Diggin’ in the Dirt: NIall (sausage the fourth)

sausage_yellow.jpg Blather’s grave-robber in residence ‘Ender’ returns to deliver the latest in his epic series of articles on the legendary Irish warlord and shagger of many women, Niall of the Nine Hostages. So, strap on yer fedora and grab hold of yer trowel as this time we explore the controversial genetic evidence which, it was recently suggested, points to the fact that one in five Irish people are directly descended from Niall…

In our last sausage we had seen how, just like that, out of nowhere, came the ‘history’ of the Uí Néill legacy. In the words of Kelleher ‘like a school of cuttle fish from an ink-cloud of their own making’


The success and rise of the Uí Néill dynasty is inexorably linked with the changing political order, landscape and belief systems within fifth and sixth century Ireland and on the wider European stage with the decline of the Roman Empire. It is a period of momentous change, only half of which we can ever hope to read through the archaeological record just before the start of the written one. New wealth, booty, metalworking and agricultural (Dairying) knowledge and techniques are flowing into the country.
Fuelling the collapse and demise of the old political order, as new, jumped up wannabe Dynasties supersede the old laws and create the new reality of ‘ferann claidib’ (Sword-Land). Taking possession by force. An idea completely alien to the old tribal concepts of going raiding, and robbing you’re neighbour blind, but always going back to your own land/túath at the end of the day. (Sure wasn’t that great craic altogether and see yis all again next month.)
Black hole
During the black hole of the fifth and sixth centuries, between the first missionaries like Patrick and the first written records of the emerging ecclesiastical elites; we can just about glimpse the image of a fledging church, originally intended to operate on the Roman ‘paruchia’ (Parish) model, yet finding it’s feet and popularity by developing along monastic lines. Something essential to fitting in with the native non-urban nature of fifth and sixth century Irish society.
A church that must have originally targeted the ruling clans of the Airgialla (Those who give Hostages, remember?), based on their location in the north east of Ireland. What must they have thought as they watched the old masters make way for the newly emerging ones from the western lands of the Connachta?
Armagh & Downpatrick, are inexorably linked with Niall and Patrick, their reputed burial places, and symbols of authority. It suited each of their collective interests. Both trying to establish legitimacy. Both securing their ‘past’, in order to cement the future.
Niall Noígiallach stands on the cusp of Irish prehistory, the passing of an ancient way alongside the coming of literacy and Christianity. But only because his relatives and descendents made it so. It could have been anyone really.

Right place, right time

He was just the right bloke; in the right place; at the right time; who had friends in the right places during a much later time. Who decided he was the right bloke. It could so easily have been the guy living next door really.
We’ll never know for sure. Yet the latest Trinity report proves the fact that someone, at some stage, got powerful enough to secure his family name, seed, line, legacy and long-term survival. Enough for one twelfth of the male population alive today. (Seeing as it’s a Y-Chromosome study)
So where do the rest of us fit in? Where do we come from? And are those really our feet?
Sure have another cup of tea, grab some biscuits and we’ll start examining the genetic evidence so far.
In the name of the Father
An excellent starting point for getting to grips with studies involving Y-chromosomal and surname analysis (Like the latest Trinity report) is Mark A. Jobling’s 2001 paper: In the name of the father: surnames and genetics.
Not only is it an excellent introduction and explanation, but in my view, any academic paper the ends with the line ‘Mrs. Peacock and Miss Scarlett, lacking Y chromosomes, can relax, Colonel Mustard should await a knock at the door with trepidation and would be well advised to hide his lead piping’ is well worth a look.
Darwin son of Darwin
Apparently, the use of surnames in genetic studies it’s not such a new trend after all,
Back in 1875, George Darwin, son of Charles, used them to estimate the frequency of first cousin marriages.
For a definitive explanation of what exactly is involved; allow me to quote Mr. Jobling, at length:

“Over the past few years, a large number of more convenient polymorphic markers have been identified on the non-recombining portion of the Y chromosome. These include slowly mutating binary polymorphisms [such as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)] that define monophyletic lineages [here called haplogroups (hg)], and more rapidly mutating multi-allelic markers (such as microsatellites) that define very large numbers of haplotypes within haplogroups and which can be used to estimate the ages of the most recent common ancestors of groups of chromosomes.
The resolution of these systems is sufficient to distinguish most unrelated males within European populations from each other, so in principle they offer a means to identify a lineage that can be associated with a surname.”

In principle.
He also goes on to caution against the presumption of correlation between an individual surname and a Y-chromosomal lineage.

Condition my condition is in

“For such a correlation to hold, a number of conditions must apply:
(1) The surname must have a unique origin.
(2) There must have been no illegitimacy, which would introduce chromosomes
from other surname groups.
(3) Chromosomes associated with different surnames must have been unrelated at the time of surname establishment.”
Copulating Celts
Irish surnames are some of the oldest in Europe. (Fairly reliable back to the tenth century A.D.) The issue of illegitimacy however raises significant problems. Especially when you consider the fairly loose definitions and practices as outlined in the early Irish secular laws (Brehon Laws). Although there are up to nine forms of ‘Marriage’ considered in them; responsible for the myth of rampant sexual lifestyles of ‘Copulating Celts’; there is also significant detail involving rights, responsibility and maintenance of offspring.
Then, just as now, you could hop around from bed to bed all right, but as soon as ‘little bundles of joy’ came into the picture, you had best sort out your finances. Its therefore worth remembering that, like the annals and chronicles, these laws are compiled at a much later time period then the one they purporting to represent, leaving them open to the same criticisms of ‘retro-fixing’;
(Incidentally, since we’re looking for Uí Néill connections, the 1147 A.D. Banshenchas a list of royal wives and mothers of the Uí Néill kings of Tara includes mostly one and occasionally two wives for each. Mind you it starts with ‘Eve’. So again, we’re left with sifting sands of historical reliability. The point is: the names of Ui Néill wives are not as important as the number of them. Or rather lack thereof.)
The provision is there for big families, yet also the penalties.
Multiple women
Yes, a high status man could have multiple wives. But you had to provide for all of them and their children. Yes, the wives were ‘ranked’ in order of importance (First wife, concubine etc), but their children weren’t. Each had equal claims to inheritance, legally and financially. So while it may have been in your best interest to have as much children (or male sons, in Niall’s case) as possible, in order to secure your clan or dynasties line; in doing so also left it open to inter-tribal rivalry and competition; with brother slaying brother in order to acquire the family jewels and leadership. (Which went on all the time throughout the entire medieval period. Just look at the example of the brothers of Brian Boru)
So, what we’re left with is an untraceable but highly probable and logical situation, both limiting and encouraging offspring, each having their own contributing factors in terms of historical and genetic ancestry tracing. Especially, modern studies which rely on the presumption of accuracy over lengthy medieval periods.
Just something to bear it in mind, while we get back to the ‘Sciencey Bits’.
Where were we? Oh yes, tracing Irish genetic origins. What’s the general consensus at the moment? In our next sausage, we’ll explore the answers to these questions.
Niall of the Nine sausages and Ender shall return in further articles
+Previous Sausages+
Sausage the First
Sausage the Second
Sausage the Third
Full Diggin in the Dirt series
Niall on BBC
Niall on Wikipedia
The Táin Bó Cúailnge
Annals of the Four Masters
Artwork by miss w. tod