JP MALLORYS The origins of the Irish is a brilliant exploration of the pre-history of Ireland and the Irish. The story that Mallory tells is not about what it means to be Irish today or about the historical roots of contemporary Irish national identities.
Rather, Mallory looks at the forces and peoples who come before the first person who we can claim to be both a real Irish historical figure, rather than a mythic one.
Mallory identifies Niall Noígiallach (Niall of the nine hostages) as the first Irishman to begin to step out of myth and become a part of conventional historical record.
There are plenty of myths about Niall and how he came to succeed his father and claim the high kingship of Ireland, but he did exist. Niall created a dynasty, the Ui Néill (Nialls descendants), which ruled for 600 years after his death around 450AD.
From Niall Noígiallach on we can recount the history of Ireland from historical records and narratives; it was one of his sons who refused baptism from St Patrick at Tara.
Before Niall Noígiallach, piecing together what made Ireland and the Irish is a matter of geology, geography, archaeology and linguistics. These are all complex subjects, but Mallory leads us through them gently and with humour.
Geology comes first. Irelands location shaped who could people the island, where they came from and what they needed to bring with them. As so often in history, Irish unity was long in the making and its place in the world changeable.
Others will see the very idea that there can be any kind of national consciousness before ideas of nationalism develop as an anachronism. But whether you agree with Mallorys final conclusion or not, his book is a fine guide to the earliest inhabitants of this island.
Neil Robinson is professor of politics at the University of Limerick