Regal Blood Flows Through The Veins of Many Irishmen

ByABC News
March 17, 2007, 11:31 AM

DONEGAL, Ireland, Mar. 17, 2007 — -- 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."

Watch Jim Sciutto's report tonight on "World News." Check your local listings for air time.

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.