Part of the Giant’s Ring, County Down

The rich and varied past of our islands

Romans, Danes, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Norwegians all made their marks

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Use of the term “British Isles” to describe what some now refer to as “The Atlantic Archipelago” is dodgy, given that a sizeable chunk of the archipelago’s second-largest island cannot be described as “British”. Indeed it is particularly peculiar given that the author, Laurence Bristow-Smith, challenges anglocentric versions of the history of these islands. Such as these downplay, distort or simply ignore the contributions of the various cultures and peoples that shaped what appears to be an increasingly unstable present. 

Tribes into Nations: The Early History of the British Isles, Laurence Bristow-Smith (Letterworth Press, £36)

The author acknowledges the significance of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the lost polities of the Kingdoms of the Isles, Strathclyde and Dál Riata. It is worth noting that the first recorded ecclesiastical sacring of a King in Britain or Ireland (c.574) appears to have been that of Áedán, of the Cenél nGabráin lineage, as King of Dál Riata, by St Colum Cille (Columba, c.521–97), an event noted by the Saint’s biographer, Adomnán (c.624–704), in his Vita Columbae. 

Mention of Dál Riata prompts a refutation of the simple-minded and myopic view of those who see Ireland as one national entity, when focus should be on the seas, the arteries that gave life to the Western and Northern Isles, Dál Riata, and Strathclyde.

Bristow-Smith has woven a history of the peoples of the Atlantic Archipelago from the earliest signs of human presence through to the Middle Ages. His account of the spread of Celtic language and customs, and of their distinct strands, is engrossing: it reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago with Kennedy Graeme McWhirter, who described himself as an “archæo-linguist”. 

A Scot knowing Scots Gaelic, McWhirter discovered traces of what appeared to be an early form of that language in certain remote Alpine cul-de-sac valleys. This made sense, according to the theories concerning proto-Celtic languages spreading westwards from the 7th millennium BC. 

Our conversation turned to other aspects of Gaelic culture from northern Ulster to the Inner Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland, for I was familiar with some of the antiquities of Islay, Tiree and parts of Argyll, as well as those of Inis Eoghain, and what are now the counties of Londonderry and Antrim. That acquaintance reinforced my appreciation of the sea as the key to understanding the region, rather than seeing frontiers in coastlines.

Massive migrations take up much of Bristow-Smith’s enormous book, and he deals ably with the great range of peoples who came to raid, loot and wreck, as well as those who became settlers: Romans, Danes, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Norwegians all made their marks, notably on language. 

English was seen as a useful agent to advance ultramontanism

An interesting question is why English became dominant, even in Ireland. There is the obvious one of economic advantage, but the Roman Catholic Church later played its part in relegating Irish to a position of lowly importance, when English was seen as a useful agent to advance ultramontanism. 

Recent obsessions with slavery have also suffered from distortion and myopia. Conquerors and raiders (be they “Vikings” or whatever) looked on human beings as booty, to be sold. Natives of the Archipelago were sold in the slave markets of the time (of which Dublin was the largest), ending up in many places, including areas controlled by Islam. Slaves were often seen as more valuable than gold, silver or artefacts, and most cultures of the past incorporated slavery as an essential part of their economies.

More entertaining than any fiction are the accounts of Lives of the Saints: the sixteenth and final volume of Sabine Baring-Gould’s mammoth edition (1897) deals with the saints of the Celtic Church, and it is a mine of fascinating stuff. Bristow-Smith rightly acknowledges the importance of Irish monasticism beyond the confines of Ireland itself. It was a leading force in the preservation of the art, values and intellectual legacies of the Christian and Classical worlds under threat from pagan invaders. 

However, his book would have gained much by adopting more subheadings, for there are uncomfortable jolts in the text that could have been better melded. Extra illustrations, perhaps rather more informative than the somewhat rudimentary maps, would have bucked up the oceans of text, especially when dealing with henges (though there is no mention of the Giant’s Ring, County Down, one of the most impressive), barrows and other structures. The index could also have been greatly improved.

Bristow-Smith’s book is still a considerable achievement, well argued and researched, drawing on recent DNA discoveries and archaeology, acknowledging processes of history that suggest uncertainty and impermanence, phenomena more than likely to loom as large in the future as they undoubtedly did in the bloody and violent past described so well. 

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