The Ancient World of the Celts, Peter Berresford Ellis. (Constable, £25) ISBN 0094787204 Ancient Ireland: Life Before the Celts, Laurence Flanagan. (Gill and Macmillan, £16.99) ISBN 0717124347

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 1999), Pre-history / Archaeology, Pre-Norman History, Reviews, Volume 7

Those of us who desire to know about the past are served by many people and groups: researchers, teachers, writers, and not least by publishers—without whom the thoughts of historians would be limited to their classrooms. And it is as a reflection on this group, and how they serve us, that I have chosen to review these two very different works together. Both are concerned with ancient Ireland and rely heavily on the researches and methods of archaeology; one deals with the Celts, the other with the time before the Celts; one is a work of fine scholarship pitched at a non-specialist audience, the other a hotch-potch of generalisations and romantic fictions which will find an audience in the current fad for things ‘Celtic’; one is a beautiful production with good colour photographs on fine paper, the other has old monotone plates and is printed on rough paper which does not do justice to either its fine line drawings or maps; one has ‘suggestions for further reading’ which is mainly more ‘popular’ works like itself, the other has a proper bibliography that helps the reader enter more fully into the subject. Sadly, the positive and negative aspects cannot be collectively linked to individual books.
The attractive volume is by Berresford Ellis, its colour photographs beckon one to lift it off the coffee-table and suggest that an exciting ancient world is about to be revealed. The author knows how to charm his readers and has written many popular works on the Celts in recent years. Regrettably, the work does not take account of either historical method nor the hard-edged work of philologists, historians, or archaeologists. There is a mythic picture in the popular psyche of what the ‘Celts’ were: a people of mystery and alternative knowledge, a people of art and wisdom, a people that have much to teach us, and so on, and this book not only does not offer a critique of this romanticism, but panders to it. The chapter on ‘Celtic Physicians’ (pp.111-119) is representative of the book’s method. Perhaps those who are interested in the ‘alternative Celts’ are also interested in ‘alternative medicine’ and with it the notion that there is a some body of ‘forgotten wisdom’ waiting to be discovered. Thus the chapter begins with an assertion (quoted with approval from another popular book on the Celts) that ‘In medicine, as in so many other areas, the Celts stand favourable comparison with the classical world’. But as for evidence for the claim, or a suggestion as to how it could be verified, we are left empty-handed. Instead, we are given a few anecdotes of cases of surgery, and the fact that there are names for surgical instruments and medicinal herbs in Irish—can the author point to any European society since Roman times where this is not the case? The argument then moves from early Ireland to Dio Cassius to the Tuatha Dé Danann to the ‘professional role’ of druids as healers—and all on the same page (114). On page 117 we have scraps of information relating to the ‘semi-legendary queen Macha Mong Ruadh (c. 377 BC) [I thought even popular books had stopped using such dates to bolster a sense of factual history], to a hospital in Navan destroyed in AD 22, and to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century clergy writing about medicine in the Irish College in Salamanca—the reader knows, of course, that this whole tale of 2,000 years is a single unflawed uniquely Celtic garment! However, the boast on page 118 is perhaps the most outrageous: ‘The Irish language contains the world’s most extensive medical literature written in any one language prior to 1800’. Just think of it: more than Greek, more than Latin, more than Arabic. Needless to say he does not point out the medical texts that do exist in Irish are either translations from Latin or vernacular variants based on Latin works. But despite all these shortcomings, the production values of the book will ensure it a wide audience. I have already seen it in a book-club offer in a Sunday newspaper, and the modern myth of Celticity will continue to grow.
Laurence Flanagan’s book, by contrast, is a little treasure of learning worn lightly and true historical communication. He knows what is to be known from the best scholarship, but knows also that non-specialists need to have this interpreted for them and represented in a non-daunting way. Thus we are told of tools and pots and burials, but in a way which helps us imagine their world and how they lived. What we can know of their society, art, and beliefs are all set out. And, most importantly, he points out what we cannot know in the case of societies where our evidence is so sparse and in many cases based on what they threw away! The whole book has a well-rounded feel, one is brought through flint axes to domestic arrangements to a sketch of what the climate was like. Flanagan avoids the jargon of archaeological excavation reports, and provides a glossary of the technical terms he does use. In addition, he provides a good bibliography that will help the reader go further into the subject. But while this book deserves to have good sales to people interested in early Ireland—or anyone who likes looking at the countryside while driving, for it will enhance one’s appreciation of the landscape—I suspect it will not be a best-seller. The production qualities are poor: line drawings where colour photographs would be the ideal, a single quire of fourteen black and white photographs reminiscent of 1960s schoolbooks, and shoddy maps. In Berresford Ellis we have a big colourful map without geographical precision, here we have precise distribution maps but printed as small line-drawings where the dots blur into one another and so reducing both their value and attractiveness. In Berresford Ellis the text is well laid out on a page just less than A4, here the text is shabby and unattractive on a page just less than A5.
When we see this irony—a fine text with poor presentation, a poor text with fine presentation—we might succumb to a reverie that such always is the fickleness of popular taste; however, it should also remind us that publishers can serve us ill: why did the publishers of Flanagan’s book not have the courage to produce it properly and provide us with a book, which as a book, can stand beside the other? Indeed, if the Flanagan book was well produced it could have attracted the audience that would have justified the higher production values!

Thomas O’Loughlin


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