Irish Claim to Nobility Not Just a Lot of Blarney

NEW YORK -- Listen more kindly to the New York Irishmen who assure you that the blood of early Irish kings flows in their veins. At least 2 percent of the time, they are telling the truth, according to a new genetic survey.

The survey not only bolsters the bragging rights of some Irishmen claiming a proud heritage but also provides evidence of the existence of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish high king of the fifth century regarded by some historians as more legend than real.

The survey shows that 20 percent of men in northwestern Ireland carry a distinctive genetic signature on their Y chromosomes, possibly inherited from Niall, who was said to have had numerous sons, or some other leader in a position to have had many descendants.

About one in 50 New Yorkers of European origin -- including men with names like O'Connor, Flynn, Egan, Hynes, O'Reilly and Quinn -- carry the genetic signature linked with Niall and northwestern Ireland, writes Daniel Bradley, the geneticist who conducted the survey with colleagues at Trinity College in Dublin. He arrived at that estimate after surveying the Y chromosomes in a genetic database that included New Yorkers.

"I hope this means that I inherit a castle in Ireland," the novelist Peter Quinn said by phone from the Peter McManus cafe in New York. Some McManuses also have the genetic signature. ("I hang out with kings," Quinn said.)

He said his father used to tell him that all the Quinn men were bald from wearing a crown. But he added, "We spent 150 years in the Bronx, and I think we wiped out all the royal genes in the process."

The report appears in the January issue of The American Journal of Human Genetics.

Bradley said he was as surprised at finding evidence that Niall existed as he would have been to learn that King Arthur had been real.

He estimated that 2 million to 3 million men worldwide carry the distinctive Y chromosome signature.

If he was indeed the patriarch, Niall of the Nine Hostages would rank among the most prolific males in history, behind Genghis Khan, ancestor of 16 million men in Asia, but ahead of Giocangga, founder of China's Manchu dynasty and forefather of some 1.6 million.

The writer and actor Malachy McCourt said he was not surprised, since every Irish person is related to a king.

"They didn't mind who they slept with, and they had first dibs," he said. "It's so boring. It's not like the house of Windsor; every tribe had its own king."

He said Niall was "a highwayman. He was a slave trader, nothing noble about him. He was a pirate."

Asked if he himself carried the Niall signature, Bradley said he did and was "quite pleased," even though tradition holds that Niall captured and enslaved St. Patrick, who brought Christianity to Ireland.