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Niall of the Nine Hostages – Genetic genealogy meets a legend

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Niall of the Nine Hostages leapt from the legends of Ireland straight into the modern world when scientists at Trinity College Dublin revealed that as many as three million men living today may carry his y-DNA signature.

Round Tower, Glendalough, Wicklow.

Y-DNA in brief

Y-DNA is passed from father to son.

Occasional mutations (changes) occur infrequently but, when they do, they help to distinguish one line of DNA from another. Over the generations, a genetic signature is created.

More about Y-DNA.

In the absence of a DNA sample direct from the man himself, Trinity's team of geneticists collected a number of samples from men across Ireland. Their findings led them to the notion that Niall of the Nine Hostages may be the Big Daddy of Ireland:

  • A significant proportion of men who can trace their ancestry to Ireland, and especially the north of Ireland, carry a specific Y-DNA pattern called the M222 sub-clade.
  • The signature is especially prevalent in the genes of men with surnames that have long been linked to Niall and his dynasty.
  • Geneticists have dated this M222 signature to the mid-5th century when Niall of the Nine Hostages may have been High King of Ireland.
  • Because the numbers of men with this signature is so high, the patriarch must have been prolific. Such a level of promiscuity and a resulting high number of offspring would have been accepted, even expected, in Celtic circles from an important king.

The historical reality of Niall of the Nine Hostages wasn't proved before the Trinity College study, nor do the researches conclude that he ever existed.

Some of the modern surnames associated with the Ui Neill include (with or without the O prefix):

Neill, Boyle, Bradley, Campbell, Cannon, Coleman, Connor, Devlin, Doherty, Donnell, Donnelly, Egan, Flynn, Gallagher, Gormley, Hynes, Kane, McGovern, McLoughlin, McManus, Molloy, Reilly, Rourke and Quinn.

However, the genetic evidence of the study does seem to show that the strongest associations are with the surnames traditionally linked to the Ui Neill ie Doherty, Gallagher, O'Reilly, Quinn (see box left).

These names continue to be most prevalent in the Northwest of Ireland, the historical stronghold of the Ui Neill, where the study found the genetic fingerprint of Niall of the Nine Hostages in the y-DNA of one in five men (21%). The M222 pattern is a lot rarer in the south of the island.

Across the island as a whole, a different sub-clade – the M269 pattern – is predominant, while the M222 pattern is found in 8.2% or one man in twelve.

The Trinity College study also found that about one in ten men in the west or central areas of Scotland have the so-called Niall of the Nine Hostages gene.

So, too, do about one in fifty New Yorkers of European heritage, reflecting three centuries of Irish emigration to North America.    

The life and myth of Niall of the Nine Hostages

Niall of the Nine Hostages, (in Irish, Niall Naoi Noígiallach) is a quasi historical character in Ireland's story. Myth has it that he was descended by an unknown number of generations from Conn Céadcathlach aka Conn of the Hundred Battles, who may have lived in the middle of the 2nd century and was reputedly the first high king of Ireland.

The O'Neill dynasty (Ui Néill means 'descended from Niall') is an historical certainty, even if its founder is not. According to legend, Niall was a warrior king at a time when Ireland was divided into many kingdoms and a heirarchy of kingship existed.

Slane Abbey, co Meath.

Slane Abbey: built on the hill where St Patrick is said to have
lit the fire that convinced High King Laoghaire, Niall's son
and successor, to agree to the preaching of Christianity.

Just how extensive an area he may have dominated is not recorded but he fought his way to become King of Tara in the late 4th or early 5th century.

In time, the status of King of Tara came to denote High King of Ireland, the latter a misleading term that should not be construed as meaning the bearer had control of all the island.

Ruling from Tara, Niall's modus operandi for gaining dominance was taking hostages from the family of neighbours and under-kings.

He also led successful raids against Roman Britain & Scotland (some stories say that the future St Patrick was among hostages taken from one such expedition) and conquered much of Ulster.

Who were the nine hostages?
There are two stories to identify Niall's nine hostages.

The less well-known story has it that they were taken from the Airgialla, a once powerful people who controlled an area loosely centred on present-day Armagh and Tyrone.

A second, and probably less reliable, story is that Niall took a hostage from each of Ireland's five ancient provinces (Connaught, Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Meath) and also captured a Briton, a Gaul, a Saxon and a Scot.

Niall's legendary military skill was on a par with his sexual prowess. In modern parlance, he put it about.

This was expected of someone of his status in a polygamous society where all children, from wives or concubines, were acknowledged. Legend accords him at least 12 sons.

After the death of Niall of the Nine Hostages, one of his sons, Laedhaire, became High King. He and his descendants continued to dominate much of Ireland for most of the next six centuries. All but two of the High Kings of Tara came from this family.

By the 8th century, the Ui Néills held power in the north west where they were known as the Northern Ui Néill, and also in the Midlands where they are known as the Southern Ui Néill.

Genealogical pedigrees dating back to the 5th century, when Laedhaire's children and grandchildren were around, are considered accurate.

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Randy Niall
The story of Niall's promiscuity (a trait that, according to Celtic thinking, went hand in hand with natural suitability for kinship) dates back to at least the 11th century.

In The Adventure of the sons of Eochaid Mugmedon, a young Niall Noígiallach is out hunting with his four brothers. They stop to cook a meal but need to find water.

One of the brothers, Fergus, goes off to look for water and comes upon an ugly hag. In the way of these old tales, she's not just unattractive, she's positively repulsive, with green teeth and nails, matted unkempt hair, a decidedly crooked nose and a serious case of puss popping zits.

She will provide water, but she wants a kiss in return.

Three of the brothers decide they're not that hungry or thirsty. Another, Fiachra, has the guts to give her a small kiss, for which she grants him sight of Tara and the right to found a royal line elsewhere in Ireland.

Niall, however, steps right up to the mark, agreeing not only to kiss her but also to have sex with her. As he lands a passionate kiss, the ugly hag transforms into an outstanding beauty, dressed in purple (the colour of royalty) and wearing bronze slippers.

She reveals herself as Flaithíus, the sovereignty of Ireland, and grants Niall not only water for refreshment but also kingship and a great dynasty.

Such tales as these – old hag transformed by physical intimacy of a young man – are widespread in literature around the world.

Niall was fabulously fecund.

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By Claire Santry, Copyright© 2008-2016 Dedicated to helping YOU discover your Irish Heritage.
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