On St. Patrick's Day, everyone feels a little bit Irish. Officially, 34 million Americans can trace some of their ancestry to Ireland. But did you know how many can claim royal Irish blood? Well, using DNA tests, scientists at Trinity College in Dublin discovered some very regal results.
With its ancient castles and folklore, many in Ireland had long claimed royal descent. Never from an English king, of course. That would be cultural sacrilege. But rather, many traced their line back to a 5th-century Irish ruler named, dauntingly, Niall of the Nine Hostages.
"You get that feeling just being here," said Brendan Rohan, a resident of Donegal, Ireland, the historical home of King Niall. "Something in the land, something in the air and something in the bones of the people has a connection."
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The common Irish surname 'O'Neil' means grandson of Niall, but some thought he was more legend than history. That is, until old King Niall met modern DNA testing. Trinity College's Dr. Dan Bradley said he started with a question, "We wondered, was there an Irish Genghis Khan?"
Genghis Khan, called the father of the Mongol nation, is believed to have progeny across Asia today.
So Bradley and his team tested the DNA of Irish men from families traditionally tied to Niall, including those with surnames such as Higgins, Quinn, McMeniman, Gallagher, Boyle... and Bradley, which gave the Trinity geneticist a personal incentive.
What they found is that a surprising number bore a unique genetic fingerprint pointing to a single male ancestor from the time when Niall ruled.
"It argues that, yes, they did have a patrilineal ancestor, and it's likely that he did exist, that this Arthurian figure was in fact historical, not just mythological," said Dr. Bradley.
The study found that three million men of Irish descent can trace their ancestry to Niall, making him the second most prolific man ever, trailing only Genghis Khan, ancestor to 16 million men in Asia.
The secret was power. The leading men of the time took many wives and had many children through many generations, leaving their genetic fingerprints down through the ages.
The land Niall and his descendents ruled for 700 years is stark – cold and windy . Their castle is more a fortress than a grand mansion. But you get a sense that if you could survive here and prosper, you must be pretty tough. And today the proof seems to be in the genes.
In northwestern Ireland, one in five men were found to have the link and eternal bragging rights.
Denis Doohan is a local butcher and, now knows he is a confirmed descendent of King Niall. But he remains modest.
"When I found I was in the lucky batch I said oh that's very nice," he said. "Now I can brag to my mates in the pub over a few pints of Guinness."
It turns out, many Irish Americans can brag as well. The DNA study found that one in fifty carries Niall's DNA. And when this half-Irish reporter tested his own family bloodline – my mother's maiden name was Higgins – I found that I am one more descendent of King Niall. Ah, it's good to be (a distant, distant, distant descendent of) the king.