Blood of the Isles: exploring the genetic roots of our tribal history

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2007), Pre-history / Archaeology, Reviews, Volume 15

Blood of the Isles: exploring the genetic roots of our tribal history
Bryan Sykes
(Bantam Press, £10.79)
ISBN 0593056523From a historian’s point of view, this is initially a difficult book to get into. Sykes is a geneticist, not a historian; he writes in a personalised, conversational style and, in the opening chapters, talks a lot about the things that are on his mind. Add to that the dense material on the science of genetics and descriptions of the gathering, analysing and interpreting of DNA evidence and this definitely does not seem to be the book for a historian.
Yet there is a lot of history in it, both of ‘the Isles’ and of science itself. Although it is in a sense a personal quest by Sykes to understand the history and origins of the peoples of Britain and Ireland, he examines the various mythological histories—from Cú Chulainn to King Arthur—and early attempts at written history, such as the Leabhar Gabhála, or Book of Invasions. Interestingly, Sykes’s initial motivation appears to have been the increasingly common notion that the English have lost their sense of identity while the Celts confidently assert a bogus one. He singles out St Patrick’s Day in particular as a chauvinistic expression of racial identity, missing the point that on 17 March everyone gets a chance to be Irish and celebrate a particular (Celtic?) attitude to life.
Sykes’s views evolve as the book develops, however. In exploring the origins of the cultural and political divisions between Celt and Saxon, he came across concepts of race and racial superiority among the English vis-à-vis the Scots, Welsh and Irish. Such attitudes are deeply ingrained and long established. In 1850, for example, Robert Knox wrote in The races of men that ‘The Celtic Race must be forced from this soil. England’s safety requires it’. This is not to say that there was no racism on the Celtic side but it was never quite as virulent, and I get the impression of increasing sympathy for the Celts on Sykes’s part as the book goes on.
He ably surveys previous endeavours to classify the peoples of Britain and Ireland, through hair colour or blood type for example, but is not so sure-footed when attempting historical explanations for how people arrived here and how they shaped the demographic landscape. He makes an interesting foray into the identity of the Picts but is sceptical that the Celts, or at least the mainstream Celts, actually arrived on these islands. He reveals, accidentally I am sure, a hangover from older English attitudes in referring to ‘mainland Britain’ (p. 67).
The meat, as it were, of the book is the collection and analysis of the genetic evidence. Sykes explains his theories in detail and how he collected DNA samples from throughout these islands. There is no space here to go into it all but, briefly, he identifies seven matrilineal lines of descent (common to all Europeans) but fewer patrilineal lines. The most significant is what he terms the ‘Oisin clan’, which is essentially the Celtic one. He comes to a number of conclusions about the genetic inheritance of the peoples who make up Britain and Ireland but the main one is that among the Irish, Scots and Welsh the Oisin, or Celtic, gene predominates. And no doubt some Ulster unionists will be annoyed to discover that, according to Sykes, they are just as Celtic as the rest of us on this island.

Tony Canavan is a former Museum Officer of Newry and Mourne District Council.

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