Friday, June 19, 2009

Blood, DNA, Race and Culture

A few years ago a woman from San Diego contacted me. Mary Becker is a woman of limitless energy, a descendant of Portavogie emigrants, and is very into DNA-based geneaology. Back in November 2007, and with remarkable generosity, Mary offered to pay the full costs of a DNA test to see if she might be related to me. I agreed, and a few months later was proved to be in the same "haplogroup" as Mary (haplogroup I1), and we have a 25 marker match, which means there's a 99% chance we have a common ancestor. Having discovered some long-lost Ulster relatives, Mary has even offered to host our family in San Diego if we ever want a Californian holiday! So this means that I have a strongly Scandinavian DNA strain - and having struggled with dazzling white eyebrows my whole life, it comes as no surprise!

• You can view the Ards Peninsula Families DNA Project here, which is run by Mary and my former neighbour Lena McVea. Lena also works away at, where she admins the Ards Peninsula Forum.

• Mississippi man Barry McCain also works on similar stuff over at, and he occassionally syndicates articles from Bloggin fae the Burn for his own online Ulster Heritage Magazine. It's fascinating to see how we can, scientifically, find long-lost branches of the family tree through DNA and technology.

• Some years ago, the Ards Peninsula was used as the basis for a high-level, textbook, genetic study by two genetics professors (Professor Alan Bittles and Dr Malcolm T Smith). I've never read it, but a scientist friend of mine told me about it, and he said the upshot was that there are identifiable, slight, genetic differences between the descendants of "native" Irish and "settler" Scots.

But let's move this a stage further - is culture genetic? And is it unhealthy, maybe even dangerous, to connect the two? You'll hear people from time to time say, for example about music, "it's in the blood". But is it? Racial theory and culture was a heady mix in previous centuries:

“… we are surprised to hear ourselves termed Irish people when we so frequently ventured our all for the British crown and liberties. We are people of the Scottish race in Ulster who have given our strength, our substance, and our lives to uphold the British connection there…”
Rev James MacGregor, circa 1718, New Hampshire, USA. He had fought at the Siege of Derry

“…I classify the Irish and the Scotch-Irish as two distinct race stocks and I believe the distinction to be a sound one historically and scientifically. The Scotch-Irish from the north of Ireland - Protestant in religion and chiefly Scotch and English in blood and name - came to this country in large numbers in the eighteenth century, while the people of pure Irish stock came scarcely at all during the colonial period and did not emigrate here largely until the present century was well advanced…”
Henry Cabot Lodge, 1891, quoted in Henry Jones Ford "The Scotch-Irish in America" (Princeton, 1915) p 521.

But not just previous centuries - I heard very recently of a highly educated academic describe herself as being "pure bred Irish". Well what was she, and the two old quotes above, trying to infer - are they just clumsy language which should have been about culture rather than race? Do they suggest genetic differences, or a sinister racial superiority? If the last one, then I know a book about that. And as recent events in Belfast show, these concepts can manifest themselves in a terrifying form.

More to follow...