(Pic above - Barra)
I had a very interesting conversation last weekend with someone I'd only 'met' online - like me, very into Ulster-Scots history - and researching her MacNeill / McNeill roots. We talked for a long time, including about John McNeill the preacher known as 'The Scotch Spurgeon' whose father was from Lisnagunoge near Bushmills in North Antrim. She's now arranging to take her father to Inverkip on the west coast of Scotland to visit McNeill's grave - I located it a few years ago and took plenty of reference photographs to enable it to be found again one day.
The accepted wisdom is that the McNeills / MacNeills were a Gaelic clan who lived in the Western Isles of Scotland - Barra in particular - and migrated back and forth to the north of Ulster, helping to establish a shared culture on both sides of the water. They are said to have descended from Irish hero Niall of the Nine Hostages:
'... Niall of the Nine Hostages, whose dynasty dominated Ireland between the 5th and 10th Centuries, got his name from taking hostages as a strategy against his opponent chieftains. The King, who died in 405AD, was the founder of the longest and most powerful Irish royal dynasty and known by some as the greatest king that Ireland ever knew...'
That's a common story, and easy to accept due to the way history is often told.
Until DNA ancestral research came along that is. A study by Professor Alex Buchanan at the University of Tasmania, of hundreds of people around the world all descended from Barra's McNeills, has found that every one of them is actually of Viking descent.
Here is an article on HeraldScotland, the original source for the Niall of the Nine Hostages excerpt above.
Stephen McNeil, the Premier of Nova Scotia in Canada seems a bit unhappy about the revelation and has insisted upon his Irishness. Other McNeils - in true online outrage fashion - are said to be 'devastated' and have resorted to large quantities of whiskey to drown their sorrows. Here is another Canadian article.
What does this mean?
Well, as I have blogged about before, Viking ancestry seems surprisingly common, my own DNA ancestry has revealed exactly the same, and as DNA studies continue I do think that 19th century ideas of (nationalistic) identity will be rethought and rewritten. Genetics and culture are not the same thing though - genetics are as ancient as humanity, whereas culture changes and shifts over the centuries through human influence. There is no 'pure' anything.
But then there is this. You want social equality? Here it is, one of Scripture's great democratic levellers.
"And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth" - Acts 17 v 26
PS: the Dublin Penny Journal of 28 September 1833 that the Irish O’Neills had come to Ireland from the Orkneys in the 9th Century, descended from Belus, who was King of the Orkneys before the birth of Christ. Originally their name was O’Nial of Hy Nial, meaning ‘chief’ or ‘prince’. Online here - similar to an article which appeared in the Belfast Monthly Magazine of 1812 which is online here and also in PD Hardy's The Northern Tourist of 1830 online here. Maybe more of Ireland is Viking than we are allowed to know.