DNA proves Irish migration is nothing new

Research has shown that Irish DNA originated in Middle East and eastern Europe

Irish DNA: DNA proves Irish migration is nothing new
Excavated near Belfast in 1855, the bones of this farmer had lain in a Neolithic tomb chamber for 5,000 years. Her DNA has now been sequenced. Photograph: Daniel Bradley, Trinity College Dublin.

Geneticists from Trinity College Dublin, and archaeologists from Queens University Belfast have discovered an early pattern of migration among Irish ancestry: of stone age settlers with origins in the Fertile Crescent, and bronze age economic migrants who began a journey somewhere in eastern Europe.

The evidence was discovered in the 5,000 year old bones of a woman farmer from a tomb in Ballynahatty, near Belfast, and in the remains of three men who lived between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago and were buried on Rathlin Island in County Antrim.

Scientists at Trinity College Dublin used a technique called whole-genome analysis to “read” the history of ancestral migration and settlement in the DNA from all four bodies.

All the genetic sequences showed clear evidence of ‘massive migration’, said the researchers.

The woman had ancestry that could be tracked to the Middle East. About a third of the men’s ancestry led to the Pontic Steppe, a huge region of flat grassland extending from the Danube estuary to the Ural mountains.

Watch some of the authors here discuss their work. The video features: Lara Cassidy, PhD Researcher in Genetics, Trinity College Dublin, Daniel Bradley, Professor of Population Genetics, Trinity College Dublin and Eileen Murphy, Senior Lecturer in Osteoarchaeology, Queen’s University Belfast.


Professor Dan Bradley, from Trinity College Dublin, who led the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said: “There was a great wave of genome change that swept into Europe from above the Black Sea into Bronze Age Europe and we now know it washed all the way to the shores of its most westerly island.

“This degree of genetic change invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues.”

DNA proves Irish migration is nothing new
A reconstruction of the Ballynahatty Neolithic skull by Elizabeth Black. Her genes tell us she had black hair and brown eyes. Photograph: Barrie Hartwell

“It is clear that this project has demonstrated what a powerful tool ancient DNA analysis can provide in answering questions that have long perplexed academics regarding the origins of the Irish,” said Eileen Murphy, senior lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, who was also involved in the study.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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