Did St. Patrick Wipe Out an African ‘Pygmy’ Tribe, the First Inhabitants of Ireland?

A long-standing theory of ancient Irish history describes the genocide of the Twa pygmies, purportedly the original source of the "leprechaun" myth.

  • Published 29 July 2019

Claim

St. Patrick led the genocide of a contingent of Twa 'pygmies' from Central Africa, who were the original inhabitants of Ireland.

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Origin

In the summer of 2019, we received renewed inquiries from readers about an unusual interpretation of the legacy of St. Patrick, one that claimed the patron saint of Ireland was responsible for the genocide of an African tribe who were purportedly the original inhabitants of that island. 

The theory has given rise to many memes and social media posts that in recent years have been shared widely, especially around March 17, the feast day of St. Patrick. The memes are often accompanied by images that appear to show white men posing with African pygmies. 

A typical version of the meme claims:

“The Twa pygmies of Ireland, the original inhabitants. The source of [the] leprechaun legend. When you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day that’s the celebration of their genocide.”

The theory was neatly summarized by the author and speaker B.F. Nkrumah in a widely shared Facebook video in March 2018:

  

The theory is not backed by any historical evidence, and as a set of factual claims, it can be dismissed. One prominent historian told Snopes it was, simply, “complete nonsense.” 

The origins of the “Twa” theory of Irish prehistory are not entirely clear. However, it appears to be informed by what is sometimes referred to as “Afrocentrism,” an approach to historical study that emphasizes the role and achievements of African people in the evolution of Western civilization. The theory also seems to be influenced by euhemerism, an unusual strand of pseudohistory that was particularly popular in the 19th century.

Background

The Twa (or “Batwa”) are a people indigenous to the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. They are sometimes referred to as Twa pygmies, an anthropological term denoting their relatively short stature.

Although some exact details are lacking about the life of St. Patrick, it is generally accepted among historians that he lived in the 5th Century A.D., grew up in Roman-occupied Britain (probably in Wales or the West coast of England), was kidnapped as a boy and taken to the island of Ireland as a slave for six years, then returned to Britain. He trained as a Christian cleric and went back to Ireland as a missionary. 

One of the legends attached to Patrick in the centuries following his death was that he banished the snakes from Ireland. This is not based in fact. No fossil records have shown that snakes were ever indigenous to the island of Ireland, and the myth was likely a metaphor for the Christianization (and decline in paganism) for which Patrick and other early Irish saints are credited. 

The earliest archaeological evidence of human habitation on the island of Ireland dates to between 10,640 and 10,860 B.C. No evidence exists to show that Twa pygmies settled the island at any point in history, beyond which it makes little sense to imagine that a traditional hunter-forager people that emerged from landlocked Central Africa would have had the geographical awareness or technical knowledge to construct and sail ships thousands of miles northwest. 

Development of the theory

We found several iterations of the Twa theory of Irish prehistory. One version, published in 2007 by the website of the Amen Ankh community in Kansas City, Missouri, offered the following outline:

Indigo melaninated people are the original “Snake Headed” people of Ireland. We are the ones who were driven off (and/or slaughtered,) in the name of a Catholic “saint” named Patrick, who ironically wore the symbols of Ptah and Ausar. Our Black Ancestors of the east knew about the powers of all of the indigenous Herbs, Roots, and plants like Clover and Thistle. We are the first mound builders and healers all over the planet. This shines a new reference on the 1st REAL “Europeans.”

The Twa/Khoisan were known as elves, midgets, or pygmy (a slur on small people of African Descent) who have a history pre-dating the Greco Roman Judeo timeline history of Adam and Eve by more 200,000 years. The Ancient Twa people were nomadic, They journeyed and migrated all continents and island over the planet, spreading to Northern Ireland, Germany and the rest of Europe, and the Asian continent, and had settled in these western lands, prior to any of the influences of the Romans or later, the Roman Catholic Church. They had a cultural, technological, and philosophical impact, and influenced the establishments of societies, known as Pagans or Druids.

One of the cultural influences the Druids/Twa had was the fact that they were known for their hair, who many grew into locks that looked like snakes. Much later, the Heru Loc, worn to one side of the temple, was represented in the fez or head covering that also depicted the Kemet symbols known is a Uraeus or cobra raised to strike, which is the same snake image you see worn as a Menes, by the Queens and Kings of ancient Kemet (Egypt/Nubia Ka Ma Ta). In many African cultures, the serpent is not a symbol of evil but one of eternal life, regeneration, power, protection, and wisdom. The Snake also represented the Kundalini awakening vortex found in the chakra energy traveling up our spines and the helix of our DNA.

Much of this account is simply incoherent, and the only would-be evidence put forward for the claim that St. Patrick engaged in genocide against the Twa is that the knotted hairstyle of Twa and ethnic Bantu peoples bears something of a resemblance to snakes. 

This is a quintessential example of pseudohistory — starting off with the requirement of proving that Twa pygmies were the original inhabitants not only of Ireland but of the whole European continent, and then retrospectively finding any available connections (even tentative symbolic links), including links to a different cultural tradition to the Central African Twa pygmies, that of ancient Egypt. This is not even to mention the unexplained and inexplicable introduction of Hindu concepts (Kundalini and chakra) into the theory.

Another good example of this incoherence can be found in the same blog post’s explanation of how the purported etymology of the word “leprechaun” establishes a link between African pygmies and the island of Ireland:

“The word ‘leprechaun’ can be taken from several sources. Breaking down the syllables and removing the vowels, you can reveal the earliest Twa/Nubian/Kemetic origins: le-pr-rah ka-hn. Le (Leo/lion/king), Pr (House/temple), Re/ra-rah (Sun/Leo/lion), Ka (an attendant spirit supposedly dwelling as a vital force in a man or statue, the spiritual part of an individual believed by ancient Egyptians to survive the body after death). ‘Kahn’ is a title for a sovereign or military ruler or chief.”

This is not how etymology actually works. For one thing, the purported etymological components of the word are supposed to amount to some meaning. That meaning is never provided in this case — are we to conclude that “leprechaun,” based on its Egyptian linguistic roots, means “Lion spirit in a king’s house”? Or “Sun ruler of the lion’s spirit temple”? The explanation fails woefully, even on its own terms. 

Moreover, this etymological analysis begins with the imposition of an unacceptable and arbitrary linguistic rule (“removing the vowels”), which the analysis itself promptly violates by including multiple vowels. Once again, the supposed origins of the word “leprechaun” are claimed to reside in ancient Egypt, not in the culture and linguistic history of the sub-Saharan Twa peoples.

So even if this etymological breakdown was accurate or logical, it would establish a linguistic link between Egypt and Ireland, not the Central African Twa pygmies and Ireland. What implications would this have for the core claim that the Twa were the original settlers and inhabitants of Ireland?

This type of goalpost-shifting and cherrypicking is typical of much pseudohistory, including Afrocentrist pseudohistory. In her book “Not Out of Africa,” the classical scholar Mary Lefkowitz described the Afrocentrist push to claim for the ancient Egyptians major intellectual innovations which belonged, in fact, to the ancient Greeks:

“Afrocentrism is not simply an alternative interpretation of history, offered on the basis of complex data or ambiguities in the evidence: there is simply no reason to deprive the Greeks of the credit for their own achievements. The basic facts are clear enough, at least to dispassionate observers. In effect, Afrocentrists are demanding that ordinary historical methodology be discarded in favor of a system of their own choosing. This system allows them to ignore chronology and facts if they are inconvenient for their purposes. In other words, their historical methodology allows them to alter the course of history to meet their own specific needs.” 

In reality, the word “leprechaun” is ultimately derived, relatively straightforwardly, from two roots: the Old Irish “lú” (“small”) and “chorpán” (“body,” from the Latin “corpus”). 

Euhemerism

As well as elements of Afrocentrist pseudohistory, the theory also shows signs of having been indirectly influenced by a relatively obscure pseudohistorical movement that was particularly popular in the 19th century.

Euhemerism was an approach to folklore and mythology that sought to explain popular fairy tales and myths as being ultimately grounded in historical fact. It constituted an unusual combination of rationalism (elves and fairies were not supernatural beings) with pseudohistory (the stories around them originated in an actual, historical race of pygmies that occupied parts of Europe thousands of years ago). 

At least two recent accounts of the Twa theory of Irish prehistory cited a euhemerist text from 1911, “Riddles of Prehistoric Times,” a book written by James H. Anderson, a retired attorney from Iowa. Anderson posited a broader theory of early pygmy races being the first settlers of several parts of the world, including Ireland:

“The first inhabitants of southern Europe, northern Africa, Arabia, France and the British Islands were a race of small men, who did not average in height more than about 4 feet 5 inches. They were of slight build, with dark complexion. They were cave-dwellers emanations [sic] from Lemuria [a fictional land mass in the Indian Ocean, similar to the mythical island of Atlantis] … They were an African people, and there appears evidence that they sometimes practiced cannibalism. 

“It is said that the first people in Ireland were the Formatians. They were a dark, stunted race, utterly savage, using rough, unwrought stone implements. So far as can be learned, they did not know the use of fire. It is said they came from Africa on ships.”

Several points discredit this account and therefore any theory or historical claims based on it. Firstly, the reference to Lemuria as an actual, historical inhabited place (as opposed to a mythical land mass) is a red flag, as are Anderson’s similar references to Atlantis elsewhere in the book.

Moreover, Anderson refers to the “Formatians” as the first inhabitants of Ireland. We found no reference in any other historical accounts to such people, and the author probably intended to refer to the “Fomorians,” who were a race of supernatural, villainous, sea-faring giants in Irish mythology. They did not exist in history. 

Later in the book, Anderson described the “Formorians” (a misspelling) in the following way:

“The ancient Irish historians tell of Ireland being settled before the flood by Formorians [sic] led by the Lady, Banblia or Kesair, her maiden name being h’Erni or Berba … The Formorians [sic] were said to be descended from Noah; they lived by piracy. Their chief god was Baal, Bel, from whom Belfast was named, the god of the Sun …”

In reality, the place name “Belfast” (the capital city of present-day Northern Ireland) is derived from two Irish words: “Béal” (meaning mouth) and “feirste” (a form of the word “fearsaid,” meaning “sand-bank ford”). The river mouth in question is that of the famous River Lagan, on whose banks Belfast is located. 

Those types of basic and glaring factual errors are scattered throughout Anderson’s book, which also repeatedly presents mythological places and figures as having actually existed in history. Present-day versions of the Afrocentrist theory of Irish prehistory, and St. Patrick’s genocide of the Twa pygmies, in particular, actually undermine their own credibility by citing accounts such as Anderson’s as supportive evidence. 

Several versions of the theory also cite the work of an influential euhemerist, the Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie. In particular, multiple present-day iterations of the “African pygmy” theory of Irish prehistory refer to passages from MacRitchie’s two-volume 1884 book “Ancient and Modern Britons,” in which he laid out the theory of a race of pygmies who populated Ireland, Britain and parts of Scandinavia during the Stone Age. That theory has been discredited by the fact that no archaeological discoveries have ever substantiated it.  

In one instance, MacRitchie attempted to draw inferences from the etymology of certain Irish phrases, writing: “That the wild tribes of Ireland were black men is hinted by the fact that a ‘wild Irishman’ is in Gaelic a ‘black Irishman’ (“Dubh Eireannach”).

However, the use of the word “dubh” in the Irish language is complicated. Literally, it means “black” or “dark,” but it has various somewhat poetic and figurative meanings when used as a modifier and prefix, such as in the phrase “Dubh Eireannach.” In support of his etymological proposition, MacRitchie cited an 1825 Irish dictionary published by the Scottish lexicographer Robert Archibald Armstrong.

That document lists dozens of compound words using “dubh” as a prefix, with widely varying meanings, for example: “dubh-cheist” (literally “black/dark question”) for “puzzle”; “dubh-fhocal” (literally “black/dark word”) for “riddle” or “parable”; and “dubh-bhuille” (literally “black/dark blow”) for a “fatal blow.”

It would clearly be a mistake, then, to interpret a given use of the word “dubh” as literally meaning “black or dark in physical appearance,” as opposed to having some other metaphorical sense. The very source used by MacRitchie himself establishes that much, and therefore undermines his etymological argument, as cited by many proponents of the present-day “Twa pygmy” theory of Irish prehistory.

Moreover, even if the phrase “Dubh Eireannach” was intended to literally mean “an Irishman dark in appearance,” it’s important to remember that racial spectrums vary between cultures, and what might have been regarded as dark complexion in Stone Age Ireland would have been described very differently indeed by an inhabitant of Africa at that time. 

Conclusion

The “African pygmy” theory of Irish prehistory, and in particular the theory of St. Patrick’s genocide of the Twa people, represent a fascinating, if confused and at times incoherent, jumble of various long-discredited strands of pseudohistory and euhemerized versions of Irish, Bantu, Egyptian and other mythologies. 

Kairn Klieman, an associate professor of history at the University of Houston and author of a history of the Batwa pygmies of Central Africa, dismissed the theory as a “mish-mash of ideas,” but said it was an interesting attempt to understand the ways in which various geographically separated cultures developed similar ideas about “little people,” in particular conferring on them magical and supernatural powers. 

Writing by email, she told us the theory explores “real similarities that exist in terms of myths about small people associated with the earth (sprites, leprechauns, mythical pygmies, mythical batwa). These myths existed since Egyptian times and there is a long intellectual history of how they came, in Western minds, to be associated with primordial humans. When the Europeans met Batwa, they unloaded all of this myth onto them.”

However, Klieman added that: “The idea that ‘pygmies’ or small dark people inhabited the world in ancient days is a 19th century trope that builds on the ancient myth of the pygmy in the western world.”

We also put the theory to Dáibhí Ó’Cróinín, professor of history at the National University of Ireland in Galway, and the author of a history of early medieval Ireland. His emailed response was unequivocal: “Complete nonsense,” he wrote. 

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