Gathering Irish Genes

2013 is a big year for Ireland.

The Emerald Isle is calling her people home for a celebration of all things Irish in a year-long program, The Gathering: Ireland 2013.  Featuring everything from music festivals to Guinness World Record competitions (check out the Town of 1000 Beards gathering), the event marks the biggest tourism initiative ever held in Ireland—and National Geographic’s Genographic Project couldn’t help but get in on the action.

Invited by the Enterprise and Investment Unit at County Mayo as part of The Gathering, the Genographic Project visited Ireland this past weekend to take a DNA sampling and create a genetic snapshot of the country.

At a standing-room-only public event held at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life on Sunday, the Genographic Project swabbed 100 volunteers from all around County Mayo. The team also had the opportunity to swab some well-known faces in the County, including An Taoiseach Enda Kenny (Prime Minister of Ireland) and Minister of State Michael Ring, TD.

A County Mayo resident swabs with Geno 2.0 as one of the 100 participants. (Photo by Eammon O’Boyle)

“We were honored to be invited by the Mayo County Council to participate in The Gathering, Ireland 2013,” says Alexander Moen, National Geographic’s vice president, Explorer Programs. “The Gathering is a reunion of clans so to speak. Similarly, the Genographic Project is a virtual gathering of humanity connected by myriad migration routes around the world over the last 60,000 years. So Ireland was a perfect place to host a community Geno 2.0 swab event.”

The results will provide insight into the genetic makeup and ancient ancestry of the people in this Western region of Ireland. These 100 participants have now joined more than 600,000 people in 130 countries in an effort to determine the path of human movement around the world.

In addition to hosting the DNA swab, the Genographic team ventured to the mystical island of Inishturk for the unveiling of “The Tale of the Tongs,” the latest art installation in Travis Price’s Spirit of Place project, brought to Ireland as part of The Gathering. The piece, which was constructed by local craftsmen and American architecture students, is meant to be a place to “re-connect and re-kindle Irish heritage.” While on Inishturk—which translates to “island of the Wild Boar”—the Genographic team swabbed three of the island’s original families, whose names are part of the installation.

Picture of "The Tale of the Tongs" on Inishturk island in Ireland
“The Tale of the Tongs” installation is located on the Irish island of Inishturk. (Photo courtesy Travis Price)

Danny O’Toole of the Mayo County Council has wanted to see something like the “The Tale of the Tongs” on Inishturk for some time.

“I was born and reared on Inishturk Island and for many years now have wanted something like this to happen on the island,” he says. When architect Travis Price of the Catholic University of America expressed interest in bringing the Spirit of Place project to County Mayo, O’Toole knew exactly where it should be built.

“I entered the conversation a short time after,” he says, “and of course my opinion was somewhat bias in relation to where the project should take place. Inishturk!”

Check out the Genographic Project’s website to learn more about how you can trace your own family’s story. 

“UPDATE 7/9/2013: The Results Are In!”

The Genographic team looks forward to analyzing the 100 participant results in the upcoming week to help fill in the gaps on what we already know about Irish ancestry. Prior to the events in Ireland, the Genographic Project was honored to have a few local celebrities participate with the Geno 2.0 Participation Kit. Below is a recap of a few of their Genographic Project results.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s paternal Geno 2.0 results found a lineage that is found at moderate frequency in northern Europe, including Ireland, Britain and Scandinavia.  This particular lineage Haplogroup I, spread from the Balkans during the post-glacial recolonization of Europe at the end of the last Ice Age.  The Prime Minister’s maternal haplogroup, H2 is much rarer in Ireland, reaching a maximum of 5-10% in parts of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. It was originally spread during the post-glacial recolonization of Europe at the end of the last ice age.

Cora Staunton, a County Mayo football star, showed the very common haplogroup H1ag1 on her maternal side, the most widespread mitochondrial haplogroup in Europe. Most people fall into subclades H1, H2 and H3, but there are many more.  H1 is common in Europe, and was probably spread in part during the postglacial recolonization of northern Europe at the end of the last Ice Age.  H1ag1 is a recently described sublineage of H1 that we are currently studying to better understand its present-day distribution.

Captain Mark Mellett, head of the Irish Navy, greeted the Genographic team at the Geno 2.0 swab event at the Museum of Ireland Country Life. His paternal results demonstrated that his ancient ancestors entered Europe from Central Asia during the last Ice Age, over 25,000 years ago. On the maternal side, Mellett demonstrated similar results to Cora Stauton with Haplogroup H. However, his results demonstrated a rare subclat, H56 which is found at low frequencies across Europe and currently little is known about its present distribution.