The Quest for the Irish Celt



Considering the tools of their trade, should archaeologists surprise us when they become embroiled in old fashioned mud-slinging?

The Quest for the Ancient Celt sheds extensive light on simmering tensions between archaeologists on either side of the Irish border in the 1930s, and has all the elements of a Spielberg adventure yarn.

The search for the genealogical soul of the new Irish nation was spearheaded by an Austrian-born civil servant, later dubbed by the Fianna Fail government which employed and promoted him as the most fanatical Nazi in Dublin.

At stake in the battleground for Irish identity was the original ‘hard’ border: researchers at odds with each other found themselves in a race to find evidence of a cultural frontier from prehistoric times between North and South.

And if, from the vantage of today, the border dispute can feel that old, this academic sniping, while not descending to the blows dished out by Indiana Jones to his nemesis Rene Belloq, was serious point scoring between two fledgling states, the North and the Republic.

The question of the first arrival of prehistoric man on Hibernia’s shores was imbued with political significance: if the earliest bones were discovered in the North, he must have arrived from Britain. But archaeologists were in danger, writes Mairead Carew, ‘of interpreting past cultural worlds and creating new ones simultaneously to reflect their current political realities.’

And the new reality was nationalism in action: countries, because of patriotic fervour, were anxious to trace their pedigree as far back in time as possible.

However, a far sinister background involved the United States and Germany. The Nazis, represented in Dublin by Adolph Mahr, the Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum, were confident that Ireland and Scandinavia, having escaped the Roman mould, had pure racial affinities.

Ardent anti-Semite, Mahr rose swiftly through the ranks of the museum until De Valera appointed him Director in 1934. As the numero uno of the Nazi Ausland organisation in Dublin, he openly liaised with fellow expatriate fascists Fritz Brase, head of the Army School of Music and Heinz Mecking of the Turf Board, who would perish in Soviet captivity at the end of the war.

America, which had already dabbled with sterilisation of its most dependable and vulnerable with its ruling on Buck v Bell six years before Hitler became Chancellor, was interested in the racial affinities of the Irish because they made up one fifth of their population.

Historians can over egg the pudding of the importance of minor figures with walk-on roles in history, but Carew doesn’t have to: Mahr’s alliance with Harvard University’s quest for the mystical origin of the Irish, and the subsequent physical examination of thousands across the country, is the gift which keeps giving.

Harvard’s involvement is a curious affair. In 1927, when Mahr first landed in Ireland, the US Supreme Court ruled that Carrie Buck, a young mother described as ‘feeble minded’, should be sterilized by tube litigation, a decision justified by Judge Oliver Wendell Homes Jnr. ‘It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime…society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.’

Siddhartha Mukherjee covered the case extensively in his book The Gene, An Intimate History.  With the sterilization of Buck, ‘the chain of heredity had been broken,’ he noted. The Nazis, lying in wait for power and always mindful of public opinion in America, took heed.

Against this backdrop, the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland was organised by Earnest A. Hooton who viewed the country as culturally ancient but politically new, and he expected that the physical characteristics of the Irish would determine their unalloyed racial affinities.

Why was this relevant to Hooton? Two reasons. A country defined as white European Celt would be economically advantageous with the impending rise of a new political order in Europe, and Hooton, echoing Wendell Homes Jnr, had no qualms – on paper at least – about the legal removal of those doomed unfit from society.

While 12,000 Irish allowed themselves to be measured from head to toe by Hooton’s acolytes to determine their divine providence, the Nazis’ obsession with racial morphology progressed at an alarming rate. Secretly, they prepared the groundwork for Aktion T4, the euthanasia programme to eradicate quarter of a million genetic ‘defectives’.

What segued eugenics research in Germany to produce the Ubermensche befitting a thousand year Reich, and the Harvard Archaeological Mission in Ireland, was an underlying belief that physical anthropology and racial classification could justify discrimination and segregation, rife on both sides of the Atlantic.

Eugenics, coined a year after Charles Darwin’s death by Francis Galton, from the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, and genesis, was intended to mimic natural selection by human intervention. ‘Man has long sought to excuse his disregard of others’ rights by alleging certain biological differences which determine the superiority of his own race or nationality and the inferiority of others,’ enthused Hooton, by now a member of the heinous Committee of the Negro, which used comparative autonomy to divide humanity into races and compared African babies with young apes.

Meanwhile, the Harvard Mission lost no time in getting down and dirty the length and breadth of the country: from Meath to Sligo and from Waterford to Derry, they excavated crannogs and dormant burial sites for five years, in which thousands of objects were unearthed and probed for evidence of Celtic genius. Surveying over 600 artefacts at Ballinderry in Offaly, Hugh O’Neill Hencken, director of the archaeology team and a future American intelligence officer, compared Ireland favourably with Ancient Greece.

The classification of skulls at Knockast was deemed by the Harvard team to be especially significant, writes Carew, as a large cranium once contained a brain which, according to researchers’ notes, ‘from point of size is well above the average for modern Europeans.’

While the Harvard Mission did its best to overturn the Victorian caricature of the Irish as intoxicated simians, old prejudices were slow to change, stateside. Commenting on the discovery of a well-preserved Viking gaming board with ‘iron shillelahs’, the Herald Examiner in Chicago claimed the close proximity of smashed skulls ‘would seem to point at some ancient debate over rules.’


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