I find it humorous and at times, a bit frustrating when communicating with others about the history of Ireland. It’s a complex history and one can go back to many different points in history to justify their beliefs and thoughts. In some ways, it’s a bit weird that people are still arguing about things that happened 200 to 300 years ago, and which version of history is the “correct” one.
It’s perhaps one of the reasons why many in the North of Ireland will never want a “unification” with the Republic as when you get into some of these discussions, people will often “dig in” to their views and not even accept evidences of a different historical perspective. Another problem when discussing history is that often it seems, people will view it with an eye of now, instead of trying to understand what was going on back then – and having some kind of context for whatever the conflict was, for both (or all sides – often there is more than 2).
Many Irish people that I have had conversation with will make the claim that Ireland should be an “Island Nation,” even against the wishes of the majority in the 6 Counties that are not part of the Republic of Ireland.
Recently, one of my retorts to this was along the line, “Well, if you make that argument, consider that the island of Ireland is within an archipelago called the ‘British Isles’ – why not make the argument that the entire archipelago ought to be a unified nation?”
We can look at other archipelagos that have many more islands and are indeed, “one nation” – Indonesia for example, is the largest with over 17,000 islands. Of course, most Irish people have no desire to be unified with the people of the area we now call England.
Which is fine, but the argument of a “one island nation” doesn’t hold up entirely, simply based on geography, especially if you’re not prepared to consider the idea of a political union of the complete archipelago.
Nothing is so simple as trying to determine where boundaries should be, and if one wants to make an argument that an island ought to be unified politically, then one wonders if they believe their argument to be universally valid and that Haiti and Dominican Republic.
This is another island with a complex history; granted not going back as many centuries as Ireland.
The British Isles
But getting back to the title and main subject of this post, the term “British Isles” can be one that many people in Ireland dislike. But oddly enough, it is perhaps the oldest name for the archipelago and dates back to at least 200 BC. It may even be the name the original inhabitants of the islands gave their group of islands.
How do we know this? The ancient Greeks have written about it, and while they used the letter Π (Pi) at the beginning, it is very possible that originally it was pronounced “Pritani” instead of “Britani” which later the Romans would use.
Ironically, it could be the very name that some of the ancestors of Irish people today gave themselves and all of their islands, but today, there is an incorrect assertion that “British” has something to do with being English.
The problem with this argument is that the English today are not the same as the inhabitants of 2000 years ago. History has since then, seen the Roman occupation, and the Norman and Saxon invasions of England.
Just like other places historically, the inhabitants of the “British Isles” or whatever you want to call the archipelago probably shared a language with common roots, but differences depending on the locality. The Welsh word for the island they live on is Prydain – an obviously similar word to Britain. This would give some credence to the idea that originally, it was pronounced as the ancient Greeks had written it.
The Problem With ‘Celts’
While I personally will refer to myself as Scot/Irish and sometimes Celtic, there are some historians who claim that the term “Celtic” is incorrect. Apparently, it first appeared in 1707 in a book by Edward Lhuyd entitled, Giving some account Additional to what has been hitherto publish’d, of the Languages, Histories, and Customs of the Original Inhabitants of Great Britain.
Many scholars today however believe Lhuyd erred:
‘The term ‘Celtic’ had never been applied to inhabitants of the British Isles until the time of Lhuyd …’ he, correctly, worked out that there was a common link between a number of seemingly different languages but he: ‘erred in conflating this linguistic unity with the Roman non-linguistic term ‘Celtae’ (Oppenheimer, 2007, 8) which, unfortunately, proceeded to be repeated ad infinitum until it became, as James states, a factoid. Lhuyds’ misinterpretation or ill-informed extrapolation, therefore, led to nearly three hundred years of incorrect assumptions about various sites, artefacts (especially metalwork), cultures and people.
Heritage Daily, The Rise and Fall of the ‘C’ word (Celts) by Catherine Holtham-Oakley (January 2012).
It is very possible then that the inhabitants of Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales and surrounding islands referred to themselves as Pritani which has since become British.
We find this at Wikipedia with citations provided:
The first known written use of the word was an ancient Greek transliteration of the original P-Celtic term. It is believed to have appeared within a periplus written in about 325 BC by the geographer and explorer Pytheas of Massalia, but no copies of this work survive. The earliest existing records of the word are quotations of the periplus by later authors, such as those within Diodorus of Sicily’s history (c. 60 BC to 30 BC), Strabo’s Geographica (c. 7 BC to AD 19) and Pliny’s Natural History (AD 77). According to Strabo, Pytheas referred to Britain as Bretannikē, which is treated a feminine noun. Although technically an adjective (the Britannic or British) it may have been a case of noun ellipsis, a common mechanism in ancient Greek. This term along with other relevant ones, subsequently appeared inter alia in the following works:
- Pliny referred to the main island as Britannia, with Britanniae describing the island group.
- Catullus also used the plural Britanniae in his Carmina.
- Avienius used insula Albionum in his Ora Maritima.
- Orosius used the plural Britanniae to refer to the islands and Britanni to refer to the people thereof.
- Diodorus referred to Great Britain as Prettanikē nēsos and its inhabitants as Prettanoi.
- Ptolemy, in his Almagest, used Brettania and Brettanikai nēsoi to refer to the island group and the terms megale Brettania (Great Britain) and mikra Brettania (little Britain) for the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, respectively. However, in his Geography, he referred to both Alwion (Great Britain) and Iwernia (Ireland) as a nēsos Bretanikē, or British island.
While it can be disputed what the inhabitants of this archipelago called themselves, it is on the other hand not disputable that the archipelago has a very long history of being referred to as some form of “British” including Brettanikai nēsoi (the island group) going back to ancient Greek and Roman Times.
Calling this archipelago the “British Isles” has much historical evidence and is very possibly what the inhabitants of the islands called it that, more than 2,000 years ago. It has become a term that some Irish people do not like and have a strong emotion about, but nevertheless, they do in fact live on an island within an archipelago that has been referred to as such.