Thursday, February 9, 2017
Did British colonialism create the Irish Traveler population?
The emergence of Irish Travelers as a distinct group occurred long before the Great Famine, a genetic analysis shows. The DNA study also indicates that while Travelers originally descended from the general Irish population, they are now very distinct from it. The findings provide strong evidence that Travelers should receive some form of ethnic status, said Prof Gianpiero Cavalleri, who conducted the study with colleagues at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the University of Edinburgh. “We think this is a nice piece of evidence for that complex debate,” he said. The research group “would be supportive of some form of ethnic status”. Travelers are now as genetically different from the settled Irish as are the Spanish, he said. And if the small Traveler population is taken into account, they are still as different from the Irish as are the Scots. “Travelers cluster with the Irish but they are very definitely distinct from the Irish. There is a considerable genetic distance between them.” The far-reaching study sought to understand the genetic connections between Travelers, the settled Irish and people further afield. It involved looking at the DNA of more than 11,000 people including Travelers, Roma Gypsies, settled Irish, British, Continental Europeans and individuals from the rest of the world. It also sought to set a time for when the Traveler community began to form as a distinct and separate population. Today there are between 29,000 and 40,000 Travelers in Ireland, representing 0.6% of the total population. The DNA analysis allowed the researchers to track when and how quickly Travelers arose. This occurred between eight and 14 generations ago, with the best fit suggesting 12 generations or 360 years ago, said Prof Gianpiero, professor of genetics in the department of molecular and cellular therapeutics. The 12 generations would push the emergence of Travelers back to 1657. This significantly predates the Great Famine of 1845-52, an event long thought to have caused the formation of a migratory community that became the Travelers. The research suggests that Traveler origins may in fact date as far back as 420 years to 1597. The Plantation of Ulster began around that time, with native Irish displaced from the land, perhaps to form a nomadic population. The researchers did not try to connect the emergence of Travelers with any one historical event. “We tried to avoid speculating. You could point to Cromwellian times but it is speculation,” Prof Gianpiero said. They did not however have to speculate about the genetics including an important analysis of the interrelatedness of Travelers, something the researchers say could have implications for disease mapping within Ireland. It is common practice for Travelers to marry first and second cousins, leading to a situation where they have some of the highest rates of duplicated DNA in the world. “The isolation and consanguinity (marrying cousins) have in turn led to an increased prevalence of recessive diseases,” the author’s said. The DNA analysis also revealed that there are four “genetic clusters” or subdivisions within the Traveler community. These in turn tend to match up with their social grouping and use of language. One cluster is associated with the “Rathkeale group” of Travelers. Two other clusters are linked to whether the Traveler speaks the Cant or Gammon dialects of the Traveler language Shelta. The study clearly showed that there was no significant genetic contribution made by Roma Gypsies to Traveler DNA. This disproves a view held by some that the two groups were genetically related. Traveler origins have long been a “source of considerable debate” the authors write. There is also a lack of documentary evidence that reveals the history of the Irish Traveler population.