I have to confess, I’m not a huge fan of Blindboy Boatclub. It’s not that I have any problem with his politics or social beliefs and I think ‘Horse Outside’ was a great song. However, readers of this blog might remember the incident a few years back when The Rubberbandits issued a list of words brought by Irish immigrants to America, which was composed entirely of lying Cassidese nonsense. When challenged to retract the garbage they had just injected into cyberspace, they countered that there was no need because people would have seen the objections online, which shows a certain arrogance on their part and a worrying naivety about how things work on the internet. (Since then, they’ve actually deleted it.)
Anyway, I am still thinking about doing a piece on Bob Quinn’s Atlantean, so I have been doing a little background reading. I was looking for any real evidence of a musical connection between Ireland and North Africa, so when I noticed that Blindboy has done a podcast on this subject, I decided to listen to it.
It wasn’t great. For someone who claims to be fascinated by history and to work hard doing his research, there is precious little evidence of that in the podcast itself. He starts off with one of the central pieces of ‘evidence’ used by Quinn in his book, a 19th century article which questions whether Irish is spoken in North Africa. Obviously, the correct answer to this is ‘No, let’s talk about something else’.
The author of this Victorian article talks about how sometime in the 1790s a group of Tunisian sailors came ashore in Antrim and conversed with locals who could only speak Irish. While Blindboy eventually comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t believe that this happened and that it is lumping the Irish together with other colonised peoples (which is probably right – he does have some bullshit sensors), there are other things you could say about it. How many Tunisian ships found their way to Antrim during the Napoleonic Wars? And how many other examples can you find of fake claims of mutual intelligibility? Lots, because it’s a kind of urban myth. For example, there’s the story about the Bronte/O’Prunty family being raided by Welsh soldiers in the 1790s and being able to speak to them. (Which couldn’t have happened, because Welsh and Irish are too different.) Or the story about Francis Xavier being able to understand Japanese using his Basque. (Also batshit crazy because they’re two unrelated languages.)
Anyway, he spends way too much time blathering about these baseless anecdotes (which is what they are) and doesn’t look up what linguistic and historical fact tells us about the Tamazight or Berber people. They didn’t speak Irish, or any form of Celtic. There are no mysterious Celtic-like words recorded in their language which would indicate that anybody there once spoke a form of Irish or Celtic.
He brings in the Lebor Gabála or Book of Invasions, which he describes as a book written in the 400s. Later he calls it a book written in 400. Not according to Wikipedia, which says it’s a book written in the 11th century. Apart from the odd bit of ogham, there were no writers and no writings in Ireland in 400 AD. But apparently, Blindboy just FUCKING LOVES history. Hmmm.
And so it continues. He harps on about the well-known fact of a Barbary monkey skull being found at Navan fort, dating to between 390 BC and 20 BC. (He says skeleton but it was only a skull, so we don’t know if there was ever a live monkey in Iron Age Ireland.) Personally, I don’t find this so remarkable. Items like gems and silk were traded vast distances in ancient times. Why not pets?
He mentions Bob Quinn’s theories and says that in DNA terms, Quinn is wrong, because the DNA evidence now tells us that the Irish came from Iberia. This podcast was made in June, 2021. In 2018, the world of European prehistory was rocked by a paper in Nature which completely reversed the paradigm that had existed beforehand about an Iberian origin for the Irish. The theory that Northern Europe was repopulated from the south after the Ice Age turned out to be totally wrong. In reality, genetic evidence shows there was a near-total genetic replacement of the Irish population (around 90%, and a major replacement in the rest of Europe) by a population originating on the Steppes. This change roughly corresponds (at least in Ireland) with the Bell Beaker Culture. It also seems to correspond with the arrival of the Indo-European languages in Europe. This is probably the biggest story in our knowledge of European prehistory EVER. Why, three years after it broke, is the history-loving Blindboy completely unaware of it? Probably because he wastes too much of his time on FUCKIN’ FASCINATIN’ shite like Atlantean and How The Irish Invented Slang instead of the real stories that are revolutionising our knowledge of the past.
Finally, more than halfway through, he gets to the issue of similarities between Irish music and Berber music. And it wasn’t worth waiting for, I can tell you. He plays a sample of a Berber singer and then another sample of a sean-nós singer. They sound a little alike to me but there would be no problem recognising which is which. As he later admits, the Berber singer sounds a little like the Muslim call to prayer. He talks about melisma, which is the technique of singing one syllable using a number of ornamental notes. To me, this seems to be a fairly natural thing to do when singing. I don’t think it necessarily implies any great cultural contact. And if it does, many people have said that sean-nós is based on Christian liturgical music, which undoubtedly originated in the Middle East (as did Christianity, of course) and there is every chance that Muslim music and Christian liturgical music come from a shared root, which means that there is no mystery about any similarity.
Anyway, there’s more old bullshit. Some Berbers have a clan name that sounds like Magill. Wow! That proves they’re Irish!!! And there’s a mound called Msoura in Morocco which looks a bit like Newgrange and other ‘Celtic sites’. Newgrange? Celtic? What exactly is Celtic about Newgrange? Msoura is believed to be about 2000 years old, unlike Newgrange which is far older, dating back to before (as far as we know) there were any Indo-European speakers, including Celtic speakers, in Ireland.
Then he talks about Quinn’s terrible book and series, Atlantean, and how hard done by Quinn was. Apparently, Blindboy has historian friends who roll their eyes when Quinn is mentioned but the Blindboy thinks the way Quinn was treated was really unfair and that a lot of this response is down to racism. I’ve heard this argument before, not surprisingly, from Quinn himself. For example, here’s a piece from Wikipedia: He also asserts that a close-minded, elitist attitude among academics prevents a more sympathetic appraisal of his work. More controversially, he maintains that critics of his work are guilty of an unconscious racism, or in his own words, of being afraid of the idea that Irish people might have ‘a touch of the tar’ about them.
Which is utter garbage. The defence ‘if you disagree with me, you must be a racist’ is infantile, and cowardly, and intellectually lazy, and just so typical of pseudo-scholars. Cassidy did the same thing. Anyone who disagreed with Cassidy was immediately branded an Anglophile and a hater of the Irish.
Blindboy then says that although Quinn’s ideas might be 80% bullshit, there is the other 20% which contains bizarre coincidences that need to be looked at properly. Again, all pseudo-scholars and bullshit-merchants tend to come out with the same arguments, including this one. Personally, I am not seeing anything worth having in Quinn’s work, let alone 20%, but even if it does exist, would you be as kind about a mainstream history book that is four-fifths garbage? If an author has a fascinating theory, shouldn’t THE AUTHOR just make a bit of effort to present the facts they’re sure of rather than presenting something mixed with loads of total nonsense?
And finally, Blindboy says that we should examine it because if it proves it’s bullshit, then that is helpful. Yes, I would agree that establishing that something is bullshit is useful. But my argument would be that if something is badly done, why should sceptics be the ones to establish its crappiness? If there’s any truth to the theory, someone will eventually do the research properly and establish that fact. Proper books will be written, by real scholars. So the responsibility is on Daniel Cassidy, or Graham Hancock, or Gavin Menzies or Bob Quinn to fact-check their own work and present something that isn’t full of crap. It’s not up to us to sift through the crap in hopes of finding something of value and it’s deeply unwise to waste your time looking for diamonds in a dungheap or encourage others to do so.
In other words, Blindboy, I would start listening to your eye-rolling historian friends (especially if it’s Liam Hogan) rather than going for nonsense because it’s SO FUCKIN’ FASCINATIN’. Develop those bullshit sensors! Learn to recognise pseudoscience and pseudohistory and common or garden bullshit and learn to think rationally and encourage other people to do the same.
Just look at what happened to Russell Brand, who turned into a conspiracy-loving, red-pill popping, rabbithole-exploring whackjob. I’m sure there’s a lot of money in that kind of thing, Blindboy, but is it really what you want to spend your life doing?