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No. 2199:
Who Were the Irish?

Today, when the Irish were Egyptians ... The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Perhaps a very few of you remember a 1940 song, Oh, the Irish Were Egyptians Long Ago. Now a New York Science Times article by Nicholas Wade looks at research on the settlement of Britain -- especially work of geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer's recent book Origins of the British shows how the Irish really were, not Egyptians, but Turks -- and not all that long ago. 

Let's begin with the coming of the last Ice Age, twenty thousand years ago. The British islands were connected to Europe. Then ice came, covered the land, and created a genetic tabula rasa. So if we ask who the forebears of the today's Britons were, we have to begin about sixteen thousand years ago when Earth warmed, ice melted, and the first British population arrived. 

Now geneticists and linguists trace DNA and language to identify the earliest Britons. The first major immigration appears to've been from the Basque region of Northern Spain, with a few arrivals from areas around the Black sea. And they'd all come through present-day Turkey, fifty thousand years ago. These hunter-gatherers walked the Atlantic coastline all the way into Britain. They formed the Celtic language, and they lived through a second smaller ice age, twelve thousand years ago. 

After that, melting raised ocean levels three hundred feet. That water separated Britain from Europe and Ireland from Britain. When a new wave of immigrants came about ten thousand years ago, they were mostly from the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, where farming had recently been invented. They brought with them, not only farming, but also an advanced ability as sailors. 

So, many of the Irish, and other Britons as well, really were Egyptians long ago. But what about the invaders who followed them? When the Romans came, they remarked that a population of Belgae had already moved in. Those were the tribes from which Belgium takes its name. Now it seems that the Belgae shaped the early English language. (I remember the eerie feeling I had in Belgium when I had to determine, at each moment, whether my host had switched between Flemish and English -- they sounded so alike.)

Later invasions by Angles, Saxons, and Vikings seem to've had less effect on an established population than we'd once thought. None left more than five percent of its DNA in Britain. Even the Normans made only a small dent on British DNA. Oppenheimer argues that culture is independent of genes: The Norman impact was far more cultural than genetic. By the way, the genetic difference between the Irish and the rest of Britain is minute. 

Of course, the large genetic imprint on us all is African. Modern humans emerged from Africa twice. First, 120,000 years ago, only to retreat during an earlier Ice Age. The second emigration made it into Europe 50,000 years ago. So maybe the words of the song should be, "All the Irish were Ugandans long ago."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

N. Wade, A United Kingdom? Maybe. New York Times, Science Times,Tuesday, March 6, 2007, pp. D1 & D4. 

A very useful link is the Bradshaw Foundation site. It features Stephen Oppenheimer and provides a very useful animation of the migration of modern humans out of Africa titled, "Journey of Mankind." 

To see measurements made by Edouard Bard and his coworkers, showing the rise of sea level during the past 18,000 years, Click Here.

Human Migration, 50,000 years ago

Image adapted from Oppenheimer's online animation of human migration.