The Irish Are Spanish

A people without knowledge of their past origin, history, and culture, is like a tree without roots. — Marcus Garvey

This week I learned that there is such a thing as a Strawberry Tree. It certainly deserves its name, even if it (sadly) doesn’t actually produce strawberries.  A dense, bushy tree reaching up to 40 feet, it sports reddish bark and clusters of rose-blush flowers alongside  round, fuzzy red fruit.

The Strawberry Tree (Arbutus Uendo)

The tree is native to southwest Ireland, but oddly is nowhere to be found in Britain.  It is, however, ubiquitous across the Iberian Peninsula—even depicted on Madrid’s coat of arms.  Known as the madrono, locals claim that it shares with their mother city the common root madre.

Madrid’s Coat of Arms

So how did this fiery tree make its way to the land of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks?  According to the Irish Leabhar Gabhla, a medieval Book of Invasions, one of the earliest groups to come to Ireland were the “Milesians,” sons of Spanish solider Mil.

The Leabhar Gabhla

Did these sailors bring along the seeds of their mother tree?  The veracity of the story has long been debated.  Yet recent DNA analysis of a 5200-year-old southern Irish farmer revealed that the population once bore a close genetic relationship to the Spanish (and both’s original ancestors migrated from the cradle of the Middle East).  Even now, a study of male Y chromosomes shows particularly high  concentrations of the R1b haplogroup in western Ireland and northern Spain, suggesting a common male ancestor.  Modern science has brought myth one step closer to fact.

Whatever the truth of the Spanish-Irish link, it has undeniably had an impact beyond the Strawberry Tree.  In the 7th century, Ireland experienced a time of great creative intellectual growth, reaching beyond its shores to learn from the ideas and traditions of other cultures.  This included Spain, from which Ireland acquired many important scholarly writings.  Though there were certainly contemporary political and religious reasons Ireland looked to Spain, it was also belief in a common kinship that brought the two countries closer together.  The ideas shared as a result ultimately played a fundamental role in shaping Gaelic culture.

Influential Spanish scholar-bishop Isodore of Seville

What did I really learn this week from the Strawberry Tree, the Milesians, and flourishing, Spanish-influenced 7th-century Ireland?  In what seems like a turbulent moment in history, many of us are holding on tightly to our traditions, afraid that those who disagree with or are different than us might change life as we’ve always perceived it.  Yet the further we look backward, the clearer it becomes that not only do we share common ancestors with those both inside and outside our communities, but our own traditions have been markedly shaped by the ideas of other cultures:

In the United States, many of us are ourselves of Irish—and therefore Spanish—and therefore Middle Eastern descent.  The U.S. Constitution, the foundation of our country’s traditions, was strongly influenced by Enlightenment ideas based in Roman and Greek philosophy.  We cannot escape the fact that our past and present, like Ireland, have been shaped by people from distant lands that our own ancestors may once have considered home.   

So what about our future?  When we find ourselves grasping onto a narrow vision of who we are, imagine the green, windswept Irish glen punctuated by a scarlet Strawberry Tree.  If we dare to open ourselves to someone different, we might be surprised to find bright red fruit begin to ripen in our own ever-changing landscape.

References / Further Reading

Jonathan Drori, Around the World in 80 Trees (2018), p. 17 (The Strawberry Tree), available on Amazon

Laura M. Cassidy et al., “Bronze Age migration to Ireland and establishment of the insular Atlantic genome,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (Dec. 2015), available here

John Carey, “Did the Irish Come from Spain,” in History Ireland, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 2001), Pre-history / Archaeology, Volume 9, available here

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