[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
By NICHOLAS WADE
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
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
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
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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