Genes confirm Irishmen's staying power

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It is the land of mists, bogs and a famous black stout. Now scientists have identified the west coast of Ireland as the most genetically isolated place in Europe.

A study has found that Irish men with Gaelic surnames who live in the western province of Connacht are living proof that the Irish are a race apart.

For thousands of years Europe has experienced successive migratory waves of people moving north west from the eastern Mediterranean to Britain and Scandinavia. Scientists have found that the male Y chromosome of west coast Irishmen contain the most ancient European genes, dating back to before the Iron Age and the introduction of farming from the Middle East.

The genetic analysis shows that Ireland is the last outpost of the direct descendants of hunter-gatherers who lived inEurope before the arrival of farmers from the Middle East between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago. The researchers led by Daniel Bradley, a geneticist at Trinity College Dublin, report the findings in the journal Nature. They compared genetic variation of the Y chromosome for men with Gaelic names, such as Loughnane and Naughton, with that of men with "foreign" names, such as the Norman surnames Fitzgerald and Burke,

As both Y chromosomes and surnames are passed down the male line, the researchers were able to subdivide genetic variation into groups of surnames.

For a particular` type of genetic variation on the Y chromosome the researchers showed there was a gradient of ancient lineage running from the east to the west of Ireland.

"We're looking at genetic variation today to find out something of the past. It's like studying the ripples in a pond to find out more about the stone that disappeared into the water," Dr Bradley said.