Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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DVD: Oh, to be Irish! Volume 56 Number 6, November/December 2003
by Colleen P. Popson

The Celtic St. Martin's cross, at a monastery on the island of Iona, is thought to have inspired similar crosses across Ireland. (Leo Eaton)

What is it about Ireland that inspires people to dig deep into their family histories, ignoring all other lines of descent, to find the slightest genetic link to that country? Some 50 million people in the United States alone claim Irish ancestry--about ten times the number of people living on the island itself. But arguably few of these know much about the motherland's history except that it's the reason they drink green beer on St. Patrick's Day. A documentary now available on DVD promises to change that. In Search of Ancient Ireland (PBS Home Video, 2003; $24.98) begins in 9000 B.C. and goes up to the arrival of the English in A.D. 1167, breaking down some popular misconceptions about Ireland's complex history in the process. For instance, no archaeological evidence exists for the popular idea of a "Celtic invasion" of Ireland--still the subject of town festivals throughout the island. The myth was an invention of early Irish monks, who in writing the history of Ireland recorded vague tales. Rather than an invasion, Celtic language and culture seems to have gradually spread from Britain to Ireland.

The film is packed with gorgeous footage of the verdant island and informative commentary from archaeologists at the sites of their latest and most exciting discoveries. What the film does best is highlight how Ireland is a place of change and flexibility that has always absorbed strangers--Celts, Christian missionaries, Vikings, and English--all the while maintaining a culture that is essentially and unmistakably "Irish." Perhaps it's this accepting and malleable nature of the island that draws so many to search for a connection. The themes from the film are fleshed out in its companion book, In Search of Ancient Ireland: The Origins of the Irish from Neolithic Times to the Coming of the English (New York: New Amsterdam Books, 2002; $26).

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America