Alan Raby
Alan Raby is the editor of Drumbeat, the bi-monthly magazine of the Folk Federation of Tasmania.

This article appeared in the May-June 2012 edition and has been reprinted here with permission.


Bob Quinn
Bob Quinn



Could the music, art and dance of traditional Ireland have their roots in North Africa, Spain and the Mediterranean?

© Alan Raby

Bob Quinn is a maverick. He is a Gaelic speaking documentary film maker and journalist, a former director of RTE (the Irish public broadcaster) and a long time resident of Connemara in the West of Ireland. He rejects conventional wisdom that the Irish are part of the Celts, a culture that links the people of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man and Brittany.
Instead, he argues, the Irish are an energetic mixture of many peoples and cultures inhabiting what for thousands of years has essentially been an island trading post. In their traditional music and art they are a lot closer to Mediterranean peoples - including Arabs and Berbers - than to the jaded fictions of 'Celts' or 'Aryans'.
Today as largely urbanised we forget that the sea does not divide peoples. It has united all countries and all races. So it was that Ireland was a lucrative trading post and a desirable residence as the global powers of the past (the Vikings, the Spanish and traders from across the Mediterranean) traded with and married into those who lived in ancient Ireland.
"We are not Celts," says Quinn. "We are a mongrel people—a bit like Australia. People who have come from all over the world are Australians. And the Irish are such a mixture because we are an island. From the North, South, East and West, all religions, all kinds of civilisations have left their imprint on Ireland."
Speaking on the ABC Radio National programme Books and Arts Daily on St Patrick's Day this year in his typical forthright way he said "The word Celt to me is a lie. It's a lie that was invented by the Greeks 2000 years ago. The Greeks meant those "paddies", those "wogs" beyond the Alps and Herodotus the historian referred to them as well. It was a ratbag of a word into which you could throw all barbarians."
It was the struggle for independence from the colonial domination of the English which led to the creation of the myth of the Celtic revival. About 300 years ago a Welshman called Edward Lhuyd (pronounced Lloyd) a  Welsh naturalist, botanist, linguist, geographer and antiquary was a librarian in the Ashmolean Library in Oxford. He revived the phrase because he was a very nationalistic man and he wanted to distinguish between the Welsh and the English. He said the Welsh, Irish, Scottish languages were all related and he used the word Celt to describe these people on the fringes of Europe.
This Celtic twilight or Celtic revival was re-animated in Ireland at the end of the 19th Century by Patrick Henry Pearse  (1879 – 1916) and Douglas de Hyde. It was a negative way of distinguishing the Irish from the English and suggested that the Irish were the last remnants of a wonderful Celtic civilisation of Europe.
"You have to invent these lies if you are trying to get independence," adds Quinn. "You have to invent a fiction or narrative which will make people feel proud of themselves. So they were not bad people. Like all mongrels, they are much more bright, intelligent and active than any aristocratic thoroughbreds."
So what is the evidence that Quinn gives in his four documentary films and book The Atlantean Irish?
He noticed that Ireland's golden age of art was the 6th to the 10th century -- the same period as the Islamic golden age of art in Spain which was then the centre of Islamic civilisation. The swirls on Irish rocks mirror precisely swirls on rocks in the East.
The sail boats of Connemara (the pookon) have the same kind of sail as found in the Mediterranean—dipping lug invented by the Arabs in the 13th century. It allows you to tack. Before that you could not tack with a square sail.
One Summer in the 16th century there were 600 Spanish boats moored in Galway bay. There were strong trading links between Cadiz and Galway. Just across the water from Spain is North Africa. In his films he shows that the Berber (North African) form of foot tap dancing is possibly related to flamenco and the similar dance of his native Connemara.
Language is another clue. The Irish say, I"'m after being at home." That is "Have I been at home." The verb comes first in the sentence in Irish. That is one of the peculiarities of Irish. It exists nowhere else in Europe. However it does exist in Berber, Arabic and Hebrew — the verb coming first. According to Quinn, it shows that the language was brought by traders up the Atlantic coast and has its roots in the Hamito-Semitic languages of the Middle East and North Africa.
A more recent example involves the sean-nós ("old style" or "in the old way") a cappella traditional singing performed exclusively in the remaining Irish language areas of Ireland.
When one of Quinn's friends visited Libya and sang his sean-nós  songs in Irish the Libyans loved it. When Joseph heard their singing on the Libyan radio he said it was if he was listening to his neighbours in Connemara.
In 2010 in a bog in County Tipperary a man discovered a perfectly preserved 8th century psalter, or book of psalms. Archaeologists discovered that the binding consisted of papyrus and had to conclude that it came directly from Egypt.
In 30 years Quinn has collected a large amount of circumstantial evidence and remains convinced that the Irish owe much to Islamic civilisation, the Middle East and North Africa. "We should be down on our knees thanking Allah," he said.
The latest mitochondrial DNA researches from Trinity, Cambridge and Oxford Universities support the basis of the Atlantean argument. Finally, the Irish Heritage Council has given its imprimatur to the Atlantean thesis in his book (with an introduction by archaeologist Barry Cunliffe). Its title is The Atlantean Irish: Ireland's Oriental and Maritime Heritage (Lilliput Press, Dublin 2005).
The response to the original films and book was intriguing. Pioneers of the Irish maritime heritage - people such as the late John de Courcy Ireland and the intrepid Tim Severin - were delighted as were traditional Irish musicians. They loved the idea and felt it endorsed their natural instinct to explore rhythms and harmonies hitherto considered un-Irish.
Conservative academics, particularly 'celtic' scholars, maintained a public silence while privately attacking the thesis.
However, prominent and open-minded scholars (such as Barry Cunliffe, Oxford professor of European Archaeology) were pleased that a hitherto-repressed perspective on Ireland had seen the light of day. His 2001 book 'Facing the Ocean' precisely confirmed Quinn's 1984 imaginative speculations.