Ireland and Spain

Published in Issue 1 (Spring 2002), Letters, Letters, Volume 10

Sir,—Congratulations on a truly excellent magazine for Autumn 2001dealing with Ireland’s relationship with Spain. I was, however,disappointed with the treatment of the Milesians. Your editorial statesthat there is ‘categorically…no genetic link between the Irish andSpain’. However, research by Professor David Goldstein (UniversityCollege London) has found that there is indeed a link between theCeltic peoples (or must I say the populations of the Celtic countries?)and the Basques.
John Carey (‘Did the Irish Come from Spain?: the Legend of theMilesians’) certainly gives an excellent resumé of the literarydevelopment of the Milesian story, although he adds little to what hehas already outlined in his new introduction to the Lebor Gabála Érenn.But he is surely wrong when he states that ‘Archaeologists have foundno convincing evidence for any such ancient migration’. It seems moreaccurate to say that they have not given it enough consideration.
Celtic-speaking peoples certainly occupied northern Spain from atleast the first part of the millennium BC. It is known that they spokea Q-Celtic language akin to Gaelic. Evidence of contact between the twocountries is plentiful. In the early Bronze Age there are, for example,lunulae, sun-disks and basket earrings. Swords and axes showsimilarities. These contacts intensified in the late Bronze Age.Prestige equipment, including cauldrons, flesh forks and otheraccoutrements of the heroic feast show striking similarities. Whilstthis assemblage could have reached the Atlantic from the Aegean via theDanube it also could have reached the Atlantic via Iberia.
The Castro culture of north western Iberia, centred on Ga!icia, wascharacterised by the construction of defended homesteads with round oroval conical roofed dry stone buildings within defended stoneenclosures. These also show similarity to the stone forts or cashels ofIreland which are particularly numerous in Munster. Do these representparallel development or contact?
Carey describes as ‘patently incorrect’ the notion that Ireland islocated between Britain and Spain; true enough to someone standing inCornwall or the home counties of England but not so for someone innorthern Britain. He also confuses distance with time. Many of us arefamiliar with road maps drawn according to time rather than lineardistance; I wonder what a map of Europe would look like redrawnaccording to travelling times by land and sea in ancient times? Itwould certainly show Ireland and Spain to be close.
Barry Cunliffe in his recent book Facing the Ocean, shows thesailing time between Ireland and Spain to be between five and ninedays, according to conditions. I might add that the occurrence ofIberian flora in Munster gives some indication of the direction ofcurrents between the two countries; boats relying on these samecurrents would have arrived in Munster. As for the mouth of the riverScena being the part nearest Spain, that river has been identified withthe Kenmare river or the Shannon estuary; in either case, the southwestcoast of Ireland is the nearest part of Ireland to Spain, which is whythe Spaniards of a later time chose to land at Smerwick and Kinsale.
I am also curious as to why one of the Milesians, Bratha, father ofBreoghan is reported by Keating (Foras Feasa in Éirinn, vol. 2, p.39)to have given his name to Braganza in northern Portugal. The name isCeltic. Is this mere coincidence? Did the medieval storytellers choosea place with a Celtic name at random? Or did they carry a genuinetradition?
It seems to me that while individually these various connectionscan be dismissed as irrelevant or coincidental, taken together theyconstitute something more and are worthy of closer examination.



I am grateful for Kevin Collins’ thoughtful and thought-provokingremarks. While I have no expertise in archaeology, the sourcesavailable to me indicate that evidence for trade contacts betweenIreland and Iberia actually dwindles in the later Bronze Age, probablyprior to the arrival of Celtic speech in either region. There were ofcourse Celts in Iberia, but their language was not especially close toGaelic. Only shared innovations would point to a significant connectionhere, and the retention of inherited qu in both languages is in factjust such a shared archaism as one might expect to find in twoperipheral areas, whether or not there was much contact between them. Idoubt that either Caesar or Tacitus was writing from a standpoint inCornwall, or even in Kent. I have no doubt that Ireland can be easilyreached from Spain, and indeed the article speaks of the importance oftraffic between them in the seventh century. Travel, of one kind oranother, surely took place at other times as well; but to say that amigration could have happened is not to prove that it did. Such proofmay one day be forthcoming: this would represent an advance inhistorical knowledge which all of us would welcome. Even in such aneventuality, however, I would continue to see the testimony of LeborGabála as representing a lucky guess, not a Bronze Age memory.
University College Cork


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