Hey, Irish Americans: Your “Celtic” tattoo isn’t Celtic — because that whole idea was made up

Let’s have a little talk among ourselves, Irish Americans. Let’s celebrate our diversity. No, I’m serious; that’s the real story of our heritage. There is no pure ethnic identity to be found deep in our ancestry, or in anyone else’s. To quote the Harvard geneticist David Reich, whose research on ancient DNA has upended the study of human prehistory, “Present-day populations are blends of past populations, which were blends themselves.”

Let’s talk about your sort-of-but-not-entirely benign passion for the supposed “Celtic” past: Let’s talk about your tattoos, very likely an ahistorical mishmash of definitely-not-Celtic stuff and pseudo-medieval Christian lettering and incoherent 20th-century nationalism. Let’s talk about the fairies, the ancient monuments, the spiritual meditations, the mispronounced names of traditional holidays, the cobbled-together bits of mythology and folklore. 

That stuff sucks. I mean, I get it, up to a point: Some of it is about the understandable and maybe even honorable yearning to connect with meaningful cultural traditions from the past, at a historical moment when many people in America and other Western nations (i.e., white folks) feel disconnected and rootless. But some of it is just white supremacist garbage. It’s not always easy to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Nearly all the Celtomania of the last few decades, unfortunately, amounts to just making stuff up, or to a fantasy-novel mishmash of stuff that doesn’t fit together. Let’s take the ever-popular triple-spiral design motif, identified all over the internet as “Celtic,” which is nothing of the kind. That design is found in exactly one place in Ireland, the impressive prehistoric passage tomb in County Meath called Newgrange, which was built roughly 2,000 years before any tangible evidence had appeared anywhere of the Celtic culture and Celtic languages that had spread across northwestern Europe by Julius Caesar’s time. 

Some of it is just white supremacist garbage.

You’ll notice I didn’t say that Newgrange was built “before the Celts.” That’s because there never were any “Celts” in the first place. OK, that might be a bit too simplistic — but we can clearly say that the whole story about a distinctive ethnic or tribal or genetic group called the Celts who rampaged across Europe and into the British Isles during the first millennium B.C. has been demolished. That was the standard narrative for most of the last 200 years, repeated in legends and histories and anthropological dissertations — and it flat-out didn’t happen.

As historian Jennifer Paxton puts it, in a lecture from her series “The Celtic World”: “There’s a clear lack of evidence in support of a Celtic invasion.” She goes on to specify that there’s no historical evidence, no linguistic evidence and no archaeological evidence. Furthermore, thanks to the recent breakthrough in DNA research (by Reich and others), there is strongly contrary genetic evidence, since the modern-day inhabitants of Britain and Ireland “are not closely related to the inhabitants of central Europe,” where the Celtic-speaking people who fought Caesar’s legions came from. Recent studies by the geneticist Rui Martiniano and the archaeologist Claire-Elise Fischer indicate that people living in the most remote and most “Celtic” regions of Ireland and Scotland today have “substantial genetic continuity” with people who lived in those places during the Iron Age, more than 3,000 years ago. 

Most serious scholars step carefully around the term “Celts” these days, and “Celtic,” as the Welsh linguist Patrick Sims-Williams puts it, is now used as an “umbrella term” for an “ethno-linguistic group” that shares related languages and overlapping cultural practices but is highly diverse in terms of geography and ancestry. He argues that it doesn’t even make sense to speak of “Celtic art” or “Celtic archaeology,” since those terms don’t describe anything coherent.

The “Celtic revival” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — which continues today, in increasingly bastardized and increasingly online fashion — was mostly about resurrecting or renewing suppressed or forgotten traditions in art, literature and language. (A lot of which, in historical terms, weren’t Celtic at all.) That movement became an important element of Irish nationalism — and to a lesser extent Scottish and Welsh nationalism — but also got way too easily conflated with problematic notions of ethnicity and race, and with the ahistorical notion that there was some pure Celtic identity or nationhood that could be found in the distant past. That’s pretty much never true, anywhere, about any culture on Earth.

The real and endlessly complicated story of Ireland’s past is a lot more interesting than the search for some made-up “Celtic” essence that never existed.

Anyway, it doesn’t look like the Celts of mainland Europe ever came to Ireland — and by the way, if they had, they’d only have been the third of the four major waves of human migration into the British Isles. In retrospect, the whole “Celtic” thing looks like a narrative artifact of 19th-century romantic racism, cooked up in the first instance by German scholars who tried to connect some piecemeal archaeological discoveries to a handful of references in Greek and Roman sources and then to a crackpot philological theory that the Germans were really the Celts or the other way around. As you may be aware, this kind of racialist thinking in Germany led to some pretty dark stuff a few decades later.

So if there was no Celtic invasion as such, then how did the Irish, the Welsh and the Scots (and everybody else in pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain) end up speaking Celtic languages — which are indeed related to the now-extinct languages spoken widely across northern Europe in Roman times? To cut a very long story short, the revolutionary DNA research conducted by Reich, Fischer and various others tells us that modern people of Irish or Scottish descent mostly carry genetic material from the “Bell Beaker people” who moved to those islands from central Europe around 4,000 years ago — and were themselves descended from the “Yamnaya culture” who brought the horse and the wheel into Europe from the steppes of modern-day Ukraine and Russia. 

Linguists have long suspected that the Yamnaya people also brought with them early versions of the Indo-European languages that would later conquer the whole continent, and while that’s not provable the genetic evidence seems to support it. But the question of exactly how and when the Celtic languages — and the Celtic religion and other elements of Celtic culture — got to ancient Britain and Ireland is, let’s just say, highly contentious. 

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As the child of a Celtic studies scholar and linguist, I urge you to steer clear of this particular rabbit hole: It’s full of tiny warring factions whose disputes can never be resolved, and features an epistemological turf war between archaeologists and linguists about who’s doing real science and who’s just a quack. But if you insist: It’s conceivable that the Bell Beaker folk — so named for their distinctive pottery — brought some super-early proto-Celtic language with them to Britain and Ireland that evolved into modern Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Breton. That’s roughly what the linguist Patrick Sims-Williams (cited above) thinks.

So, wait: Does that mean that the Bell Beakers are really the Celts after all, and they just staged their big invasion 1,500 years or so earlier than we thought? Maybe, sort of, but not exactly. Archaeologist J.P. Mallory, author of “The Origins of the Irish,” calls this “a very difficult problem”:

[I]n Britain and Ireland it could be regarded by many as the smoking gun that points to the Celtic migration to Ireland but the date — at c 2300 BC — is so early compared to where most place Proto-Celtic and also to the level of similarity in the earliest attested Celtic languages.

He’s referring to the fact that the first known evidence of written Celtic languages shows up more than 1,600 years after the Bell Beakers reached Britain — and about a thousand miles away, in northern Italy. There’s also no strong correlation between Bell Beaker DNA and the historical range of Celtic-speaking peoples: Irish and Scottish people are closely related to each other (and to the people of northern France and Spain), but not closely related to other known “Celts.” Jennifer Paxton suggests it’s more likely that Celtic culture spread to the British Isles as a kind of Iron Age “meme,” by way of a Celtic-speaking mercantile elite along the Atlantic edge of Europe. (To clarify this slightly: Paxton does indeed say this, but she’s effectively echoing the “Celtic from the West” hypothesis promoted by historian and linguist John T. Koch.)

In other words, nobody knows anything. There will be a quiz.

I’m not telling you to scrub off that triple-spiral tattoo in shame. It’s not Celtic, and anyone who tells you what it “symbolizes” is having you on — but it’s definitely something.

Where I’m going here with all this, my Irish-American friends, is that the real and endlessly complicated story of Ireland’s past is a lot more interesting than the search for some made-up “Celtic” essence that never existed, and which always ends up at two connected destinations: blatantly fake racist B.S., and somebody trying to sell you something. This ever-frustrated quest for plastic-shamrock authenticity is one of the big reasons why so many Irish Americans feel bewildered or alienated by the realities of contemporary Ireland, a small island of abundant contradictions and deep historical ironies that doesn’t want to be a misty stereotype of itself — but is still willing to play that role for the Yanks if there’s enough money on the table.

There is a darker side to Irish-American bewilderment, although we’re on friendly terms and I won’t accuse you of that: I mean the retrograde right-wing tendency exemplified by Sean Hannity and Mick Mulvaney and Kellyanne Conway and any number of other Trump-affiliated Republicans, which remains attached to an idealized, nostalgic vision of Ireland as a Gaelic-Catholic-nationalist (but English-speaking) monoculture, the land of saints and scholars and “comely maidens dancing at the crossroads,” to quote the 1943 St. Patrick’s Day address by Éamon de Valera, the American-born, half-Hispanic leader who shaped 20th-century Ireland, for better and (mostly) for worse. 

When those “make Ireland great again” folks look across the Atlantic today and see a country whose current Taoiseach (i.e., prime minister) is a gay man of Indian ancestry, and where the starting goalkeeper for the national soccer team is Black, I can only hope they feel outraged and baffled. They should be: Jesus, Mary and Joseph, how did Ireland turn woke? That’s the world telling them that their understanding of Irishness is bound for the rubbish bin of history.

I would be untrue to my heritage if I didn’t pause to observe that Leo Varadkar is an ineffective leader with failed ideas, and that Gavin Buzunu really hasn’t proved himself on the international stage (and plays for Southampton in England, who are crap). But the larger point is that of course those guys are Irish — more Irish than me or Sean Hannity, despite the names — and that considered in the larger history of Ireland their stories are not inconceivable or oxymoronic or even all that remarkable.

Let’s get back to Newgrange, which was built way before the Bell Beaker folk and the imaginary Celts: I’m not telling you to scrub off that triple-spiral tattoo in shame. It’s not Celtic, and anyone who tells you what it “symbolizes” is having you on — but it’s definitely something. Honor it instead as a tribute to a lost civilization that was “Irish” in some sense we will never understand, and that poses questions we will never answer. 

Ireland is not a place of answers; it’s a place of questions.

Furthermore, Newgrange is an amazing place and you should definitely go. It’s an elaborate tomb complex built with Stone Age technology, and with such calendrical precision that on the morning of the winter solstice the rising sun shines directly into the heart of its innermost chamber for a few minutes. Along with many of the other prehistoric stone tombs and monuments in Ireland, it was built centuries before Stonehenge, or for that matter before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It was built a thousand years before the Mycenaean culture of ancient Greece began to write things down.

We don’t have the slightest idea what the people who built Newgrange may have called themselves. They were part of a much larger migratory group in human prehistory that archaeologists call the Early European Farmers. They probably originated in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and got to Ireland somewhere around 6,000 years ago, where, by the way, they overwhelmed or killed off a native hunter-gatherer population about whom we know even less. (A bit later, of course, they in turn would largely be supplanted by the Bell Beakers.) Why this particular subset of EEFs developed such an obviously sophisticated ritual culture in Ireland (and in parts of Britain and northern France), but not so much in other places, is a great mystery. 

They left no written records, and we will never know what language they spoke. (Some scholars claim to discern fragmentary clues, in the form of a “substrate” to the existing Celtic languages — yet another rabbit hole). They lived and died a long, long time before anything that could be called “Celtic,” but there might be a little of their DNA in me, and maybe in you if you’ve actually read this far. That’s not their real legacy. What Ireland has to give the world is not ancient mystical wisdom or imagined ethnic heritage — those are things we invent in the present and mold to our weak-minded purposes. Ireland is not a place of answers; it’s a place of questions. No country on earth can show you quite so vividly the imponderable depth of human history, or the biggest single thing that connects our species, across all the centuries and all the continents: the unconquerable urge to reach for what lies just beyond our grasp. Let’s drink to that.

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from Andrew O’Hehir


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