Friday, 20 March 2015

That Genetic Study

In the media over the last few days have been reports about a genetic study published in the journal Nature that analyses what it calls "single nucleotide polymorphism data" (amusingly enough shortened as "SNP").

The headline finding has been that there is no single Celtic genetic group. That's hardly surprising, as academically speaking "Celtic" is a linguistic rather than a genetic categorisation. Most likely it would be found that there is no single Germanic genetic group either, with the area of the former East Germany notably "Slavic", and no doubt some other surprises too. Indeed, the reason that the "Celtic" finding has received such prominence may lie partly in the fact that everyone already knew the English were only partly of German stock.

Upon moving into a new office two years ago, the Blether Region found itself sharing a room with two Catholic colleagues, both of them with (Gaelic) Scots surnames. One of them, a middle-aged woman, even said that "we", meaning Northern Ireland people, had "come from Scotland". She was also a fairly staunch Republican, and often heard to lament the English habit of "taking over other people's countries". The fact that, unlike in Ireland, Britishness in Scotland was historically an act of self-colonisation didn't fit with that, of course, but that's another story.

Here, then, were two Catholics obviously partly of Scots ancestry, and anyone familiar with Northern Ireland knows that there's nothing unusual about that. Whisper it, but the surnames Hume and Adams are sometimes raised in that context. The Blether Region itself is mainly of Scots Presbyterian stock, but with a smaller Irish Catholic branch that, when looked into, turned up an Armagh Anglican element that presumably originated in north-west England. No one in Northern Ireland or anywhere else can claim to be genetically pure — and one wonders why they would wish to.

So much by way of introduction.

While one should of course be wary of abusing genetic data to aid one's own case, one should also be careful that it isn't used, knowingly or unknowingly, to further anyone else's agenda.

In that context, the Blether Region has a few words to say about Mick Fealty's interpretation of the findings on Slugger O'Toole:
"So on the genetic purity distinctions (still favoured by some of our politicians) between Planters and Native Irish the news from the science journal Nature is, erm, not so good."
While purity is a myth, it is surprising to say the least that the Slugger piece is not more nuanced, since Fealty quotes from the same BBC article linked to above:
"The study also notes that there are two genetic groupings in Northern Ireland: one of which also contains individuals across the sea in western Scotland and the Highlands; the other contains individuals in southern Scotland and southern England.
The former appears to reflect the kingdom of Dalriada 1,500 years ago; the other probably represents the settlers of the Ulster Plantations."
Fealty omits the second paragraph.

Whether the first group are best viewed as having an Ulster Gaelic marker or as a more general Goidelic one can be debated — unfortunately, the study didn't cover the Irish Republic, and of course it may well be pre-Celtic in origin anyway. Whatever the truth, it's highly likely that its range in Scotland was extended south in the nineteenth century as a result of Highland and Irish immigration to the Lowlands.

The "Northern Ireland/Southern Scotland" marker, on the other hand, still covers the entire south-west coast, including Ayrshire, from where most Planters came. Of course, it's also possible that the "Northern Ireland/Southern Scotland" marker originated in Ireland and was itself brought to Scotland at some stage in the dim and distant past (with or without mentioning the "Cruithin"). Less tendentiously, there may well be a link between it and the Strathclyde Britons.

Another interesting finding is the existence of two distinct "NE Scotland" markers; it is tempting to associate those with the Picts. Interestingly, the most iconic linguistic marker of north-east identity ("fit" instead of "whit") originated through Goidelic influence in the Middle Ages. However, that's no more and no less strange than a form of Portuguese being a marker of Celtic identity in Galicia — or, for that matter, Catholicism playing the same role in present-day Northern Ireland.

Assuming that Fealty did not deliberately confuse the study's findings, one has to ask how he was able to draw such conclusions. The answer to that question is most likely that the Highland Clearances, which left much of that part of Scotland empty, have somewhat obscured the prevalence of the "Northern Ireland/Western Scotland" marker — although it is still there if one looks.

PS — The most Gaelic place on the map would appear to be the Isle of Islay, which, fittingly enough, is also famous for the almost unfeasible prevalence of its whisky distilleries. The Blether Region will raise a glass to that.

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