- 01 Apr 22
It turns out, the latest scientific studies tell us, that Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Ireland from brutal Russian aggression will be meeting their long lost cousins here on the island of Ireland! Just be sure not to tell the more rabid Nationalists – or the DUP!
What can we learn from studying our DNA? Now that, is an interesting question…
As we know, over ten million people have been displaced in the Ukraine by Russian aggression. And that number is rising every day. Like other countries in Europe, Ireland is preparing to welcome tens of thousands of refugees from that conflict. As we should.
Fascinatingly, evidence has recently emerged that Ukrainians are our long lost cousins. Modern genetic research shows clearly that some of the earliest settlers on this island came from the Ukraine region.
Old primary school history books used to tell of how Ireland was first settled. There were stories of Parthalonians, Nemedians, Fomorians (who were based on Tory Island and led by the bould Balor of the Evil Eye), the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann. Then came the Milesians, also known as Gaels.
Some were said to come from the east. The Gaels, allegedly, came from Galicia. And so on, through an interestingly diverse bunch of backstories that, in popular culture, are treated as if they add up to one essential narrative.
This grand yarn comes from the Leabhar Gabhála or Book of Invasions, described by the Royal Irish Academy as “an origin legend of the Irish people that exists in many variant versions, in poetry and prose.” It was also the source for Horslips' epic album The Book of Invasions, released in 1976, which was a Top 40 hit in the UK.
According to the RIA, “The origins of the tradition can be traced to the seventh century…” They were then added to and embellished over the next millennium.
Hokey it might be, but as myths go it’s still been pretty tenacious. If people want to believe something, it appears that they will. There is even, we understand, a GAA club in Portland Oregon named the Portland Fomorians! And we all know about the existence – and persistence! – of De Dannan, don’t we?
MASS INWARD MIGRATION
But is it all basically a five millennium long Chinese whisper, masquerading as a coherent historical narrative?
Well, yes. For the most part it is. That said, however, the basic outline – that Ireland experienced successive waves of newcomers through prehistoric times – is indeed supported by the scientific evidence. So let’s take a look at what we really know…
The Ice Age ended in Ireland about 10,000 years ago. For around 4,000 years, there was only a small population of hunter-gatherers sustaining themselves on the island.
But that all changed dramatically almost 6,000 years ago, with the arrival of agriculture into Europe, and of metal-working about 1,500 years later, marking what became known as the Neolithic and Bronze Ages respectively.
Recent technological developments in DNA research have shed new light on this ancient past.
The DNA of three males whose bones were found in a burial chamber on Rathlin Island, off the coast of Antrim, in the North-East of the island, was analysed. So also were the skeletal remains of a much earlier woman from Ballynahatty, County Down, south of Belfast, whose remains were found in an early megalithic passage grave.
The woman was a hunter-gatherer. Like all Europeans of that time, she had dark skin and blue eyes. Her DNA is closest to modern people from Spain and Sardinia and her ancestors came to Europe from the eastern Mediterranean.
On the other hand, the three males’ DNA reveals that a third of their ancestry came from ancient sources in the Pontic Steppe – a region spread across modern Russia and, yes, Ukraine.
The ancient Irish DNA provides unequivocal evidence that these newcomers were part of a mass inward migration from that part of the world. But there’s more.
THE CELTIC CURSE
Dr Dan Bradley from Trinity College Dublin, who led the study, told the BBC that such a massive genetic change “invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues."
The Rathlin group showed a close genetic affinity with the modern Irish, Scottish and Welsh; Dr. Bradley noted that this is not shown strongly by the English where inflows of, among others, Anglo-Saxons, diluted the similarity.
Of equal interest, one of the Rathlin men carried two genetic mutations that are more common in modern Ireland than anywhere else in the world.
The first is that which causes haemochromatosis, a disease triggered by excessive iron retention and sometimes dubbed the Celtic Curse. Over 1% of the Irish population has the condition and it is particularly prevalent along the west coast.
The second mutation is for “lactase persistence” – that is, the ability to drink milk into adulthood. The only purpose of ‘lactase’ is to enable milk to be digested, and so in most mammals it diminishes greatly once the infant has been weaned.
The older hunter-gatherer woman’s DNA does not show this mutation and so we can speculate that it came to Ireland with these later arrivals, from the region now known as Ukraine.
None of this suggests that these people were identical to modern populations. It’s early days yet, though a lot more digging has already been done and the links between ancient Irish populations and others across Europe are emerging.
But it most certainly does highlight a clear link between Ireland, and the Irish, and the people of the Ukraine and the Pontic Steppe that spans a cool 4,000 years, give or take.
And if you’re going to meet a Ukrainian refugee from the Russian War, it allows you to greet them with the phrase ласкаво просимо кузина (laskavo prosymo kuzyna) – welcome cousin!
Here’s to it.
- Live Review
- 02 Jul 22