TV Eye: Blood of the Irish

Published in Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Pre-history / Archaeology, Reviews, Volume 17

Presenter Diarmuid Gavin in Keyna, where the earliest traces of humanity are to be found.

Presenter Diarmuid Gavin in Keyna, where the earliest traces of humanity are to be found.

Blood of the Irish
Crossing the Line Films
5 & 12 January 2009, RTÉ 1

by John Gibney

Blood of the Irish was RTÉ’s first significant documentary of 2009. The promotional material claimed that here was a programme that would seek ‘the truth about the Irish’ by asking the interlinked questions ‘who are the Irish and whose blood flows in our veins?’ Describing the attempt to answer these as a ‘quest’ and ‘a spectacular voyage of discovery’, the basic purpose of its two episodes was to examine the actual origins of the original inhabitants of the island of Ireland, most notably by augmenting traditional archaeological techniques with state-of-the-art DNA research. This was a laudable objective and, as the promotional literature stated, it is potentially an ‘enthralling topic’. In this light, it is most unfortunate that this lavish documentary was as thoroughly disappointing as it turned out to be.
The source of that disappointment is down to one thing: the superficiality with which it treated its subject-matter. Presented by Diarmuid Gavin, who all too often seemed out of his depth, it was filmed in locations as diverse as Kenya, France, Spain and (naturally) various parts of Ireland. It was very obviously an expensive production. But no amount of location work, gimcrack editing techniques, curious reconstructions that suggested that our ancestors looked like refugees from Mad Max 2, and moody shots of the presenter driving his SUV could disguise an extremely superficial approach to what is potentially a fascinating subject. To give but one example, a lengthy interview with one archaeologist ends with the revelation that many of the Stone Age settlers who arrived in Ireland over the centuries had travelled here in boats. Alongside such statements of the obvious was a rather questionable approach to the evidence on which the series depended.

Diarmuid Gavin in the Alps, one of the diverse locations in this obviously expensive production.

Diarmuid Gavin in the Alps, one of the diverse locations in this obviously expensive production.

For example, research into Irish DNA patterns carried out in Trinity College, Dublin, has indicated that a large number of Irish people seem to be descended from the O’Neills of Ulster and that, theoretically, they could ultimately be traced back to one individual. Thus the programme confidently presumed that this individual was Niall of the Nine Hostages, who supposedly brought St Patrick to these shores. The problem is that Niall of the Nine Hostages may never actually have existed. Need this reviewer say more? It would be far too easy to continue to criticise a documentary that added little to what one might have learned in secondary school. What it did reveal could perhaps have been covered in a 30-minute (and much cheaper) episode of Nationwide, and is hard not to feel that, whatever about our ancestors, the producers had a low opinion of the mental abilities of the contemporary Irish viewer. Yet for all of its flashy but shallow exposition, Blood of the Irish inadvertently raised a number of crucial issues, even if it managed not to tackle them.
The earliest traces of humanity are to be found in what is now Kenya. Over the millennia, humans began to migrate across both Africa and the Eurasian land mass, insofar as technology and the environment permitted. This is no revelation. What is novel is that modern DNA technology can be used to track the genetic composition of human population groups and, potentially, patterns of migration. After much portentous exposition, Blood of the Irish concluded that the genetic make-up of the Irish dated back to the Stone Age; indeed, it seems that certain DNA patterns will have existed in certain localities over thousands of years. But apart from the latter qualification, how surprising is the essential fact? The archaeological evidence for such ancient settlements has been known for years. The DNA research is a significant if limited supplement, of course, but its true significance seems to lie in its implications.

Diarmuid Gavin with the three pupils from a County Clare class found to have genetic markers similar to a local Stone Age sample

Diarmuid Gavin with the three pupils from a County Clare class found to have genetic markers similar to a local Stone Age sample

Historically, notions of ethnicity have been part and parcel of some Irish nationalist and unionist beliefs: the ‘Cruithin’ so beloved of some loyalists in the 1970s come to mind, but there are plenty of others. Indeed, one of the key characteristics of what used to be called ‘revisionism’ was its attempt to undermine assumptions of political and cultural uniformity by pointing out that the inhabitants of Ireland were far more complex than might traditionally have been assumed. Related to these assumptions were more questionable notions of ethnic authenticity: who were the natives and who were the newcomers? This lurked in the background of one of the running themes of the documentary, as Gavin drove to Clifden to debunk the hoary myth that the slightly swarthy complexion of the people of Connemara stems from Spanish sailors being marooned after the wreck of the Armada and roaming the west of Ireland with a twinkle in their eye. Remarkably, some genetic patterns in Connemara do correspond to those found in the Basque Country, indicating a common ancestry presumably linked by a long-forgotten migration. In any case, it was cheerfully stated that the good burgher of Clifden upon whom this theory was tested is, in genetic terms, one of the original Irish. But there are limitations to such assertions. Take, for example, the question of whether or not the Irish are a ‘Celtic’ people. While the DNA evidence indicates that in genetic terms the Irish are not automatically Celts, it cannot explain the cultural and linguistic influence of the Celts on the pre-Christian population of the island. Such potentially awkward issues were dodged, however.
In a country that is still having difficulties in assimilating the unprecedented immigration of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, it is no bad thing to be reminded that we are all descended from immigrants of some kind or another. But the assumption that there are ethnically ‘authentic’ Irish people out there brings to mind the word herrenvolk. And the potential implications of that is something that this tiresome documentary singularly failed to address. The series ended with Gavin reassuring us that, because of the tortuous and complex journeys made by our ancient ancestors, the modern inhabitants of Ireland can choose to identify with whomever they like. It reminded this reviewer of the scene in The Snapper where Jimmy senior is reassured by his pals in the pub that, rather than be faced with the appalling vista of Georgie Burgess as the father of his imminent grandchild, he could instead blame Sharon’s pregnancy on an unknown ‘Spanish sailor’. It is to be hoped that the producers of Blood of the Irish did not have this in mind whilst making a programme that seemed to hint at the depressing and dangerous suggestion that whenever we are in doubt about our history, we can always make it up as we go along.

John Gibney is an IRCHSS Government of Ireland fellow at the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies, NUI Galway.

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