Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bob Quinn's "Atlantean Irish": Review

A paragraph added to my earlier Amazon review updates a bit this consideration of a book that readers of Bryan Sykes & Robert Oppenheimer (reviewed by me there and here) should find provocative. Quinn deserves credit for thinking about these issues before the DNA & genetic findings bore him out, two decades later. A fascinating argument! (I also review his childhood memoir, "Smokey Hollow," here and on Amazon US.)

Barry Cunliffe, John Collis, Simon James, Bryan Sykes, and Stephen Oppenheimer all further ideas that Quinn proposed over two decades ago in film and print. This book revises and expands his thesis. Readers intrigued by more recent DNA, archeological, and linguistic discoveries in Ireland and Britain should read this exciting, if rather rambling, argument for Irish settlement and cultural influences coming not from across the Continent from a La Téne central hub, but from Mediterranean and Iberian sources via travels along the "Atlantic fringe" up the coastlines. (I review Sykes "Seven Daughters of Eve" and "Blood of the Isles" and Oppenheimer's "Origins of the British," all of which should have acknowleged Quinn, on Amazon; the following review I wrote in 2005 before "Blood" & "Origins" were published.)

Bob Quinn confronts received knowledge and upends the status quo. Living in a Conamara gaeltacht since 1970, his adopted locale inspired him to ask two questions that impelled the saga adapted in this update (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2005, 20 euro) to his 1986 work, Atlantean. Bono, in an interview with Bob Dylan, cited Quinn's initial contention: tracing ancient Gaelic song to North Africa. A new edition's range of illustrations, attractive font and design, and incorporation of material gleaned from refinement and elaboration of his initial foray into largely uncharted intellectual waters presents iconoclasts with a model of how to construct an alternative to what everyone assumes to be the only way from which to perceive 'reality.'

Looking at the púcán boats that once dotted his Atlantic coast, he noted their resemblance to lateen sails on Egyptian dhows; listening to sean-nos melodies, he marvelled at their pentatonic counterparts from the Arab realms. Quinn targets cultural echoes, archaeological evidence, and linguistic links tying Ireland not to the conventional La Tene-Celtic and thereafter European-centered diffusion pattern, but to a neglected nautical passage that, he reasoned, had long escaped the gaze of Continentally ethnocentric scholars fixated on an Indo-European genesis for the peoples and crafts that entered into the island. Now, Quinn's thesis contradicts the Celtic origins which many Irish have celebrated for 300 years.

His findings, necessarily scattershot and rather random, resemble a Victorian vicar's parlour-displayed assemblage of bric-a-brac. (Only source titles, not precise citations, fill his endnotes, frustratingly.) I suppose Quinn might retort it's instead structuralist bricolage, a bold thrust to delve deeper below the psuedo-Keltic veneer appliqued by Revivalists and Romantics to excavate the broken shards and ghostly palimpsests abandoned by those who travelled the "wine-route" from as long as 5000 BCE along the Southern Mediterranean littoral, until, drawn by tin from Cornwall and smugglers to Ireland, moving up the Iberian coasts until they continued due north to the first landfall the western and southern island shores. He advances that the true impetus for Irish culture came from North African, Egyptian, and Mediterranean lands rather than Central Europe, the Roman empire, and its successors.

Neither the ancient classical nor the native Irish authors, Quinn insists, called the indigenous people in our island 'Celts' -- this being an antiquarian and so relatively early modern coinage. In what was for me the most intriguing section of his study, he contends that North African substrata underlie our Irish language itself, and he relates the legendary accounts of the Iberian and Egyptian origins of the island's first ancestors to the migrations that would have brought trade, colonisers, refugees from early Christian persecutions, and monks to Ireland before the suspect arrival of a largely fabricated Patrick. While I lack the familiarity that Quinn has with his many sources, I wondered why, however, his use of mitochondrial DNA studies to support his claims cited Bryan Sykes (his eloquent Seven Daughters of Eve. London: 2001) of Eve, but not the concurrent team led by David Bradley from TCD, whose assertions a few years back in Science appear to complicate what Quinn simplifies about the coming of the earliest settlers from Asia Minor to Connaught thousands of years ago, Bradley's team, and other research by Brian McEvoy and colleagues at TCD, and by D.B. Goldsmith and colleagues, also depends on genetic markers still overwhelmingly present in natives to the West today. None of these researchers, active in the past decade, have been cited by Quinn, an obvious flaw.

But maybe Quinn's stacking his evidence? Bradley's TCD team and recent geneticists argue for an Atlantic fringe origin, but from Northern Spain to Scandinavia rather than further south and east. Simon James and Barry Cunliffe, among other leaders in pre-Roman Celtic-British studies, have accepted the invalidity of the "Celtic" invasion of the islands and the west thesis. Emerging challenges by linguists to the Central European genesis and Celtic invasion pattern seem to clash in their findings with Quinn's Mediterranean-African genesis for the early Irish.

Bearing the traces of peoples pushed ever westward as farmers advanced, a kilometer or so a year, the peoples (whose genetic traits distinguished at 97% in the West of Ireland among males of native descent vs. 3% in today's Turkey) came not over water but presumably over land--driven across Europe as they were pushed ahead by agriculturalists---unsettled folks from the Fertile Crescent who were shunted ever westward as farmers ploughed Europe over thousands of years. The remnants of those pre-farmers wound up settling finally into Connacht's spaces--the last nearby refuge on the North Atlantic fringe.

Again, certain portions of Quinn's argument, even to this general reader, appear akin to romanticised notions of solidarity with au courant Arab and Third World solidarity rather than the 'Thomas Cook model' of radial diffusion from an Alpine or Danubian homeland, favored by many 19 and 20c scholars. The evidence, as Quinn admits at times, for a maritime rather than continental dependence influencing Irish development depends far too often for academic scrutiny upon perhaps coincidental or random findings, albeit painstakingly and cleverly compiled by Quinn over three decades and more. His basic reliance upon his interpretation of Irish from its status as a living language rather than using Romanised inscriptions to re-create a Celtic tongue appears convincing, and I await further scholarship to clarify Quinn's educated guesses. Like the vicar, his collection impresses somewhat but also leaves the viewer muddle-headed as he examines many labels, evaluations, and connections between displays.

Chapters on Wales, Vikings, and Sheela-na-Gigs sway uneasily beside steadier accounts of monastic art, mythmaking, and the pirate trade with Algiers and Morocco. The Berber-Irish parallels again smack of the type of overly enthusiastic detective fieldwork that Lorraine Evans (Kingdoms of the Ark. London: Pocket Books, 2001) presented in establishing archaeological patterns making Queen Scota of Milesian lore into the eponymous ruler over Ireland's hordes and the instigator of the British race. I enjoyed both Evans and Quinn's attempts to scour the taint of British Israelitism off of their navigational tools, and I wondered why the latter author neglected the former, but I fear that those hidebound and tenured will publish on largely unconvinced by either freelancer's revolutionary reports.

Frustration emerges as Quinn recounts throughout his revised work the skepticism he faced from this establishment. Re-orientalists, as I term Quinn and Evans, preach to British and Irish audiences that their 'myths of origin' need not be based in a proto-Brussels conclave.

Many today, in classrooms and libraries, may not pay much attention to such independent scholars and thinkers. Yet, I applaud for Quinn that he speaks boldly from his own, equally defensible, certainly progressive, sea-ready fastness. If we descended from the Atlantic fringe sunder a Celtic heritage, we can then boast our descent from Atlanteans!

Revised from a review in the Belfast on-line journal The Blanket, "Re-orienting perspectives," March 2005.

Anyone driving from Galway city through to, say, Carna, might agree with Quinn. You hug the sea more than the mountain in drawing your bearings, your domain, and your living. Its towns and enterprises meet the needs of those traditionally travelling by huicear and not Honda, currach and not Cortina. Commonsense shows, in what Quinn should have displayed with localised and more modern archaeological maps, that from Neolithic times contacts can be charted drawing the West and South of Ireland into Spanish ports and settlement and trade more than European markets. For all the willful and accidental vagaries within Quinn's spirited and never less than readable chapters, this author takes on the 'Celtic' giant and chops his Irish progeny down to a less Eurocentric, more portable and shipworthy size. From the Arabic term for any trefoil, by the ways Quinn unveils, we import shamrakh.

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