The tracing of the shrew: why Celtic DNA leads back to Africa

ANOTHER LIFE: THERE COMES A DAY in May – not, surely, always the same one – when a calm blue sea beneath a sunny sky conjures…

ANOTHER LIFE:THERE COMES A DAY in May – not, surely, always the same one – when a calm blue sea beneath a sunny sky conjures a lone white triangle of sail, slowly tracking north. This year it coincided with a chorusing cuckoo, for extra promise that summer was at least beginning to inch in.

Familiar thoughts about the usual, aching vacancy of our stretch of inshore sea, compared with ancient times, happened to bounce against the news in this paper’s science page of a company called Ireland’s DNA. This offers to assess people’s genetic ancestry, now that such curiosity can be met at a nearly affordable cost. And a similar exercise in Scotland has already produced “a surprise” – that about 1 per cent of all Scotsmen are direct descendants of the Berber and Tuareg tribesmen of north Africa, a lineage 5,600 years old.

It should not be at all surprising if the comparable figure for Ireland, especially in the west, is many times higher. Geneticists at Trinity have already shown that the Irish hold one of the purest remnants of the pre-Neolithic hunters and gatherers of southern Europe. Men with Gaelic surnames, and almost all the men of Connacht, carry the oldest genes of all.

And in the adaptive radiation of human cultures (a term more usually reserved for the rest of nature’s species) the flow of life to Ireland was undoubtedly enriched originally by the tribes from the mountains and sands of Africa’s northern littoral.


Barry Cunliffe, professor of European archaeology at Oxford, has been one of the scientists leading “a novel hypothesis”: that the long-accepted migration of “Celts”, sweeping westwards from central Europe to the Atlantic during the Iron Age, has got the map of history the wrong way around. Rather than this crucible for the Breton, Irish, Scots Gaelic and Welsh languages, says Cunliffe, “Celtic probably evolved in the Atlantic Zone during the Bronze Age” – indeed, as the lingua franca of the maritime community.

Early voyagers from the Mediterranean have left some intriguing traces – the bones of a pet Barbary ape, for example, excavated from the prehistoric Eamhain Macha, or Navan Fort, near Armagh, or the middens of crushed dog whelks on our western shores (two at the mouth of Killary Harbour) that speak of the trade in purple dye to the eastern Mediterranean.

But voyagers from Iberia and beyond have also left living contributions to our wildlife.

In Celtic from the West, a recent book that Cunliffe edited, the Trinity geneticists Brian McEvoy and Daniel Bradley bring an extra angle to evidence for the origins of Ireland’s early genes: the passage of animals in the skin boats from the south.

DNA, appropriately, has been helping to unravel the biogeographic history of many Irish mammals. Our cold-adapted stoats and hares, for example, probably migrated from Europe during the Ice Age, and our house mice came in baggage with the Vikings. But our pine martens, like our pygmy shrews, show closest affinity with Iberian samples (the shrews were Basque), and badgers were valued for food as well as for fur. “It is tempting to speculate,” write the Trinity duo cautiously, “that at least some of these western Atlantic arks came from south-western Europe, providing proxy evidence for early human connections.”

If all this has a slightly familiar ring, it is because a gifted and persistent Irish amateur teased out the possibilities (even, I would say, the clear certainties) of north African connections with Connemara in four brilliantly stimulating films shown on RTÉ in the 1980s and his subsequent book, The Atlantean Irish (Lilliput, 2005).

Bob Quinn’s Atlantean project was sparked by the unmissably Arab dynamic in the cadences of Connemara’s sean-nós singing. The peninsula’s intimate connection with the sea and the odd identity of the púcán’s lateen sail with that of the Arab dhow launched him on a four-year exploration, reading, researching and filming as he went.

The Berber and Tuareg heritage now showing up in Scottish genes is just another support for the abundant “Celtic” associations he found and filmed in north Africa, in song and singers, archaeological monuments, manuscript decoration and jewellery design. Such treasures as the Ardagh Chalice and Book of Durrow show intricate affinity with Islamic decorative motifs and crafts, and Coptic Christianity from Egypt left material traces well ahead of St Patrick.

Bob Quinn’s splendid quest echoes those of many Anglo-Irish antiquarians in 19th-century Ireland. They were no less intrigued by the mysterious origins of Gaelic, the voyaging from Carthage and Phoenicia, and the parallels of tombs and stone circles on the Berber hills. But Britain’s academia took little interest. Even George Bernard Shaw disdained “the commercially imported North Spanish strain which passes for aboriginal Irish”.

The Atlantean quartet of films, their fine quality undiminished, should be shown to a new generation of viewers. As Barry Cunliffe says in his foreword to The Atlantean Irish: “Bob Quinn, intuitively, has grasped the excitement of it all.”

Eye on nature

On May 1st there were large black flies in the avenue and on the beech hedge. They had round heads, long wings and long legs hanging down. John Colleran, Pollardstown, Co Kildare

They were St Mark’s flies (Bibio marci), which appear around St Mark’s Day.

Every year around this time we find many dead bumblebees in our garden, almost all headless. Doutsje Nauta, Achill, Co Mayo

Most likely a wasp attack on the bees. They bite the head off.

I regularly check the natterjacks in the ponds near my house. Recently I found six dead adults with their intestines protruding. Sonny Jackson, Derrynane Beg, Co Kerry

The coat of the natterjack is poisonous, but seagulls and crows have learned that and eat only the entrails.

After Tully Cross mussel fest we came back to find two choughs cleaning their bills on the deck overlooking Ballinakill Bay. We saw dolphins earlier and met a seal while kayaking in the bay. Life is good. Shane McGlynn, Dublin

At the Luas stop in Rialto, I saw a blackbird leaping a foot off the ground to catch overhanging ivy berries in its beak. Mary Pierce, Kilmainham, Dublin

Ivy berries ripen during the winter.

* Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or email Please include a postal address

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author