The Origins of the Irish

Author: J.P. Mallory

Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Copyright: 2013

ISBN: 978-0-500-05175-7


About eighty million people today can trace their descent back to the occupants of Ireland. But where did the occupants of the island themselves come from and what do we even mean by “Irish” in the first place? This is the first major attempt to deal with the core issues of how the Irish came into being. J. P. Mallory emphasizes that the Irish did not have a single origin, but are a product of multiple influences that can only be tracked by employing the disciplines of archaeology, genetics, geology, linguistics, and mythology. Beginning with the collision that fused the two halves of Ireland together, the book traces Ireland’s long journey through space and time to become an island. The origins of its first farmers and their monumental impact on the island is followed by an exploration of how metallurgists in copper, bronze, and iron brought Ireland into increasingly wider orbits of European culture. Assessments of traditional explanations of Irish origins are combined with the very latest genetic research into the biological origins of the Irish.

Table of Contents [with my notes]:

Introduction [Mallory here tells us WHY he uses origins (plural) instead of origin (singular) in the title and defines what he takes origins to mean(physical composition, culture, language and genes) and also defines what he means when he says Irish (the Irishman of the 5th century CE)]

Chapter One: The Origins of Ireland [There seems to be…err…humour in this chapter or at the very least an attempt at it.  The chapter discusses how Ireland as an island came into being starting with the big bang and ending with the last Ice Age.  If you aren’t into geology I would suggest reading the conclusion points at the end of the chapter.  And yes the first two points, which may seem weird, were explained at the beginning of the chapter.]

Chapter Two: First Colonists [This chapter was about the first inhabitants of Ireland, which the author calls “Irelanders”.  He looks are when they arrived, what their toolkits were like, what their diet was like, and how many of them there were.  He does devote the majority of the chapter though to the origins of these first inhabitants, putting forward several theories as to where the first “Irelanders” came from.]

Chapter Three: First Farmers [The neolithic package arrives in Ireland. Ireland being Ireland, not much is known for sure about this period but we do know these things: a) The neolithic package brought with it a major change in every aspect of Ireland’s culture. b) There is very little evidence that there for acculturation. c) The Mesolithic population did not seem to contribute much to the Neolithic culture. d) The Neolithic package spread very rapidly. e) There does seem to be evidence that Britain and Ireland shared the same origins where the Neolithic culture is concerned.]

Chapter Four: Beakers and Metals [As the name of the chapter suggests, the beaker culture has arrived.  The author I think gave us the best description of the beakers in Ireland I have ever read.]

Chapter Five: The Rise of the Warriors [The chapter talks about the Bronze Age in Ireland and what is similar and different to Britain and the continent, and though the title talks about the rise of the warriors you hardly see any talk of them specifically.]

Chapter Six: The Iron Age [This chapter was certainly an interesting read.  A description of the phases of the Irish Iron Age, the evidence for Hallstatt and La Téne material, and what it means and the evidence for foreign settlements like the Romano-British in Ireland are just some of the topics discussed in this chapter.  What was even more interesting was the absence of the words Celtic or Celts in this chapter (except on one map), speaks volumes…]

Chapter Seven: The Native Version [The chapter was short but very interesting, it talks about the origins myth of the Irish, and who wrote it.  Nice analysis.]

Chapter Eight: Skulls, Blood and Genes [This chapter was very interesting, it chronicled the different ways people had tried to trace the origins of the Irish starting with skulls and ending with DNA.  At the end of the chapter Mallory gives you two different conclusions to what you read in the chapter which is really telling.]

Chapter Nine: The Evidence of Language [This was a very interesting though very linguistically packed chapter.  The author seems to think that the Irish Celtic language may have “arrived” in Ireland between 1000 BCE and the first century BCE.]

Chapter Ten: The Origins of the Irish [This final chapter didn’t have a conclusion in bullet points, and I think that is telling.  It means the issue of the origins of the Irish is still very much open.]


This book is really hard to rate, in some places I loved it, in others it was okay and on occasion I found myself thinking hmmmm.  The beginning of the book was a bit jarring because of the bit of humour that Mallory tried to infuse in it and once I got passed that and the fact that he no longer sounds like the dry Mallory of old I really got into the book. Mallory does a great job in this book of explaining a few things that have always baffled me like the absence (or not) of La Téne or Hallstatt material, the Irish Iron Age and what we really know about it and so on.  The book was a good mix of history, science, language and archaeology.  It was not boring to read about the pieces of archeological discoveries he discussed because he puts them in their historical context rather than just telling you from when they date and what they looked like.

I liked how he began each chapter with his ideal “Irishman” Niall of the Nine Hostages and how that beginning always gave you an insight into what the chapter was going to be all about.  The conclusions at the end of each chapter were a great way to get the main ideas of the chapters incase you needed to go back and look something up but you weren’t sure exactly where it might be.

Have I learned the origins of the Irish, well no, but I have learned all the different theories and way used to look into the subject.  I think this is a book that deserves more than one reading to really get everything that Mallory is trying to say, I see a few specific readings of different chapters with lots of supplementary research in my future.


13 thoughts on “The Origins of the Irish

  1. Saigh Kym says:

    Great review, this is definitely on my wishlist. Possibly mostly to see Mallory attempt humor,. ~;)

    • celticscholar says:

      It is not very obvious in the rest of the book, but once in a while it pops up lol. But the book wasn’t dry like Mallory’s usual style. I do really recommend it to anyone interested. The fact that he only brings up the word “Celt” in one chapter only is VERY interesting…

  2. Lance Wonders says:

    Thank you for your as-usual thorough and helpful survey. Seems like you may have an article percolating within you, to give some sense (in your view?) as to why Mallory avoided looking at a broader Celtic context in what he wrote Please do share, don’t keep your thoughts to yourself on this one, that’s why we read your column in the first place!

    • celticscholar says:

      I think it is telling that he only used the term Celtic in the chapter where the main focus is language. The term Celtic is now very loaded with a lot of connotations that perhaps the author was trying to differentiate against…

  3. Tom O Connor says:

    Thanks for great review. However, I believe I have quite a different story on the coming of the Celts (Fir Belg tribes, Belgae to the Romans) to Ireland based on Roman material. I elaborate this in my latest work, ‘Ireland’s Queen Maeve’ ( Create Space) when going back to Maeve’s distant ancestors.

  4. rindis says:

    And another book for the wishlist….

  5. There seems to be a consensus developing that the Indo-European languages arrived in Western Europe in the Bronze Age along with horses. Mallory is funny (his In Search of the Indo-Europeans is very witty in places) but he is also a careful scholar and likes to hedge his bets, which I think is why he doesn’t state things with the clarity and certainty we would all like. I think one of the issues is that when Indo-European first arrived isn’t necessarily when Celtic first arrived. The similarity of the Celtic languages across Europe suggests that they are the result of later movement, and that’s a conclusion Jean Manco also reaches. Her book Blood of the Celts is also highly recommended.

    • celticscholar says:

      I don’t know about a consensus as there are certainly still differing hypotheses out there and as for Jean Manco…I was not impressed. I think the review of that book is around here somewhere

      • I think the consensus is there among scholars – or among historical linguists, anyway! As I’ve said, everything in her book (and it ties pretty neatly with Mallory and Anthony) suggests that the Indo-European languages came in with the Beaker People. That is real progress, to be able to link the language change to an archaeological change with some degree of certainty. It also links the origin of IE to the Steppes, not to Anatolia or Armenia or any of the other candidates. These books are heavy going but I think they repay the effort. I couldn’t persuade you to give them another try? 🙂

        • celticscholar says:

          I don’t put much stock in the Anatolian hypothesis or the Armenian one I do tend to agree with Anthony and Mallory BUT I also do not discount the fact that Koch and Cunliffe have put in interesting work on their Celtic from the West hypothesis…

          • I think Koch has, certainly. He is a credible scholar but overall, his theory of Tartessian Celtic hasn’t met with overwhelming (or even underwhelming) support. Cunliffe isn’t a linguist and his opinion on matters of language change isn’t really relevant. Koch may turn out to be right or he may be wrong, but his views aren’t that far from the consensus anyway. I think eventually everyone will agree on a Bronze Age arrival of IE in Western Europe anyway and fill in the gaps from there. Good luck with the site. There are a couple of books there I would like to read. I’ll maybe buy one or two from Amazon when the long post-Xmas austerity of January is over. Slán go fóill!

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