By Nicole Buckler
Ireland remains one of the last holdouts of the ancient Celtic languages once spoken throughout much of Western Europe. The Irish have fiercely maintained their unique character through the centuries, fighting off invaders and their horny roamings across our region (rather unsuccessfully, at times).
But how Irish are we genetically? And how Irish are you? Well, we are still pretty Irish. But what does this mean? We think we are a bunch of red-headed Celts with Viking blood, running around with fair skin and freckled red heads on us. But actually, recent studies of DNA show that our closest genetic relatives are from the north of Spain in Basque Country. It is these genes we dragged with us as we roamed west across Europe, thousands of years ago, looking for increasingly diminishing levels of sunshine (WHAT were we thinking?).
More or less, we brought with us an “imprint” of where we came from before we settled in the “land of the low skies.” But why did our ancestors leave such sunny climes for a more… well… boggy one?
From around 400 BC to 275 BC, various Celtic tribes expanded to the Iberian Peninsula, France, England, Scotland and Ireland. Although the term “Celtic” is often associated with the people of Ireland and Scotland, the Celts emerged as a unique culture in central Europe more than 2,500 years ago. From an epicentre in present-day Austria, they spread and settled in the areas of today’s western Germany and eastern France.
As the Roman Empire advanced, Celtic tribes were forced to flee to other areas that remained under Celtic control, chiefly Ireland, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Brittany. Since the Romans never occupied Ireland or Scotland in any real sense, they are among the few places where Celtic languages have survived to this day. So really, we dragged a tonne of this European DNA with us.
Basque DNA also runs through the blood of British people, and especially the Scots, as humans migrated West. But we Irish are still different from Continental Europe and Britain, generally speaking. They had waves of new settlers from across Asia. But Scotland and Ireland were isolated enough to have missed all of the new breeding trends. So the Scottish – and particularly the Irish genepools – remained undisturbed for hundreds of years, due purely to geographical isolation. This DNA group in Ireland stayed intact and kept its “Celticness.”
There were other incidences of the Spanish coming to our shores. The Spanish Armada hit Irish beaches in 1588 in a 130-strong fleet. They didn’t fare so well, most ended up chopped up on the savage rocks on the Irish coastline. But hey, some genes escaped, helping to create some further diversity in our rather ruddy-looking genepool.
After that the English showed up and sprayed their DNA all over us, which shows up in the DNA records. While the Irish weren’t at all happy with the Brits coming over here and planting themselves in their midst, they sure did a lot of breeding with them. But these invaders also brought with them DNA from their own invaders: namely the French. And there was a damn lot of intermingling going on betwixt the Brits and the French throughout history, despite how much they insist the other is intolerable.
And yet: there are still Irish people who show no British DNA at all: their ancestors were here before the English conquest of the island. They are direct descendants of the early stone-age settlers who migrated from Spain. But even if you are one of these folk, you can hold off on the triple spiral and triquetra tattoos.
Arrival of the Vikings
The average Irish Paddy’s DNA is also tangled up with Scandinavian blood. We all know where the Scandinavian DNA comes from. Of course, this DNA is from the Viking pillagers and rapists that came our way.
But I’m sure some of our ancestors weren’t forced into child production against their will. Have you seen Ragner Lothbrook and his brother Rollo on Vikings lately? Their man-plaits get more sexy by the episode. And there ain’t no Irish women as hot as Lagertha, a powerful shield-maiden and mother-of-the-year. Plus she had farming skills. What Irish man would not want her? She’s a hot Viking farmer, people.
So how Irish do you feel, knowing all of the above? How Irish is anyone, anyway? I decided to check my DNA profile. All you have to do is go to dna.ancestry.co.uk and order a kit, and pay online. Once the kit reaches you, you spit in it (yes, gross, I know) and send it freepost right back. After a few weeks, you will learn your DNA background. Well, theoretically. The DNA test goes back around two thousand years, so you can get a good picture of what your ancestors were doing (or WHO they were doing) across the ages.
It is a snapshot of genetic make-up from before written records began. Unless you were a royal. Royal birth records go back to the 9th century or more, so DNA testing is not required (… assuming that the prince was the son of the king and not of the butler.) According to Brad Argent, of AncestryDNA, there are two parts of a person’s history. “There is the biological history, meaning your DNA history, and the documented history, like your family tree.”
So if you get a DNA test and it doesn’t match your official family tree, there could have been some illegitimate hanky-panky going on. Or as Brad politely calls it, “a non-paternal event.” In fact, he says, one in eight people find illegitimacy in their family tree. But if there is a non-paternal event, it comes with an upside: the opportunity to find unknown cousins. Says Brad, “It’s incredible to think that many of us will be in daily contact with unknown relatives – with no idea that we share much more than just the same sporting team or commute to work.” I mean that woman in Tesco in aisle three sure does look like me…
My DNA Test
I decided to get my DNA done out of burning curiosity. I was born in Australia, however I have now lived in Ireland for 18 years. My known ancestry was German on my mother’s side (my German relatives fled to Australia to set up a religious utopia… they were nuts. Like super-nuts. ISIS without the weapons.) Plus we had a bit of English in there.
On my father’s side we were supposed to be Irish, however there was spanner in the works. My great-grandfather was adopted, supposedly from a Dublin orphanage, by an English couple on their way to Australia. We have no idea why they went to Australia via Dublin to pick up this Godforsaken child en route. But I always wondered if he was actually Irish or some English relative had dumped him in some cold and raggedy institution straight out of Angela’ s Ashes on a holiday to hide the pregnancy.
So the results are in: and my DNA surprisingly matched the family tree records. Considering the amount of rogues and weirdos in my family history, it seems like a miracle that there weren’t some fancy Greek or African or Mongolian genes in there. There was, disappointingly, no scandal. I was pretty much the whitest white girl known to man. But some good news: I am 7% Irish, which means that my adopted great-grandfather was of Irish descent. Woohoo! I did have a bit of Scandinavian and Eastern European in there as well, plus some European Jewish, but considering that my German zealot relatives come from the region nearby this was no surprise.
I have to say it has been a talking point across my family since I emailed everyone the results. So as a conversation starter at Christmas dinner, it’s totally worth its weight in gold. The fact that everyone was having sex with who they were supposed to, was a great surprise for all of us. This could say more about the moral virtue of the women in my family than the men. Sorry male ancestors, but you were a dodgy bunch, don’t try to deny it.
And I did find a cousin with similar DNA to me once I logged into the AncestryDNA website. I don’t know who she is but we shared a great grandfather. I won’t be calling her and offering her some tea and biscuits in case she fights me for my inheritance. But still it is nice to know that I can avoid inbreeding by checking my DNA history online before I mate with anyone. Phew.