Key to ancestry: The true father of Ireland

Research by geneticists at Trinity College Dublin reveals that one in 12 Irishmen are descended from a fifth-century warlord. As David McKittrick reports, science has for once revealed the man to be more impressive than the myth

He was already a splendid quasi-mythical warrior who trailed clouds of ancient glory, bestriding Irish pre-history as one of the greatest of all the high kings of Ireland. But now Niall of the Nine Hostages has emerged as an even mightier man than previously supposed.

It looks as though he was literally one of the fathers of his nation - a man who, 1,500 years after his death, has up to three million living descendants in Ireland and elsewhere.

Scientific research has revealed that around one in 12 men in Ireland are descended from Niall, while in the north-west of the island - his stronghold - that figure rises to a staggering 20 per cent of the male population. More descendants of Niall are to be found in Scotland and in New York, reflecting Irish emigration patterns.

Niall of the Nine Hostages was a fifth-century warlord who took on the English, the Scots, the French and even the Romans, at the same time establishing a series of dynasties which lasted for centuries. Known for his marauding raids, it turns out that his appendage was even mightier than his sword.

He will now be viewed as a smaller-scale Irish version of Genghis Khan, who has been shown by similar research to be the ancestor of millions in Asia and Europe. Genghis's many millions mean he will remain number one in the progeny stakes but Niall's performance is already being hailed as formidable.

His family dominated the High Kingship of Ireland, proudly describing themselves as the descendants of Niall - the Ui Neill - down through the centuries. Their extensive power lasted right up until the Elizabethan conquest in 1558-1603. Saint Columba is said to be his great-great grandson.

His legend was so potent that to this day many prominent Irish families boast of their lineage from him. Now the new research indicates that this is no empty claim. The science of genetics has now made a firm connection between a particular chromosome and the genes of families with a traditional link to Niall.

For once modern science has not debunked an ancient myth - rather, its discovery of Niall's prodigious offspring has confirmed and enhanced what was once thought to be a dubious legend. In this case at least, the man has proved more impressive than the myth.

The research was conducted at the genetics department of Trinity College Dublin, by PhD student Laoise Moore and others in a team supervised by Dr Dan Bradley. Niall's lineage was exposed by a study of the Y-chromosome, an element of DNA which uniquely is passed down from father to son through the generations, and which can provide a specific genetic fingerprint.

The team was intrigued to find a strikingly high frequency of a particular type of Y-chromosome in the Irish population, with a peak in the north-west centred around Donegal, Londonderry and Tyrone. Ms Moore and the team, using a technique called "17-marker simple tandem repeat genetic analysis", found a significant link between those with the particular chromosome and those with surnames traditionally linked with the Ui Neill dynasties. These included familiar Irish names such as Gallaher, Boyle, Doherty, O'Donnell, O'Connor, O'Kane and Quinn.

Dr Bradley explains: "We sampled 60 people with these names and found the strongest association was with them. Before this, everything was mythology, but now there does seem to have been a single male ancestor of this group of powerful dynasties."

The assumption is that Niall and his direct descendants, as part of early medieval Ireland's most enduring dynasties, tended to have numerous children. The family was certainly proficient when it came to holding on to power.

Dr Bradley added yesterday: "In many countries, powerful men historically have more children, and it's not that hard to believe that it happened in Ireland too.

"We estimate there are maybe two to three million descendants in the modern age, with a concentration in Ireland, obviously. Then there are Scotland and New York - you find the particular chromosome in reasonable frequency in New Yorkers of European descent.

"This is not terribly surprising, given the scale of Irish emigration, especially from western areas where the Niall chromosome was more common."

Interest in Niall has always been reasonably high in Ireland, where many are fascinated by history, pre-history and myth. The revelations about his prowess are expected to generate more study of a figure who will now be viewed as doubly heroic. He was, in the words of one enthusiastic account, "the greatest king that Ireland ever knew. His reign was epochal, the Irish equivalent of Alexander the Great in Macedonia. He not only ruled Ireland greatly and strongly, but carried the name and the fame, and the power and the fear, of Ireland into all neighbouring nations".

This is a reference to his reputation for carrying out brief invasions of various parts of western Europe, but very few historical facts have actually been confirmed. There are legends that he established small colonies dotted around European coastlines and this has led to his being poetically revered as:

"Eochaid's son of high dignity,

noble Niall fiercest shout,

Seized the sway of kingship

of Erin and of Alba."

His father was said to be a High King called Eochaid Mugmedon and his mother an English noblewoman. Once in office, Niall first moved to consolidate his power in Ireland before making numerous forays across the sea.

He is said to have greatly harassed the weakened Romans in Britain, who during his time were under strength as the empire was busy defending Rome itself.

It is not even certain who the famed nine hostages were or where they came from: several versions of their origins and purpose exist. In most of the stories, however, they are symbols of Niall's power. Some say he took five of them from various parts of Ireland, later adding a Briton, a Saxon, a Scot and a Frenchman, while others say the latter four were from the ancient kingdoms of Dalriada, Caledonia, Strathclyde and Northumbria.

One legend has it that in one raid on the Romans, he captured as a slave a young man who would later escape and go on to become St Patrick, Ireland's patron saint. No one can agree on how Niall died, but the consensus is that it was outside Ireland. Various tales have him dying in Scotland, or in the Alps, or at sea. Others relate that he was killed in France, near the Loire, struck down by the son of a rival Irish king.

Whatever his ultimate fate, his dynasties lived on and he will now attract even more attention given his new-found status not just as a warrior-King but also as one of the fathers of his people.

Giants of the gene pool

GENGHIS KHAN c1162-1227

Possibly the most prolific lover in history, Genghis Khan may well be the single biggest contributor to the global gene pool. Population geneticists have measured Y-chromosomes from a number of men across Asia and found that eight per cent of those measured have a virtually identical patriarchal lineage to a man who lived in Mongolia more than 1,000 years ago. An estimated 16 million men across Asia, from Japan to Uzbekistan, are part of this genetic club, meaning one in every 200 males belong to one single ancestry. Whoever this Mongolian was, he has 800,000 times more ancestors than the average male. Research concludes the only man capable of such a feat within their timeframe was the renowned warrior king Genghis Khan, thanks to his six Mongolian wives, countless non-Mongolian concubines and a penchant for raping his enemy's daughters.

SOMERLED c1113-1164

Genetic studies in Scotland have uncovered a similar, if slightly smaller scale, common lineage for some of Scotland's most famous clans. Scientists researching the genetic heritage of the MacDonald, MacDougall and MacAlister clans discovered the vast majority of members shared microscopic DNA fragments with a fearsome Scottish warlord known as Somerled, the Thane of Argyll. Somerled is credited with breaking Viking power in Scotland but his tactics were not always bloodthirsty. Knowing his great Viking rival, Olaf the Red, was militarily stronger, Somerled set about trying to woo the hand of Olaf's daughter. His genetic legacy suggests seduction might have been his secret weapon. Scientists estimate up to half a million clansmen may be directly related to the ancient chieftain.

MOULAY ISMAIL THE BLOODTHIRSTY 1675-1727

The only ruler who might have been able to compete with the virility of Genghis Khan was the last Sharifian Emperor of Morocco, known as Moulay Ismail. Despite only living for 52 years, it is claimed he managed to sire a total of 888 children (548 sons and 340 daughters). No one knows when Ismail first became a father, but it is claimed his harem of 500 women managed to provide him with an average of 17 children a year. Scientists have yet to carry out a genetic study of North Africa to see just how long Ismail's reproductive legacy has lasted. His violent reputation has outshone his remarkable ability to reproduce, however. Notoriously cruel, he once ordered that his city walls be adorned with 10,000 heads of slain enemies to intimidate rival tribes.

Jerome Taylor

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