As you find yourself slowly but surely turning into a seanachie, it’s very heart-warming to see that your predecessors had the story right after all. This seems to be the case so far as Irish mythology according to the findings of the latest studies of Y chromosome DNA amongst Irish males.
So what does ‘Y chromosome DNA’ mean? Human beings typically have two sex determining chromosomes – the large X and the small Y. Women have two matching X chromosomes and can give only an X chromosome to the human egg. It is the father who determines the sex of the embryo according to whether the sperm is carrying an X chromosome (two X chromosomes will produce a girl) or a Y chromosome (a pair of XY chromosomes will produce a boy). Studying the Y chromosome DNA only gives an insight into half of the population but nevertheless recent findings suggest that the popular and long-held idea that the Irish are Celts is by no means entirely true.
The earliest inhabitants of Ireland arrived about 10,000 years ago – when the climate started to warm up again after the last great Ice Age. Unlike other European countries, Ireland has no known Palaeolithic sites; the Neolithic was apparently when it all started, but then again it may just mean that important earlier sites are yet to be found. A Neolithic site at Mountsandel, Coleraine shows remnants of a tiny human settlement containing only seven huts – six have an interior hearth but the hardy dwellers in the 7th hut had to go outside to cook! The huts were made of bent sapling, inserted into the ground in a circle, and then covered over, probably with deer hide. Tools found at the site are all made of stone and include flint axes, needles, and a very few hide scrapers. Recent work on the DNA distribution of Irish men suggests that the people living at this site were among the forebears of most people living in Ireland today. These earliest inhabitants of Ireland are now known to have arrived from the north of Spain – the Basque country. The settlement at Mountsandel was built, of course, a long time before the Celts are thought to have arrived in Ireland (about 500 BC). Keltoi was a racist term favoured by the ancient Greeks to demonise the fair-haired, blue-eyed, rather pugnacious people who gave them such a hard time in central Europe.
DNA testing has shown that Irish males have the highest incidence of a characteristic called ‘haplogroup 1′ in Europe and that this is particularly the case amongst men with Gaelic surnames. Men with Gaelic surnames on the West seaboard are, almost without exception, carriers of haplogroup 1 (99%). The link between Gaelic surnames and DNA distribution suggests that if your ancestors’ name pre-dated English conquest of the island, you may be a direct descendant of those Neolithic settlers who migrated from Spain, and put up their little woven wooden and deer hide huts at Mountsandel. An enterprising group of people they must have been – not only did they manage to navigate their way from Spain to Ireland in tiny little boats – probably hide or wooden curraghs – but they then pressed onwards to settle parts of Scotland and the northern parts of England. It’s all very well saying that it was ‘easier’ go by sea in those days when the land was covered in forest, but I bet that the journey had a few hair-raising moments. Not least the fact that the first voyagers would have had no idea what awaited them at the end.
What does possession of the haplogroup 1 genetic group do for you as a person? It has been found to be responsible for the red hair, fair skin and freckles so typical among those of Irish descent and usually attributed to the supposed Celtic ancestors. Genes for red hair only appeared in modern humans about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago and certainly the Celts’ descendants do have high frequencies of it, but there has been suspicion for some time that the Irish and Scots were not simply descendants. Other reasons beside Celtic invasions account for the strong resemblances between Scots and Irish people. Long after the first settlement of Ireland about 10,000 years ago by the Neolithic peoples, there was a subsequent major movement of people from the north of Ireland into Scotland, carrying their genetic material and culture with them. This immigration resulted in the foundation of the Kingdom of Dalriada, extending from Western Scotland to the northern part of Ireland. As a result the inhabitants of the two countries have obvious similarities of language and culture, as well as pale skin, blue eyes and a tendency to have red hair. The classic appearance of the little boy above has long been attributed to a ‘Celtic’ descent but might well have come from those earlier voyagers from Spain.
There are certainly many similarities between the typical appearance of the Irish and Scots and that of the Central European Celts, which has been misleading. Anthropological studies were carried out as late as the 1950s in an effort to define Irish people as a distinct race, descended from the Celts and different from typical English people. The data never quite fitted, the blood groups were not quite right……….. among other things…………. Nevertheless while many later observers have been content to label the Irish and Scots as ‘Celts’, ongoing oral traditions preserved the memory of the true origins of the Irish people. One of the oldest Irish texts is the Leabhar Gabhla – the book of invasions. It states that the first settlers in Ireland were a small, dark people called the Fir Bolg and then a super-race called the Tuatha de Danaan. The successors to the first two waves of invasion, and the people who finally ruled all of Ireland, are named as the Milesians – the sons of Milesius – described as a soldier from Spain. Those who know better have long dismissed the Leabhar Gabhla as ‘semi-mythical’ in favour of a purely Celtic origin of the current Irish population. Now it seems that the old-timers had it right all along. While, there was some contribution to Ireland’s heritage in very recent terms from the shipwrecked survivors of the Spanish Armada, these DNA studies suggest a much older connection between the two countries.
Recent DNA analysis has confirmed that there is a very strong Spanish/Basque contribution to Irish origins. If that part of the story of the Leabhar Gabhla is now known to be true, then it may also be the case that there are remains of two earlier civilisations still to be found on the Irish mainland.