Dan Snow: How Britain nearly became the Irish Isles

Written by Rachel on May 25th, 2009

From here:

The TV historian talks about his new BBC Four series, How the Celts Saved Britain.

Dan Snow

‘Everyone always talks about 1066 and the Battle of Hastings,” says an exasperated Dan Snow, “but all the really big events happened 400 years earlier. We could, if things had gone only slightly differently then, be living on the ‘Irish Isles’ not the British Isles. Our capital should probably have been York.”

The 30-year-old historian certainly makes a compelling case on behalf of the early medieval period (400-800AD), the curiously overlooked era in British history which is the focus of his new two-part BBC Four documentary, How the Celts Saved Britain. Indeed, as Snow holds forth with voluble enthusiasm on the subject, it’s easy to hear an echo of his father, the journalist, broadcaster and master of the swingometer, Peter.

“Bound up with the spread of Christianity from Ireland is the spread of modernity,” says Snow, who left Balliol College, Oxford with a First in history and is best known for co-presenting BBC Two’s Battlefield Britain with his father. “This new series is all about vital events that defined the British Isles and yet the period was painted out of history. When my dad was at school in the Fifties, he used text books that covered Roman Britain, and then came this huge gap to William the Conqueror.”

So what did the Celts do for us? Even the term “Celt”, as Snow concedes, can be a vague, emotive term. For Snow’s purposes, however, the Celts are the people primarily living in Ireland who came to Britain to evangelise and to trade, and who by so doing gave (what was to become) the UK a common language, a longer life expectancy and, in essence, the beginnings of what we would now call civilisation.

“Britain was in a pretty anarchic state after the dissolution of the Roman Empire,” Snow explains, “but Ireland offered a level of stability. Christianity had been lapped up by the Irish, too, so they brought both their religion and their new ways of living with them in one package. That meant Christianity got wrapped up in building mills, eating better, fertilising fields and so on. It was a mechanism for translating information from the old Roman world to the undeveloped rest of the world.”

Interestingly, however, Snow is no fan of Christianity per se: “I’m an atheist,” he says, “so I’m fairly harsh on the idea that Christianity is a self-evidently brilliant creed that everyone adopts as soon as they’re told about it.”

Through making this series, however, Snow says that in fact his regard for Christianity has grown. “It is fascinating, ideologically, to watch the Iron Age warrior ethos being transformed by Christian thought,” he says. “The old belief was that it was basically only really the warriors who were special. But Christianity told people that they were all special now. Even in this period, it was quite emancipating.”

As he researched and filmed the programmes Snow visited several places that he’d first discovered as a child. “My dad was born in Dublin,” he says, “so in a way I’m a kind of Celt myself.” But there was more to those trips than simply revisiting beautiful locations such as Lindisfarne and Iona. Snow says that the TV documentary-maker’s hands-on approach to history – go there, see for yourself – made him reflect on the way history is being taught in schools.

“These days teachers focus quite heavily on going to places, and getting children immersed in details,” he says. “They learn more about wattle and daub than about generals and battles, so there’s a huge controversy about whether children just don’t get taught enough about the big picture: the major players and the key events.”

Surprisingly, Snow thinks this is no bad thing. “It’s easy to say kids don’t get a broad overview, but visiting places such as Iona will inspire them to want to know more. I don’t think the historical knowledge of the typical fiftysomething, who was taught all about generals and so on, is actually that great.”

And if there’s one thing Snow hopes his films will change it’s Britain’s common misconception about Ireland.

“For all sorts of reasons, Ireland is a country that has been painted in a pretty unflattering light for the last two centuries,” he says. “But go back to the Celts and you can see that Ireland was the envy of the world.”

How the Celts Saved Britain starts tonight on BBC Four at 9.00pm


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