earliest records date respectively from the third and sixth centuries BC, had by the times of their first attestation undergone the change from q to p, while Hispano-Celtic, attested in inscriptions from the first centuries BC, retained, like Irish, the q sound. He notes that in the Middle to Late Bronze Age (c1500 BC-800 BC) Ireland had constant interdependent contact with Britain and, more distantly, the continent, and envisages c1500 BC or even later as the likely date of the “coming of the Celtic language” to Ireland. He plays down the importance for historical purposes of the q/p distinction in the period c1000 BC to the first century BC, noting that during this period there were both Brittonic (ie Brythonic, P-Celtic) and Goidelic (Q-Celtic) speakers in Ireland, and that apart from the q/p distinction the two languages, or dialects, differed at this stage relatively little. A partial cultural isolation of Ireland from Britain may however have occurred c800 BC with the decline and rise, respectively, of the very different hillfort cultures in those two countries (in Ireland flourishing c1200-800 BC and in Britain beginning c800-700 BC), bringing about a reduction in Ireland of the p- pronunciation’s influence; and in the last centuries BC the rise of Iron Age ritual centres such as Navan and Tara may have stimulated the consolidation in Ireland of the Goidelic language over competing Brittonic dialects. This view is offered tentatively: the phrasing “may have” is Mallory’s. It is clear that he sees the Celtic language as reaching Ireland by a westward and/or northwestward route, whether from Britain or the continent or both. While acknowledging that other languages must have been spoken in Ireland before the introduction of Celtic, he also acknowledges the difficulty of identifying them.

Mallory gives more space than Cunliffe to the formation of Ireland as an island, c9000 BC, seeing this as a relatively rapid development, limiting the diversity of its native flora and fauna. (Britain later became an island with the submersion of Doggerland c6000 BC.) While there is evidence for intermittent human habitation of Britain from as early as c798,000 BC, Mallory finds no evidence for human colonisation of Ireland before c8000 BC. It is with the history of Britain and Ireland from c10,000 BC onwards that Cunliffe is mainly concerned, taking the story to the end of the Viking Age (c1075 AD), while Mallory covers the history of Ireland from the very earliest times to the end of the Irish Iron Age (c400 AD). In neither book is the sister island ever very far away. The earliest colonisers of Ireland probably came from Scotland, Man and Wales, from a Britain reclaimed by hunter-gatherers moving northwards in c9600 BC as the ice of the last glacial period receded. With the advance of the Mesolithic period (beginning in Britain c10,000 BC, and in Ireland with its colonisation c8000 BC), a difference between the two countries in the making of stone tools becomes apparent, pointing to the development of an Irish cultural distinctiveness. In the Neolithic (c4000-2500 BC), on the other hand, the henge monuments and the associated Grooved Ware vessel culture of both Ireland and Britain bear witness to shared values, and in the Chalcolithic, (c2500-2100 BC) and Early Bronze Age (beginning c2100 BC) the technology of copper-mining becomes established in Ireland and Britain. In this period also, according to Cunliffe, the culture of bell-shaped beaker pottery emerged in the Tagus region of Iberia and spread into continental Europe, taking with it, as he believes, the language he calls “Atlantian”, which developed in the process from Q- to P-Celtic. Cunliffe’s mention of “the Atlantic tradition” in the context of beaker finds in Ireland implies that he sees them as the result of cultural interchange among the Atlantic coastal communities. Mallory’s suggestion that the beaker culture reached Ireland from northern Britain and Atlantic Europe is not inconsistent with this view, and his own claim that Irish metalwork of this time does not admit of an outside source presumably means that he would agree with Cunliffe that the skills necessary for copper production spread from Ireland to Britain. Both writers are clear on the connectivity between Ireland and Britain in the Middle to Late Bronze Age (c1500 BC-800 BC), and while Cunliffe, like Mallory, makes plain the difference in date and configuration between Irish and British hillforts (the former belonging to the Late Bronze Age, the latter to the Iron Age, which begins c800 BC), he does not discuss it, as Mallory does, in relation to the development of the Irish language, and while acknowledging, like Mallory, the relative isolation of Ireland from c800 BC and the uniqueness to Ireland of such ritual centres as Tara and Navan in the last centuries BC, he does not place these in a context of language development. He does however mention in passing the outmoded view that the Celtic language was brought to Britain by invaders from the Hallstatt region of the continent in the period c800-450 BC, and makes very little generally of the influence of Hallstatt culture, while Mallory goes to some lengths to discredit the notion of its influence in Ireland being due to a military incursion. Both writers devote considerable space to the spread of the La Tène culture (“Celtic art”) to Britain and Ireland from c450 BC onwards, seeing it as reaching Ireland both directly from the continent and through Britain; neither of them, however, sees it as the result of substantial migration, and Mallory plays down its relevance to the history of the Irish language, stressing the importance here of the uniquely Irish development of the ritual centres, as already shown. Cunliffe continues the historical narrative where Mallory’s breaks off, noting among other things the presence of Goidelic speakers in western Scotland in the sixth century AD, and seeing this as the result not so much of a decisive movement there from Antrim in that century as of continuous contact between the north of Ireland and western Scotland in preceding centuries. He further gives an account of Viking activity in Ireland and the Irish sea.

Both writers bring DNA studies to bear on their subject matter, drawing attention to the DNA evidence that the peoples of Britain and Ireland descend from populations clustered in northern Iberia and southern France at the end of the last glacial period. Both are cautious in their acceptance of this evidence, Mallory more so than Cunliffe, and both emphasise the need here to await the findings of further research. Both writers also survey the works of medieval writers on the early history of Ireland and Britain, Mallory giving prominence to the anonymous Irish Lebor Gabála Érenn, “the book of the invasions of Ireland”, and Cunliffe to such writers as Gildas, Bede, Nennius, and Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Mallory refers to earlier publications by Cunliffe, but is unlikely to have seen Britain begins by the time of his own book’s going to press. Reading his book and Cunliffe’s, preferably in their order of publication, and looking for points of agreement, partial agreement, and disagreement between them is a fascinating exercise, and strongly to be recommended. It should be emphasised, however, that the present review has concentrated more on how the two books relate to one another than on the individuality of each, and that each of them has more of its own to offer than has been indicated here. Both books deserve the widest possible readership, and British and Irish readers, in reading either or both of them, will be left in no doubt as to how closely interrelated their two countries are, and have been from time immemorial.


Rory McTurk is professor emeritus of Icelandic Studies at the University of Leeds