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Irish Surnames and Genetic Testing: a Developing Science
Since the late 1990s research into genetics has thrown some light on the origins and development of Irish surnames. In 1997, the Royal Irish Academy initiated an all-Ireland cross-border research project on genetic anthropology, establishing an advisory committee of members drawn from Irish universities and research institutions throughout the island of Ireland.
At a preliminary meeting in the Academy in the same year, several experts in the field of genetics provided context for future research. They spoke on genetic diversity and disease susceptibility; on genetic clues from anthropology and archaeology; on the evidence from linguistics, and on the research being carried out at the Trinity College Dublin molecular population genetics laboratory.
In response to a research programme on genetics proposed by Professor David J. McConnell and Professor Patrick Cunningham, of Trinity College, financial assistance was offered by the Office of Public Works, by Queen’s University, Belfast, by the Department of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin and by the National Museum of Ireland.
As the new millennium approached, the advisory committee outlined how it envisaged future research extending beyond Ireland.
A … project on ‘The genetic history and geography of Ireland’ must be organised on the basis that it will add signiﬁcantly to knowledge of the origins of the peoples of Ireland and their relationships with the other peoples of Eurasia and Africa.
The advisory committee went on to establish a research programme under the title: ‘Millennium Project – Irish Origins: the Genetic History and Geography of Ireland’. All the universities on the island of Ireland were invited to submit their proposals for the project and bid for funding.
Bryan Sykes, Professor of Genetics at the University of Oxford, was appointed by the Royal Irish Academy as one of the judges. A pioneer in surname research, by testing four markers on the male chromosome obtained from a number of volunteers bearing the Sykes name, he found evidence to support a claim that many of the men were related.
Among the recipients of awards was a project entitled ‘Comparative genetic diversity in Irish populations’, granted to Trinity College Dublin. Brian McEvoy commenced work on a Ph.D thesis in genetics under the supervision of Dr. Dan Bradley, leader of the project at Trinity. His research was entitled ‘Genetic Investigation of Irish Ancestry and Surname History’. Having completed his thesis in 2004, Dr. McEvoy’s findings were published in 2006 in an article, ‘Y-chromosomes and the extent of patrilineal ancestry in Irish surnames’, where he wrote.
Ireland has one of the oldest systems of patrilineal hereditary surnames in the world. Using the paternal co-inheritance of Y-chromosome DNA and Irish surnames, we examined the extent to which modern surname groups share a common male-line ancestor and the general applicability of Y-chromosomes in uncovering surname origins and histories. DNA samples were collected from 1,125 men, bearing 43 different surnames, and each was genotyped for 17 Y-chromosome short tandem repeat (STR) loci. A highly significant proportion of the observed Y-chromosome diversity was found between surnames, demonstrating their demarcation of real and recent patrilineal kinship.
In a summary of the study it was noted that bearers of some surnames ‘have numerous early origins’ while other surnames have ‘a defined and focused early genesis’. A further paper on Gaelic Irish surnames was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 2008.
A more recent development has been the launch of the all-Ireland project, ‘Irish DNA Atlas’ in 2011, which combines both genetic genealogy and health research. The genetic genealogy research aims ‘to further our knowledge of the population history of Ireland and its connections with other populations in Europe’. Individuals from all thirty-two counties of Ireland will be recruited in order to compile a comprehensive DNA atlas for the island. When a sample for the genetic genealogical section is submitted, testing for the health section is optional.
The Bigger Picture–A Work in Progress
Genetic genealogical research in many European universities in recent years has led to intense debate on the origin of the most common Haplogroup in European populations, R1b1b2 (R-M269). It is estimated that the Haplogroup is present in more than one hundred and ten million European males. In Ireland and Great Britain the rates are very high for this group: Ireland 85.4%, Wales 92.3%, and England (average in combining two regions) 70%. Spain (combining 7 regions) has a 61% rate, France (combining 7 regions) 59%, and Italy mainland (combining two regions) 52.9%. There are a number of other European countries with rates below 50%, ranging from 46.2% in South Portugal to 4.8% in Russia (combining five regions).
The debate has focused on whether the origin of the Haplogroup stems from the hunter-gatherers who populated Europe during the Paleolithic era and who adopted farming, or from the migration of near-eastern farmers during the Neolithic era.
An argument in favour of the Neolithic view appears in ‘A Predominantly Neolithic Origin for European Paternal Lineages’ by Patricia Balaresque of the University of Leicester, supported by fifteen other scientists, while in a paper published in 2011 support is given to the adoption of farming by the hunter-gatherers rather than an invasion of farmers from the near east, ‘The peopling of Europe and the cautionary tale of Y chromosome lineage R-M269’. The author, George B. J. Busby, is supported by twenty-seven scientists who include Dan Bradley of Trinity College Dublin.
Interest in genetic genealogy continues to grow, in particular the testing of the Y-chromosome which determines the patrilineal line, and a number of commercial companies offer DNA testing as an aid to genealogical research. It is important to remember that Irish clans developed as political, sociological and cultural identities and as such not all those who share a particular clan surname will carry the same Y DNA Chromosome despite sharing the same heritage and identity.
 Annual Report, Royal Irish Acadamy for the year ending 16 March 1998.