Irish Roots

August 8th, 2011

John Grenham


I recently watched "The Week in Politics" on RTE and once again found myself frothing at the mouth. This time, though, it wasn't the politicians. As a bit of light relief, RTE had invited a geneticist and a political scientist to discuss the results of their study into the connection between genetic inheritance and political allegiance. Worthy as that sounds, what they were actually looking at was the hoary old chestnut about Fine Gael being Anglo-Norman and Fianna Fáil Gaelic Irish. Unsurprisingly, they found that FG supporters were indeed marginally more likely to have Anglo-Norman roots.

But how did they discover this? They tested politicians' surnames, of course. This is the point where I turned purple. Exactly what scientific test did they perform on the surnames to determine their level of Gaelickery or Anglo-Normanosity? Did they carefully take swabs from the insides of their cheeks? Did they culture the surnames in their lab? The truth is that Irish surnames are utterly unreliable as markers for cultural inheritance. Yes, 'Fitzgerald' sits at the other end of one particular spectrum from 'O'Brien'. But what about surnames like 'McEllistrim', "Son of Alastair [Fitzgerald]"? Before they are anything else, surnames are words, embedded in language and mutating under the pressure of history like all other words. Maybe, once upon a time, they were badges of tribal identity but those badges have long been distorted beyond all reliability by individual family histories and individual choices. Reducing them to a quick political litmus test is just plain dim.

The real joy in the programme was seeing the utter scepticism of the FG politician they asked for a response, none other than Leo Varadkar. His people came over with Strongbow, you know. The real lesson is that scientists are only marginally less likely to peddle bunkum in return for publicity than non-scientists. I read that in a recent survey.


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