The Irish – more Spanish than Celtic?

December 29, 2006 · 75 comments

Scientists have concluded that the Celts did not invade Ireland en masse, nor did they replace an earlier group.

Despite the widely held belief that the Irish are descended from Celts who invaded Ireland about 2,500 years ago, a 2004 genetic research study at Trinity College, Dublin (TCD) appears to argue against it.

The Celtic cultural heritage in Ireland is prolific and informs the common perceptions and beliefs about the national identity and its origins. From traditional cultural sources in language, legend and literature the Celtic influence is strong and can also be found in contemporary culture such as Enya and the Afro Celt Sound System. The research however suggests that our blood if not also some (at least) of our culture can or should be attributed to wider origins: Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia and North Africa.

The study, conducted by Dr. Dan Bradley and Brian McEvoy, a Ph.D student conducted this genetic study with the support of the Irish government to determine “whether there was a large incursion by Celtic people 2,500 years ago” as is widely believed.

The scientists compared the DNA samples of 200 volunteers from around Ireland with a genetic database of 8,500 individuals from around Europe. (The Celts came from Central Europe stretching as far as Hungary).

They found that the Irish samples matched those around Britain and the Pyrenees in Spain. There were some matches in Scandinavia and parts of North Africa.

The scientists concluded that ‘the Irish’ genetic makeup stems from the onset of an ice-age around 15,000 years ago that forced prehistoric man back into Spain, Italy and Greece, which were still fairly temperate. When the ice started melting again around 12,000 years ago, people followed the retreating ice northwards as areas became hospitable again.

The TCD study produced a map of Europe with contours linking places that are genetically similar. One contour goes around the edge of the Atlantic touching Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and includes Galicia in Spain as well as the Basque region.

Some archaeologists also doubt that there was a Celtic invasion because few of their artifacts have been found in Ireland.

“The primary genetic legacy of Ireland seems to have come from people from Spain and Portugal after the last ice age.” said McEvoy. “They seem to have come up along the coast through Western Europe and arrived in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It’s not due to something that happened 2,500 years ago with Celts.” We have a much older genetic legacy.

The findings are published in The American Journal of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago.

Does this finally help explain the ‘dark Irish’ phenomenon?

{ 70 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous August 3, 2011 at 4:25 pm

There`s one thing that should be taken in consideration, the fact that in Minho (north Portugal) there are many persons with blue eyes and with blond hair. My mother came from a small village in the interior of Minho where they had great earth and water to cultivate and they kept isolated from the main roads and there everybody is blond and everybody has blue eyes. This only could exist by a very long time origin.

Quahog King August 19, 2011 at 11:42 pm

Proto-Celts became, or were Basques. Basques were all over the place, a pan-European substrate. Various minority aristocracies came, much later, to dominate the substrate. This differentiation created the different Indo-European races, which, because of their identical substrate, weren’t much different at all, but THOUGHT they were, because their aristocratic families brought about individualized languages and cultures. The Basque/Celtic substrate, commoners, were consumed with the doings of the rich and powerful of their tribe, and time passed, making even commoners forget their commonality. Onto the proto-Celtic/Basque substrate comes some surviving aristocratic families that meld very ancient ‘Celtic’ culture with modern, Iron Age culture. What have you got? Galls, Goidels, Gaels, Galicians. Celts. The problem with religious competition is failing to acknowledge the Universality of the creative deity. The problem with recognizing the Celtic blood in nominally Celtic lands is in failing to see the ubiquitous nature of the Celtic race. They were the seed stock of all Europe, and perhaps India too. Call them Basques, if you want to. A rose by any other name, is still a Celt. Ireland isn’t marginally Celtic. It is exhaustively Celtic.

Luis Bustillo September 1, 2011 at 8:39 am

Dear Quahog King, Basques have nothing in common with Celtics. Thay came in historic and docummented times to occupy the land once poblated by the Celtics. That’s the reason you’ll find some Celtic rests in Basque Country.
If you like to find Celtic heritage and remains you should look more to the west: Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia in Spain and Minho in Portugal. Those were and, in some extent, are Celtics.

Lucy September 21, 2011 at 5:33 pm

The Celts were Indo-Europeans. There was a prehistoric population in place before the Celts got there. The British Isles aren’t Celtic, except by culture. That culture used to be all over before it was replaced by Romans, another Indo European culture, except on the fringes, where the culture remained Celtic.

ALBERTO CASTELLANOS September 25, 2011 at 11:14 pm

remember: Race is different from culture; modern europe is the result of a mix of peoples and Ireland and the British Islands are no exception; the population of the green Ireland might be celtic by culture by in reality is the amalgam of several layers of ADN.

Wegnos September 30, 2011 at 9:22 am

The problem Quahog King, I feel, lies in the over-use of the term Celtic and modern peoples’ perception of the term since schools totally ignore anything before the Romans in Britain. I believe the answer lies in the mistaken belief of Celtic origins. By Celtic I mean the actual Celtae of Caesar. Celts did not originate in central Europe – I think that horse has been ridden out of town now, it is looking very likely as you say, that they and all the other various groups called Celtic today, originated in or near the Basque region and later spread from there to dominate the Atlantic and western Europe, finally spreading into central Europe where the historically attested Celtae developed a rather more distinctive cultural signature derived from the trade routes which they dominated. (Hence why no substantial archeaological trace of them in the UK or Ireland can be found). Whne you look at all the disciplines – linguistics, archeaology, topography, religion and any other relevant studies, it becomes overwhelmingly apparent and obvious that the Celts and the Irish and British populations share a common origin. It just isnt in Central Europe!!!!!

Wegnos September 30, 2011 at 9:28 am

In terms of the difference of Basque and Celtic languages my theory is aligned to the idea that Basque women married Celtic speaking men, had children to them and then left that region with them after the thaw. Some of these perhaps stayed behind and were absorbed into the Basque culture but others joined the migration into further parts of Europe and the west. The migrants maintained their Celtic language and those left behind maintained their Basque language. This could explain the strong similarity between what are seen as “Celtic” dna groups and Basque ones depsite the massive differences linguistically

Sean Mannion October 19, 2011 at 2:35 am

Isn’t it extraordinary that so many people (including journalists), when discussing events believed to have taken place just after the last ice age, seem naively to imagine that countries like Spain, Portugal, the Basque Country and so on existed in those days, and that there was, for example, a “Spanish” identity? These various countries of Europe, with their identities, were thousands of years in the future!

Tim January 23, 2012 at 10:21 am

I’d say that the Irish are Celtic in light of practicing a Celtic culture. The indigenous Irish may have stronger genetic ties to the Basques and other peoples of the Iberian peninsula than to the Indo-European from the Caucasus mountains, but these days there are plenty of Irish citizens with roots from elsewhere – Poland, Nigeria, China, etc. – who share in the Celtic culture of their country as well.

Also, one element that were are forgetting is the extent to which the culture and traditions of pre-Celtic Ireland blended with the ways of the incoming Celts. The Celtic identity adopted by the Irish probably absorbed a good amount of the autochthonous culture, which would explain in part the nuances that differentiate the “Gaelic” or “Goidelic” Celtic culture and language of Ireland from the separate Celtic cultures and languages of ancient Britain and mainland Europe. Sure, some of the difference can be explained by drift and isolation over time, but there are probably many subtle elements, undecipherable to us today, that remain in Irish culture from the pre-Celtic customs, whatever they looked like.

Similarly, we should remember that the “Celtic” peoples of continental Europe, too, at some point adopted Celtic languages in place of older tongues. Ethnic Celts didn’t replace the previous inhabitants of Gaul anymore than ethnic Romans and Franks replaced the Gauls themselves… Just as the Gauls started calling themselves French and speaking the Vulgar Latin dialects that evolved in Romance languages, their ancestors probably picked up Gaulish from their neighbors at some point.

Kathleen Moohan January 26, 2012 at 6:51 pm

yes definatley makes sense to me & helps explain for me to understand my ancestry roots helps clear confusion& open other option leading to a clearer understanding & or lessons the confusion due to further confirming this theory Thankyou! interesting

Gabi March 4, 2012 at 6:58 am

@ Steve Nowe- everybody knows that saint Brendan “discovered” the Americas long before that.
Most every culture around the world will have a hodge-podge of DNA from all over. The reason for this- a lot of people are attracted to someone who is foreign, exotic and different from themselves.
the old beast with two backs is truly a universal animal
(nudge, wink)

Robonidas May 5, 2012 at 1:27 pm

From what I understand, the people of neolithic atlantic europe all derive from a common ancestry – the first humans who moved north and settled there after the retreat of the glaciers. The basques may be the only surviving remnant of this pre-indo-european substratum, though it used to be much wider. I’ve read that the Ligurians and Etruscans may have been a part of this pre-indo-european ethnic family. Also, from what I understand, this ethnic family was relatively peaceful and matriarchal/matrilineal; there is evidence for this in the Picts of scotland, who were probably one of the last indigenous european groups to adopt indo-european language and culture.

What probably happened was this: for some unknown reason, the proto indo-europeans in russia (or turkey, depending on which origin theory you like better) made the switch from a matriarchal to patriarchal society and gradually became more aggressive and warlike. over thousands of years, small groups of indo-european warriors (as in dozens or hundreds) left their tribes to conquer their peaceful neighbors, and set themselves up as a warrior aristocracy. Because of their superior technology (horses and chariots) and the indigenous europeans’ peaceful cultures, they were probably able to do this relatively easily (not unlike the Conquistadors in early modern times) They didn’t leave much trace in terms of DNA because there were so few of them.

Once they had subjugated an indigenous tribe, they intermarried with them and over time, the whole tribe adopted their masters’ language and customs. Over thousands of years, this phenomenon snowballed, though it probably wasn’t the main vehicle for indo-european expansion. The indo-europeans likely had a higher material standard of life than the natives, thanks to their propensity for raiding and for enslaving or patronizing skilled artisans. after centuries of skirmishing and trade, some of the leaders of the indigenous tribes probably thought the indo-europeans had the right idea, and began adopting their language and culture voluntarily – eventually, this trickled down to the commoners as well. this process kept spreading westwards until nearly all of europe considered itself indo-european; of course over time, these assimilated tribes gradually formed subgroups that took on their own identities (Celtic, Italic, Germanic, Slavic, etc…)

The irish seem to be one of these indigenous groups that at some point adopted Celtic culture, and may very well have originated in Spain. There is an Irish legend concerning Míl Espáine (king Milesius), who spied the coast of ireland from his watchtower in Galicia and led the first Gaels to settle there. This legend may be a Celticized version of an earlier indigenous one describing how the aboriginal irish settled the island – if that’s the case, it might explain the genetic similarities between the irish and atlantic iberians.

One more interesting note – celtic languages are divided into two types: p-celtic and q-celtic. P-celtic languages include Gaulish and the Britonnic dialects, while q-celtic languages include Goidelic (Gaelic) and Celtiberian – the language of the spanish celts. Again, more evidence for a common ancestry.

Nelson May 14, 2012 at 7:29 am

“Dark” Irish? What a crock poop!
Last year I spent 3 weeks in Ireland (from Dublin to Galway). They have never heard of “Dark Irish or Black Irish. Two people asked me, where do you Americans get that from, the English? The Irish hate the English.

PATRICK O'NEILL May 30, 2012 at 10:26 am

Genetic evaluation provides additional information regarding our origins. Since childhood have been told my surname originated in Spain. However, was told by an Egyptian, the Nile River is pronounced the same way as my name in Egypt. Could there be Celts who had some connection with ancient Egypt many centuries in the past?

Tuatha de danann June 17, 2012 at 6:01 am

A british genetist from Oxford University, Bryan Sakes had discobered. By exhaustive mithocondrial DNA analisys of thousans of people, from de british isles and north of Spain and other countrys, That 70% of blood in the isles descent directly from the same Celtiberian (spanish celts) mother as well similar percentage has been found in modern population of north Spain. That means Myth of Saxon descents has been broken, but… still could take a long time for assimilate it, as the sferic form of the earth. The most surprising is that the race wich comes from Iberia, is not dark haired. otherwise Nordic White race (red haired [R1b]).

I highly recommend the read of an article published in “The independent” in 2006. You can search by “independent + Bryan Sykes” Regards from the mother land.

Luis July 22, 2012 at 5:41 pm

Lets forget for a moment about the words “celtic”, “nordic”, “spaniards” and so on… Lets forget about history and miths and concentrate on scientific facts and research.
If we go back to the last glacial age, where humans almost got extinct, we will see that small groups of modern humans sheltered in a few parts of southern europe, where the climate was a little bit more benign.

One of these parts was the Pirinees (southern france, northern spain). It was probably a very small group of humans who cohabitated in this shelter for many centuries without any external genetic addition, achieving thus genetic homogeneity.
By this time, the british isles were not separated from the continent, so when the ice sheets began to retreat, those humans spread throughout all western Europe, from Iberia to Scandinavia.

This is why today, more than 80% of males in Spain, France, Portugal, Ireland, Brittany, Wales, Scotland and a big part of England belong to the R1B haplogroup (a genetic marker that indicates a common ancestor).

Are they celts?
“Celts” is simply a name. Names have little to do with genetics.
The basques are not celts, but they are also R1B and have the same origins.

There isn’t any single record in ancient history that describes the inhabitants of the british isles as “celts”. Not even one.
On the other hand, there are many classical sources referring to northern spaniards as “celts” and “celtiberians”, as well as the celts of nowadays’ France.

This challenges the traditional view of the celts being originated in central Europe.
Anyway, this is not important.
Celts may have been originated in southern Europe or central Europe, they could have been the original inhabitants or just immigrants, but we now know that all western europeans shre the same origin, regardless of names and tags.

So yes, Galicians (and portuguese and basques and spaniards in general) are brothers of the irish. And the same goes for the welsh, the brettons, the scots and many other people from france and as far east as southern germany.

Jill Boyland Paulus September 13, 2012 at 2:30 am

This clears up some confusion for me. I have the “black” Irish appearance because of my father’s ancestral roots. I knew about the Spanish influence in part, therefore leaving behind what we now call the black Irish. I also knew that most of the British Isles were Celtic in culture. Before Roman invasion it was basically all the same. After doing a lot of my Irish family tree, I find that it lies mainly in Wales, so as it is said, the whole region was Celtic. All rather interesting.

Alan ó September 13, 2012 at 2:19 pm

The term Celt is a very modern term, whose use had much to do with 19th century nationalistic revival. It helped create an identity that already existed in a pan-European sense, but helped differentiate the Irish from the British. Just a note: including Ireland in the term British Isles is highly offensive when talking to an Irish person..;-) It is seen as an overhang to a colonial past, as Irish people never have (save some of our Northern brethern) considered themselves British.

The term Black Irish is used in Ireland, but not as widespread as one might think. It relates to the phenomenon of brown-eyed people usually along the western and southern seaboards. Much of this is attributed to the visiting Spanish fishermen over the years. Any trip to the West and South coasts of Ireland will reveal placenames than indicate a Spanish presence.

I always thought the use of the term Irish in relation to a single-race species as highly inaccurate. Earliest records of settlements do not preceed the Ice Age, as such all Irish people descend from quite young stock. We have had influxes of peoples from central Europe, northern Iberia, Scandinavia, Britain and Normandy that are well documented- and all within a relatively small space of time.

As such you will see young kids in a typical Irish class room with brown hair, black hair, red hair and blonde hair, which indicates to me that we are descended from various European tribes. That said the clouded skies of Ireland have ensured that our skin tone has receded to the fairer end of the scale!

Blondie September 19, 2012 at 5:48 am

Interesting study with some really good comments, but Nelson’s comment annoyed me a little so I feel I must reply to it. Spending 3 weeks in Ireland doesn’t mean you know all the Irish. To say they hate the English is ridiculous and just breeds anger! My Grandfather was Irish yet the woman he adored over all others was English. His family mostly accepted her and the only ones who had an initial slight problem were not concerned with her country of birth at all but her religion, they were all Catholic and she was a Protestant. I’ve never encountered any hate or negativity from my Irish friends and relations, no matter how much drink has been flowing among us all. In fact they are always taking their English friends over to Ireland and showing off their beautiful country and culture.

Frank LdR September 22, 2012 at 10:14 am

I would direct anyone questioning the DNA realtionship i.e. similarities between Spain and Ireland to consult the Eramus genetic map of Europe.The scientific studies concluded that the Spanish and Irish(along w/French,Scottish,Welsh) share the highest
percentage of the uber European R1b halagroup.In fact,the percentages found in Spain and Ireland, are especially high.

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