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Chapter 1 - “Our Heroic Ancestors”

Antiquarian Literature and the Discourse of Racial Heritage

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 January 2024

Malcolm Sen
Affiliation:
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Julie McCormick Weng
Affiliation:
Texas State University
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Summary

This was a time of vibrant writing about the Irish past, in which the colonial question and the nature of Irish society before the twelfth-century English conquest remained key contexts. The dispute over the ancient origins of the Irish, always viewed through that colonial prism, continued to engross antiquaries. This chapter examines eighteenth-century iterations of this theme, looking at the two main theories of Irish origins: the Milesian, derived from rich medieval Gaelic sources (employing the biblical template of the Israelites), which posited Scythian, Egyptian and Spanish ancestry, mirroring the various sojourns of the Irish on their epic journey to the “promised land” of Ireland; and the Scandinavian, propounded by the upholders of the benefits of English colonization, and aiming to place that colonization in a framework of pre-existing contact with, and invasion by, the Germanic tribes of northern Europe. The debate was also inflected by the modern imperial project, thus linking England’s oldest colony, Ireland, with its newest, India. Nevertheless, the core question remained the same – the nature of Irish national character – and was primed for the onset of overtly racial constructions towards the end of this period.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2024

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