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A genetic condition could explain much of Irish history

'When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth", is one of the most insightful observations that Arthur Conan Doyle put into the mouth of Sherlock Holmes.

The 'science' of eugenics was born in Doyle's lifetime, and he died even as it was being turned by the Nazis into an evil parody of intellectual inquiry.

Thanks to that bunch, the western liberal world has largely disallowed the opening aphorism of this column to stand, if the 'truth' in questions concerns the cousin of eugenics, namely genetics, as an explanation for group conduct.

Now we know that both schizophrenia and alcoholism are inherited traits. We also know that Ireland has higher rates of both illnesses than any other country in Europe. So what if there are other genetically transmitted mental traits which are beyond the normally accepted confines of 'mental illness'? What if they caused behavioural characteristics that were specific to Irish people?

What if the prevalence of these genetic characteristics then helped shape the culture of the Irish so that they became societal norms, thus affecting the behaviour of people who were themselves not inheritors of the genes? It is not then a question of nature and nurture: the two are intertwined. The result is that academically-despised phenomenon: national character.

The DNA evidence for the origins of the Irish, curiously enough, conforms pretty closely with Irish mythology: the first Irish apparently arrived by boat from Spain. According to DNA analysis, so too did Irish hares and Irish pine martens and even, God help us, Irish badgers (no, please don't ask). The new Irish would presumably have been small in number and, if interrelated, might well have possessed a number of distinctive genes in unusual concentrations. Some of these genes could presumably have inclined their owners towards mental illness and alcoholism.

Possibly other genes caused a predisposition to disregard the future tense. Impetuosity, a refusal to plan, a contempt for consequence: for whatever reason, these would become common characteristics of the Irish people.

We know about other characteristics, which we are allowed to celebrate: a gregariousness, a volubility, an affable charm, a clannishness, an amiable distinctiveness, especially compared to the English. Despite the fact that the vast majority of immigrants to the US before the Famine were English, that English common law and English political libertarian culture are the basis for American freedoms, and that the founding fathers and the vast majority of subsequent US presidents are of English extraction, there is no such thing as "English-American." The same cannot be said about the Irish-American: too often, alas.

There are the good Irish-Americans, than whom there is nothing better: the US Marine Corps is full of them, and no ethnic group has provided the corps with more splendid leaders.

And there is the bad Irish-American, the Tammany Hall spiv, the blathering Noraid sociopath, reaching its dismal apogee with Richard Daly, mayor of Chicago, criminally fixing the presidential election for John F Kennedy in 1960. Stealing or packing ballot boxes, personating, corrupting the democratic will: familiar, anyone?

Yet even to consider that the characteristics of Irishness might have some genetic basis is to violate an all-powerful political taboo. And one such characteristic is both very close to a psychiatric condition and also a commonplace political phenomenon within Irish life: a perpetual sense of victimhood. Though admittedly, career victimhood is not uniquely Irish. In the US, it has formed a tactical alliance with political correctness, to prevent a reasoned, all-reaching analysis of why African-American society has been so very dysfunctional. The idea that 'race' -- or rather a specific genetic-inheritance within an ethnic group -- might be a determinant in that group's behaviour is, a priori, ideologically unacceptable. Scientific inquiry is either not allowed to consider the role of genetics on the conduct of an ethnic group, or if it is -- as in the Bell Curve theories -- its findings are ridiculed on almost entirely political grounds.

This is wilful ignorance, for an abiding, genetically acquired psychiatric condition could well explain much of Irish history. The golden thread of Irish republicanism, which can turn an affray in a farmyard into a 'Rising', takes much of its moral authenticity through a much-cherished sense of oppression. But the Famine aside, though rural conditions in Ireland were truly appalling, the people were physically superior to the working-classes of British industrial cities.

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The British army that stood fast at Waterloo and at Inkerman was composed of Irish peasants: the broken, malnourished wretches of Manchester's factories would have perished of exhaustion long before they glimpsed an enemy musket.

But let's go back a bit. Why were the English -- until the Famine barely superior in number to the Irish -- able to impose their will (to a greater or lesser degree) on Ireland over the centuries before?

Why did Ireland never achieve any kind central kingship either before Henry II's arrival, or in the years that followed? Why did Ireland, almost uniquely among all the peoples of the Atlantic seaboard, not produce masted fishing and mercantile fleets, creations which -- not coincidentally - need the maximum of foresight and planning? Why did Irish earls repeatedly rebel against the crown to which they had personally sworn allegiance, yet always without proper preparation?

And is such a pathological tradition of treachery (or its companion vice, cute hoorism) the reason why division and betrayal are always presumed to be the likely outcome of any Irish co-operative endeavour? More tomorrow.


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