The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Re-orienting perspectives: Bob Quinn's The Atlantean Irish

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 7 April 2005

What links The Blanket's mission of republican, principled protest and informed dissent to one man's quest to recover fragments of our island's 'oriental and maritime heritage'? Bob Quinn's been a maverick in his careers as not only writer but especially filmmaker and television director. He 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-centred 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, also depends on genetic markers still overwhelmingly present in natives to the West today.

Yet, the TCD team seems to clash in its 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. His pilgrimage of confrontations may remind readers of The Blanket of republicans continually staring down the wardens, soldiers, or perhaps other vicars in pushing ideas and visions into practical agendas and concrete strategies. 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. We who make up The Blanket's community may relate to this marginalisation. Perhaps the late Edward Said might have claimed from his earthly home (via Cairo if not Columbia!), that Quinn perpetuates in his subtitle an Occidentalism dangerous to the interests of Said's Arab polity. Yet, I applaud for Quinn that he speaks boldly from his own, equally defensible, certainly progressive, sea-ready fastness. If republicans sunder a Celtic heritage, we can then boast our descent from Atlanteans.

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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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

19 April 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

Another Historic Statement, Again
Anthony McIntyre

Two Heads Better Than One?
Brian Mór

Hope for A Democractic Avenue, Not a Dead End Street
Mick Hall

Irish American Support
Niall Fennessy

Street Fighting Man
Fred A Wilcox

Revolutionaries Have Set Up Dictatorship
Margaret Quinn

The Murder of Robert McCartney
Conor Horan

The Missing Ingredient
Ruairi O’Driscoll

Re-orienting perspectives: Bob Quinn's The Atlantean Irish
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Politics of Peace at an Impasse
David Adams

* Election Coverage *

Independent Irish Republicans Standing in All 6 Counties
Sean Mc Aughey

John Coulter

Gary Donnelly, Cityside Ward, Derry City Council

Aine Gribbon, Antrim Town Council

Patricia (Trish) Murray, Antrim Town Council

The Letters page has been updated.

6 April 2005

Criminality and Public Relations
Eamon Sweeney

Truth Better than Spin
Mick Hall

The Central Issue is Justice
Catherine McCartney

Not Out of Nationalist Woods Yet
David Adams

South Down Election Play
John Coulter

Are We on the Verge of a New Political Ice Age?
Anthony McIntyre



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