Did the Irish reach America before Columbus?
While Christopher Columbus is credited with being the first European to discover America, there are many scholars who believe there may have already been Irish people living there.
A book that was published in 1526, just 34 years after Columbus arrived in America, provides compelling evidence that this may be true. The book, De Orbe Novo (About the New World), was written by Spanish historian Peter Martyr d’Anghiera following several weeks of interviews with contemporary travellers.
The book describes the groups of people already living in the newly discovered America. A section about the land that became known as Georgia and North and South Carolina suggests it may have already been inhabited by Europeans. Martyr told how the Spanish colonists were vicious towards the Native American Chicora Indians. However, he also talked of another local tribe – The Duhare – who had a good relationship with the Spanish.
The Duhare were generally taller than the Spanish. They had a Caucasian European appearance including tanned skin, red hair and grey eyes. Although they looked notably different to the Chicora Indians, their homes and pottery were very similar.
The king of the Duhare was called Datha. He was a giant compared to the Spanish and even compared to the other Duhare people. He had a tall wife and five tall children. His body was painted or tattooed in bright colours as this distinguished him from the commoners of the tribe.
Could the Duhare have been Irish?
In 2006, a team of Native American scholars called ‘People of One Fire’ (POF) conducted research into the pre-European history of North America. They translated all words used by pre-European tribes that had been recorded by the Spanish. They could translate most words using modern Creek, Alabama, Koasati or Choctaw dictionaries but were unable to translate words of the Duhare tribe.
In 2011, they teamed up with Dr Joseph Kitchens, Director of the Funk Heritage Museum at Reinhardt University in Georgia. Dr Kitchens was looking into the meaning of symbols carved into a boulder that was on display at his university.
The symbols on the boulder were carved in pre-European Georgia. They discovered that the symbols were identical to those found carved into boulders along the west coast of Ireland thousands of years ago.
Ancient Irish lullaby could hold the key
The POF explored the Ireland connection and found an ancient Irish lullaby, ‘Bainne nam fiadh’. The words were: “On milk of deer I was reared. On milk of deer I was nurtured. On milk of deer beneath the ridge of storms on crest of hill and mountain.”
The Spanish had recorded that the Duhare people kept huge herds of deer and lived off the milk, cheese and meat that they provided. The other tribes wouldn’t hunt the deer out of respect for the Duhare.
The POF then realised that it was possible to translate words used by the Duhare tribe by comparing them to words in ancient Gaelic dictionaries.
Translations are consistent with Duhare culture
Duhare can be translated to either ‘Place of Clan Hare’ or could come from the Irish word ‘du’hEir’ which means ‘Place of the Irish’.
Their king, Datha, got his name from a medieval Gaelic word meaning painted. He was the only member of the tribe to have had his body painted. Painting the body of the king to show his higher status than the rest of the tribe was also a traditional practise for Celts.
Could Irish have sailed to America in middle ages?
While much of the evidence about the Irish settling in America is intriguing it is by no means conclusive and many scholars remain sceptic. Further research is needed and unless DNA evidence is found, we may never know for certain.
One factor against the theory is the difficulty of explaining how the Irish might have made the perilous 3,000 mile journey across the Atlantic to get America. However, the voyages of St Brendan might suggest that such a journey was possible.
Voyages of St Brendan
St Brendan lived between 484 and 587 AD. It is believed that he sailed to faraway lands including Barbados, the Azores and Iceland. He once returned to Ireland having been at sea for a great deal of time. He told of how he had seen things he had never seen before such as ‘crystal mountains’ and ‘islands with rivers of gold fire’.
Centuries later people who retraced St Brendan’s path believed he may have encountered a number of icebergs, which are likely to have been the crystal mountains, and have seen a live volcano which would have been the island with rivers of gold fire. This was likely to have been close to Iceland.
If St Brendan could have made it to Iceland and back in the 6th century, then perhaps it is possible that other Irish explorers crossed the Atlantic and settled in America.