[Paleopsych] NYT: If New York's Irish Claim Nobility, Science May Back Up the Blarney

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Sun Jan 22 22:47:26 UTC 2006

If New York's Irish Claim Nobility, Science May Back Up the Blarney


    Listen more kindly to the New York Irishmen who assure you that the
    blood of early Irish kings flows in their veins. At least 2 percent
    of the time, they are telling the truth, according to a new genetic

    The survey not only bolsters the bragging rights of some Irishmen
    claiming a proud heritage but also provides evidence of the
    existence of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish high king of the
    fifth century A.D. regarded by some historians as more legend than

    The survey shows that 20 percent of men in northwestern Ireland
    carry a distinctive genetic signature on their Y chromosomes,
    possibly inherited from Niall, who was said to have had numerous
    sons, or some other leader in a position to have had many

    About one in 50 New Yorkers of European origin - including men with
    names like O'Connor, Flynn, Egan, Hynes, O'Reilly and Quinn - carry
    the genetic signature linked with Niall and northwestern Ireland,
    writes Daniel Bradley, the geneticist who conducted the survey with
    colleagues at Trinity College in Dublin. He arrived at that
    estimate after surveying the Y chromosomes in a genetic database
    that included New Yorkers.

    About 400,000 city residents say they are of Irish ancestry,
    according to a 2004 Census Bureau survey.

    "I hope this means that I inherit a castle in Ireland," the
    novelist Peter Quinn said by phone from the Peter McManus cafe in
    Chelsea. Some McManuses also have the genetic signature. ("I hang
    out with kings," Mr. Quinn said.)

    He said his father used to tell him that all the Quinn men were
    bald from wearing a crown. But he added, "We spent 150 years in the
    Bronx, and I think we wiped out all the royal genes in the

    The report appears in the January issue of The American Journal of
    Human Genetics.

    Dr. Bradley said he was as surprised at finding evidence that Niall
    existed as he would have been to learn that King Arthur had been
    real. Niall of the Nine Hostages was so named because in his early
    reign he consolidated his power by taking hostages from opposing
    royal families.

    He estimated that two million to three million men worldwide carry
    the distinctive Y chromosome signature, which he named the I.M.H.,
    for Irish modal haplotype. A haplotype is a set of genetic

    If he was indeed the patriarch, Niall of the Nine Hostages would
    rank among the most prolific males in history, behind Genghis Khan,
    ancestor of 16 million men in Asia, but ahead of Giocangga, founder
    of China's Manchu dynasty and forefather of some 1.6 million. This
    calculation, and the estimate of the I.M.H. signature's frequency
    in New York, were derived from a database of Y chromosome

    The writer and actor Malachy McCourt said he was not surprised,
    since every Irish person is related to a king.

    "They didn't mind who they slept with, and they had first dibs," he
    said. "It's so boring. It's not like the house of Windsor; every
    tribe had its own king."

    He said Niall was "a highwayman. He was a slave trader, nothing
    noble about him. He was a pirate."

    The link between the Niall Y chromosome and social power, which
    would have enabled the king to leave many descendants, "stretches
    back to the fifth century, which is a long time in Western European
    terms," Dr. Bradley said.

    Asked if he himself carried the Niall signature, Dr. Bradley said
    he did and was "quite pleased," even though tradition holds that
    Niall captured and enslaved St. Patrick, who brought Christianity
    to Ireland.

    Niall is said to have obtained hostages from each of the five
    provinces that then constituted Ireland, as well as from Scotland,
    the Saxons, the Britons and the Franks. He is thought to be the
    patriarch of the Ui Neill, meaning "the descendants of Niall," a
    group of dynasties that claimed the high kingship and ruled the
    northwest and other parts of Ireland from about A.D. 600 to 900.

    But historians have tended to view the Ui Neill as a political
    construct, doubting their genealogical claims of descent from Niall
    and even whether Niall existed at all.

    When the Irish took surnames, however, around A.D. 1000, some chose
    names associated with the Ui Neill dynasties. Dr. Bradley tested
    Irishmen with Ui Neill surnames and found the I.M.H. signature was
    much more common among them than among Irishmen as a whole.

    The men with Ui Neill surnames tested by Dr. Bradley included those
    with the names, in anglicized form, O'Gallagher, O'Boyle,
    O'Doherty, O'Donnell, O'Connor, Cannon, Bradley, O'Reilly, Flynn,
    McKee, Campbell, Devlin, Donnelly, Egan, Gormley, Hynes, McCaul,
    McGovern, McLoughlin, McManus, McMenamin, Molloy, O'Kane, O'Rourke
    and Quinn. (The prefix "O" is sometimes dropped.)

    Dr. Katherine Simms, a Celtic historian at Trinity College who
    advised the geneticists and was a co-author of their report, said
    some historians had assumed that the common ancestor of the Ui
    Neill was "merely a mythical divine ancestor figure, imagined in
    order to explain the political links that existed between the
    dynasties themselves in the later period."

    But Dr. Bradley's findings, she said, "appear to confirm that the
    Ui Neill really did come from a common ancestor," and perhaps that
    the mythical narrative of Niall's birth and ascent to kingship "had
    a genetic basis."

    The earliest Irish genealogies, if true, must have been recorded in
    oral form for several generations, since writing did not become
    common in Ireland until 600. Dr. Daibhi O'Croinin of the National
    University of Ireland in Galway said he was confident that
    "extensive genealogical material" could have been memorized and put
    into writing later, but "whether Niall of the Nine Hostages ever
    existed is itself a moot point."

    Another Celtic expert, Dr. Catherine McKenna of Harvard University,
    said in an e-mail message that "historians will be skeptical about
    the notion that all of the Ui Neill descend from the ancestor who
    seems to be implied by the genetic evidence, or that this ancestor
    was Niall Noigiallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages) himself."

    She said the number of Niall's supposed sons grew from 4 to 14 as
    new dynasties achieved power and claimed descent from Niall. "The
    evidence for the Ui Neill as a political construct is strong enough
    that historians wouldn't readily believe in the historical reality
    of Niall himself," she said.

    Still, the new genetic evidence may convince historians that there
    was a common ancestor for at least one of the major branches of the
    Ui Neill, such as the Cenel nEogain, which lived in an area of
    northwest Ireland where the I.M.H. is most common.

    "In fact," Dr. McKenna said, "I find the evidence, from that point
    of view, really fascinating."

    Michelle O'Donnell contributed reporting for this article.

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