©2010 Janet Maher, Woolen Mill #2, digital print with drawing on wood, w/acrylic, 8"

©2010 Janet Maher, Woolen Mill #2, digital print with drawing on wood, w/acrylic, 8″ diameter x 3/4″

It has long been established that settlers came into Ireland from the north during the ice age, when what is now the Irish Sea formed a natural land bridge. DNA, however, is revealing more connections between the peoples of the British Isles. A large DNA project regarding Scottish and English ancestry was conducted by Dr. Jim Wilson, a geneticist at Edinburgh University, and Alistair Moffat, journalist and rector of Saint Andrews University, and noteworthy discoveries have been made.

Reporters for the online United Kingdom newspaper, The Telegraph, revealed several of them. The Romans may have never crossed into Ireland as they conquered their way across Europe, but they did succeed in completely taking over England and Wales. Nick Collins explained findings of Roman ancestry in many English and Welsh genes through instances of the occurrence of what is called “the Alpine marker,” ( R1b-S28).

It is not clear how the testing is able to tie individuals to long dead others, such as “The Young Pretender,” Prince Charles Stuart, grandson of the exiled Catholic King James II of England who had been ousted by William of Orange and his wife, King James II’s daughter, Mary. However, DNA apparently revealed that “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” had some English ancestry and that there is great similarity between some Scottish and English DNA. The test also tracked a small percentage of Scottish ancestry back to African tribes from the Sahara desert and found 157 wide-ranging forms of female DNA.

One Scottish individual, whose male DNA markers traced his ancestry to Scandinavia, revealed female ancestry that led anciently back to Senegal, Africa, perhaps through a slave woman who had been brought into England. Co-leader of the project, Alistair Moffat believed this to be evidence of mitochrondrial DNA from the biblical Eve. He stated, “Adam also lived in central Africa, perhaps only 140,000 years ago. Only his YDNA survived to father all of the male lineages on earth.”

Auslan Cramb, wrote of the R1b-S530 DNA marker that tracked ancient ancestry in some people linking their descendence from the Picts, the original settlers of the northernmost part of what came to be called Scotland, originally Alba, in Scottish Gaelic.*  Instead of having simply melded into the rest of Gaelic ancestry and virtually disappearing after 839, Pict heritage may be found among some men whose grandfathers were Scottish.

Dr. Wilson, the other co-leader of the project was excited ” to see for the first time the ancient genetic connection between Scotland and Ireland—the signature of a movement of people from Ireland to Scotland, perhaps of the Scots or Gaels themselves.”

*[As an ancient Maher side-note: The disciple of Saint Columba, Machar, one of the three Irish leaders baptized by Saint Patrick, was a descendent of Olioll Olum.  According to Joseph Casimir O’Meagher, Machar/Mechair “received episcopal ordination, and undertook to preach the Gospel in the northern parts of the Pictish kingdom. The legend adds that Columba admonished him to found his church, when he should arrive upon the bank of a river where it formed by its windings the figures of a bishop’s crozier…” Machar founded the Church of Aberdon.” (p.14,SHN)]

Marie McKeown, whose “Hub Pages” include many excellent essays about early Irish history, wrote of the Irish DNA story as being closely related to the Basques. She said, ” those Irish whose ancestors pre-date English conquest of the island are descendants of early settlers who probably migrated west across Europe, as far as Ireland in the north and Spain in the south…the closest genetic relatives of the Irish in Europe are to be found in the north of Spain in the region known as the Basque Country. These same ancestors are shared to an extent with the people of Britain—especially the Scottish.”

She explained that the Haplogroup 1 gene was shared from stone-age times among those in the neighboring British Isles, but that variations emerged via other nationalities that migrated into Ireland. Over time the additional influences of genetics created more diverse mixes, but in some parts of Ireland—the west coast in particular—populations remained very stable over the centuries with little mixing from other parts of Europe. This would explain the concept of a living Maher having Spanish genetics, which suggests a long surname line that began with a Spanish male having come into Ireland and marrying a native Irish woman. Generally, however, there is so much genetic mixing over time that a surname study seems to look at too little a percentage of data to be helpful to most people, except to attempt to find connections between members of the group.

McKeown’s essays are well worth reading. She pointed to another excellent posting by Leah Lefler about the complex science of DNA. Lefler also provides a clear explanation about the regions associated with the various Y-chromosome markers. McKeown wrote further about the first peoples of Ireland and life in Celtic IrelandHer map of Ireland and Scotland illustrates well the connection between northern Ireland and western Scotland.

While all of this may be fascinating in the abstract, it is still good to keep in mind that DNA testing is no substitute for solid research about one’s family history. As some have pointed out, the test may be helpful when particular people are seeking to discover a genetic connection between each other. This would likely occur after years of research had led them to the end of their paper trails. Others who have unknown or very mixed lineage may find the DNA test helpful in locating basic areas or pointing to some possible countries of origin. It will not, however, do your work for you, nor is it possible to research your history completely online, Ancestry.com trees notwithstanding. Those serious about genealogy stress the importance of citing one’s sources and trying to gather multiple instances for any fact found, preferably accompanied by an official document. Discrepancies also need to be noted and documented.

Both DNA testing and traditional family history research should be approached with an open mind and a willingness to accept what surprises may lie in wait. Roger Highfield, in an article warning about the limits of DNA tests, quoted University of Texas, Austin’s Deborah Bolnick, who stressed that “some researchers see these tests as merely ‘recreational genetics’ or ‘vanity testing,’ the problems can be significant for the test-takers, who may hope to identify biological relatives, validate genealogical records and fill in gaps in their family histories. ‘Test-takers may reshape their personal identities, and they may suffer emotional distress if test results are unexpected or undesired.'”

After an immersion in research, however, it might be gratifying to take the plunge, like buying a lottery ticket, just to see what outcome will result.

©2013 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ní Mheachair

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