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Nazis, spies... and the hunt for first Irishman

In 1934, a team of archaeologists from Harvard University arrived in Belfast to find the origins of the Celts. What happened next reads like the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark, writes Mairead Carew

Grim work: Ernest A Hooton in his laboratory at the Peabody Museum in Harvard
Grim work: Ernest A Hooton in his laboratory at the Peabody Museum in Harvard
Adolf Mahr, Nazi and director of the National Museum of Ireland
Investigation: Hallam L Movius

It has all the elements of a Spielberg movie: a Nazi museum director, possible spies and world-leading experts from Harvard University in a quest for skulls and artefacts. Yet, this is no Hollywood creation, but the true story of a remarkable and overlooked episode in the 1930s known as the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland.

Its work included excavating sites in Antrim, Derry and Down between 1934 and 1936 in an effort to find evidence of the earliest Irishman. The director of the archaeology strand of the Harvard mission, Hugh O'Neill Hencken, had personal associations with Northern Ireland -his grandfather had emigrated from Co Down to New York in the mid-19th century.

However, the overall Harvard project was a eugenic one, and the archaeology adviser was the director of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, a Celtic scholar - and a Nazi.

The mission arrived in the Irish Free State, initially, in 1932 to carry out its anthropological research.

The scientists hoped to find out who the Celts were and where they had come from, as well as identifying their descendants.

Their excavation programme was extended to Northern Ireland in 1934. One of the reasons for this was that Hugh O'Neill Hencken regarded Ireland as a cultural unit, and the northern boundary as artificial. He wrote that, "the territory was an integral part of Ireland" prior to the 17th century.

In Northern Ireland, sites in counties Antrim, Derry and Down were excavated by Hallam L Movius, the assistant director of the Harvard Archaeological Mission. He was an expert in the early Stone Age, and came to Ireland to carry out research on Mesolithic sites for a PhD as a student of Hencken.

He had already dug a cave site at Kilgreany, Co Waterford, in an effort to find archaeological evidence for the earliest Irishman.

His excavations at Cushendun, Co Antrim, in 1934 yielded evidence that was regarded as "the key to the Irish Stone Age".

Some of the flints discovered were dated to 6000 BC, and it was determined at that time that these artefacts were evidence of the earliest human handiwork on the island.

Both Hencken and Movius reported to Earnest A Hooton, the overall manager of the Harvard mission.

He was one of the leading physical anthropologists in America, and was in charge of the bone lab at the Peabody Museum, which contained human skulls from all over the world.

At the time, it was believed that race and character could be determined by physical attributes, in particular skull measurements.

To this end, 12,000 people in the 32 counties of Ireland were examined. Hair and eye colour, skull shape and stature were noted, and these results were compared with those of ancient skulls recovered from the various excavations.

Hooton was a leading eugenicist and a member of the American Eugenics Society, considered to be the key propaganda wing of the movement in the US.

Eugenics was the science of better breeding for human beings. The term was coined in the 19th century by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin.

Harsh new immigration laws had been enacted in the 1920s in America, after vigorous lobbying by eugenicists, in an effort to keep "defectives" out. The Irish were considered a pure race, and Irish-Americans believed their racial background to be Celtic.

Eugenicists were opposed to the mixing of races and to multiculturalism.

American investigators also carried out anthropological surveys in Belgium, Britain, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Holland, Poland and Germany. Potential immigrants were "eugenically inspected".

Hooton wanted to set up an American breeding bureau. Eventually, even though he was a very popular lecturer at Harvard, he was disciplined by the university for his "inhuman" teachings.

The American Eugenics Society supported Germany's eugenics programme, although Hooton claimed that he did not personally support the Nazis.

However, Adolf Mahr, a Celtic archaeologist from Austria and the main adviser and sponsor of the Harvard Archaeological Mission in Ireland, was a Nazi.

Mahr came to Ireland in 1927 to take up a position of keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland. He became a member of the Nazi party in 1933, and was head of the Auslandsorganisation, an organisation for Germans living abroad described as "useful for propaganda and espionage activities".

He was described by Frederick Boland, from the Department of External Affairs, as "the most active and fanatical national socialist in the German colony (in Ireland)".

He was appointed to the position of director of the National Museum of Ireland by Eamon de Valera in 1934. Four years later, he was conferred with a professorship by Adolf Hitler.

During the Second World War, he worked for the Nazis, broadcasting propaganda. He was very influential in the selection of sites by Harvard, and was in favour of extending the work of the mission to Northern Ireland, because he regarded it as "Ireland's Sudetenland".

He expressed the opinion that "the border between the two Irish states, as far as prehistoric science is concerned, is largely non-existent".

De Valera came to power with Fianna Fail in 1932, and welcomed the Harvard mission, because it would be an opportunity to carry out important scientific work in Ireland. He took a keen interest in the excavations and visited many of the sites.

All of the reports were sent personally to him. He instigated the unemployment schemes for archaeological research in 1934. This was influenced by a similar scheme in America, introduced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to alleviate unemployment in America.

The Harvard mission benefited from this initiative, because labour costs were met by the Irish government under this scheme.

For example, unemployed men worked at Lagore Crannog in Co Meath for three seasons between 1934 and 1936, and were also used at Kilgreany Cave in Co Waterford, excavated by the Harvard mission in 1934.

There was an effort to set up a school of celtic studies, centred at Ballinderry Crannog in Co Offaly in 1933. Alfred Marston Tozzer, head of the anthropology

department at Harvard, visited Ireland in 1933 in an effort to establish it.

The peculiar thing about this is that Tozzer was not a specialist in European or Celtic archaeology, but a curator of middle American/Mayan archaeology.

He had been the director of the International School in Mexico when a spy scandal involving American archaeologists working as intelligence officers during the First World War came to light.

During the Second World War, Tozzer became the director of the Honolulu office of the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA).

Hencken and Movius, the directors of the Harvard mission, were also involved in American intelligence during the war.

Movius joined the US Air Force in 1942 and became an intelligence officer in Italy. Hencken joined the American Defence Harvard Group, which collaborated with the Office of Strategic Services, compiled manuals on totalitarianism and Nazism and was involved in the protection of historic monuments in war areas.

One of the reasons Ireland was chosen by the Americans for an anthropological survey was because the inhabitants still spoke a Celtic language, and the Harvard team believed Celtic was an ancient Aryan language once spoken all over Europe.

They arrived believing the identity of the Irish to be Celtic, and they left believing they had found a Celtic type in Ireland. They used the word ‘type’ rather than ‘race’ in their report, which was published in the 1950s, because ideas about race were discredited after the war.

An article on Hooton, published in Life magazine in 1939, said: “No long upper-lipped, baboon-faced Irishmen common in political cartoons were found”.

Decades later, when Hugh O’Neill Hencken died in 1981, the New York Times reported that he had visited Ireland in the 1930s and found a Celtic house in Ballinderry.

However, it was known in the 1930s that there had not been an Celtic invasion of Ireland. But the idea of a Celtic invasion persisted and, eventually, in 2006, Barry Raftery, professor of Celtic archaeology at UCD, stated bluntly that “there is simply no evidence of invading Celts”.

The invasion of the Celts was a cultural idea, not a scientific reality.

Adapted from The Quest for the Irish Celt: The Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland (1932-1936), by Mairead Carew, published by Irish Academic Press, priced £21.99

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