Famous DNA Review, Part III – Niall of the Nine Hostages

ireland2.jpgAs many as 3 million men worldwide might be directly descended from a single Irish warlord named Niall of the Nine Hostages who was the High King at Tara from 379 to 405.

In February 2006, researchers at Trinity College in Dublin released a paper that studied that Y chromosome signature of men throughout Ireland. They found that 8% of men sampled had the same Y chromosome, with a cluster in the northwest where fully 21% of men carried the signature chromosome (which fell into Haplogroup R1b1c7). The article appeared in The American Journal of Human Genetics and was titled “A Y-Chromosome Signature of Hegemony in Gaelic Ireland.”

The researchers looked at 17 STR markers on Irish Y chromosomes to determine the relatedness of samples they had obtained. They found that there was a strong association between the most common signature and surnames that were related to the most significant dynasty of early medieval Ireland – the Uí Néill. Some of the surnames included (O’)Gallacher, Boyle, O Doherty, O’Connor, Cannon, Bradley, O’Reilly, Flynn, (Mc)Kee, Devlin, Donnelly, Egan, Gormley, Hynes, McCaul, McGovern, McLoughlin, McManus, McMenamin, Molloy, O’Kane, O’Rourke and Quinn (list from Oxford Ancestors). Of course there were no surnames at the time of the earliest Uí Néill dynasty, but when the Irish took surnames around 1,000 A.D., many chose names that were associated with Uí Néill dynasties.

This association suggests that men with the signature Y chromosome are descended from the founder of the dynasty Uí Néill, Niall of the Nine Hostages. Niall of the Nine Hostages, who was the High King at Tara from 379 to 405, founded the dynasty Uí Néill, which ruled until the 11th century. According to the legend, Niall had 12 sons, many of which were rulers after Niall’s death.

The biggest caveat of this research is that without testing DNA from Niall’s remains, it is impossible to say with 100% certainty that Niall is the ancestor (and some argue that there never was a real Niall). For instance, Mrs. Niall could have only reproduced with the friendly neighbor, or a large fraction of the men with the signature Y chromosome could be descended from Niall’s promiscuous uncle George (I don’t know if there was an uncle, or if his name was George – it’s just an example).

As the authors of the study pointed out:

“The fact that about one in five males sampled in northwestern Ireland is likely a patrilineal descendent of a single early medieval ancestor is a powerful illustration of the potential link between prolificacy and power and of how Y-chromosome phylogeography can be influenced by social selection.”

Not surprisingly, the signature Y chromosome has also spread around the world, suggesting that there may be as many as 3 million people who carry it. Using international DNA databases, the chromosome was found in roughly 1 in 10 men in Scotland, and in about 2% of European-American New Yorkers.

For more information, see Times Online, NY Times, Family Tree DNA, Oxford Ancestors, and Wikipedia (for info about the life of Niall of the Nine Hostages, including the source of the name).

Other Posts in the Famous DNA Series:

34 Responses

  1. Pingback: Vanishing American
  2. Marie Stephenson 19 February 2008 / 11:24 pm

    please tell me it aint true. 3 million? i dont think i even want to be one of them. my dna shows i may be.


  3. Blaine Bettinger 20 February 2008 / 12:35 pm

    Don’t worry Marie, there’s still plenty that makes your DNA unique!

  4. Marie Stephenson 22 February 2008 / 11:10 pm

    yes Blain i’m sure, the other side comes from Kings of Norway that conquored England in 1066 and ended up staying there in Kent.
    How do i get there from here? i cant even find the parents of my gggrandfather that started all of this.

  5. Blaine Bettinger 22 February 2008 / 11:20 pm

    Marie – that is a pain! Elusive ancestors are the bane (and the thrill) of my existence!

  6. Marie Stephenson 23 February 2008 / 10:21 am

    got any hints as to what i can do?

  7. Blaine Bettinger 26 February 2008 / 10:13 am

    Was your ancestor born in the U.S.? Have you exhausted the census records? Maybe if you post some info here, a reader will be able to help you out.

  8. Marie Stephenson 14 May 2008 / 8:28 pm

    even with the kinship with good ole Niall i still cant find my ggggrandparents, parents of Joseph Renshaw. that was the main purpose of the dna.


  9. Marie Stephenson 7 June 2008 / 11:31 am

    I still can find my gggranddaddys parents. some help dna was. its not even an Irish name.

  10. cyn allee 24 July 2008 / 1:43 am

    I know I am a direct dece of Niall I know it is in my heart and research. A direct decendent I know for a fact. Do not know what this proves, but I will participate in any dna testing needed to prove to historians I am the relation to this man. Let me know.

  11. Marie 24 July 2008 / 7:43 pm

    cyn allee, you have to have a male relative do the dna. it goes from father to son.

  12. Irish Man in the UK 27 October 2008 / 12:06 pm

    It’s important to note that although someone may have a similar y chromosome to Niall that by this stage and this far removed you’re probably just as related to about another 1m people at least

  13. Marie Stephenson 12 May 2009 / 10:14 pm

    Blaine, are there any NEW stories about Niall? or even the DNA? i really was in hopes there would be something new in this one.


  14. Prince Todd Charles 8 July 2009 / 7:49 am

    Is the surname DOWDS related to King Heremon.

  15. John Douglas Plemons 20 January 2010 / 9:59 am

    There is one way to prove if these people carry the DNA of Niall. I am a documented descendant of Niall of The Nine Hostages. He is one of many Kings in my family tree. Sample my DNA to those 8 percent who are believed to be descended from Niall Mor. I am not a scientist but my pedigree can be found on smokey mountain ancestral quest through Oliver Plemons, my paternal Grandfather. We are descended through the Ogle family who are descended from King Edward 1 and Philipe of France. Through them, every Royal bloodline in Europe, including all the Scottish Kings and Pictish Kings. John Douglas Plemons

  16. Tom Broderick 8 February 2011 / 3:06 am

    In the 1600s many of the first white women in America were Irish catholics sold as slaves to English men in America who would pay any money for a white woman “not past breeding” As many as 100,000 Irish children and young women were transported in slave ships by Oliver Cromwell they had their Irish names changed and they are the forgotten ancestors of many if not most Americans.

  17. Tom Broderick 8 February 2011 / 3:38 am

    Niall was a descendent of the legendary Queen Tephi of Tara who was daughter of Zedekiah King of Israel. In 600BC she escaped the Babylonian captivity and came to Ireland where she married the High King. We may well be descended from her. President Obama is as is John McCain his presidential opponent. Her words are recorded in the Book of Tephi translated from the original Gaelic:
    “Hear ye my words, oh my sons, for the Isles shall
    Await the day.
    Tephi, I was but weak, a little thing in men’s eyes,
    A tender twig of the cedar, yet sheltered of
    The Prophet of God revealed this. Is not his
    speech made plain?
    He came to root and destroy. He went forth to
    plant again. (Jeremiah 1:10)…..

    Upon me was that promise fallen. For me was the prophet’s toil.
    He hadf signed me with David’s signet, anointed mine head with oil.
    He had set mine hands to the harp; he had bidden me hold the spear;
    The buckler was girt to my bosom, and Baruch and he drew near
    To set my feet upon Bethel, the Stone that is seen this day
    That my seed may rest upon it where’re it is borne away,
    And its promise be sure beneath them, strong to uphold their throne,
    Though the builders cast it aside, it shall never be left alone.
    These things we did in Taphanes ere we fled to the haven of ships,
    And the spirit of God came on me; His promise rose to my lips.”

    Tephi has been idealised as Britannia on British coinage.
    Queen Elizabeth II was crowned Queen on Tephi’s Stone of Bethel also known as the Stone of Scone.

  18. Kevin Roache 28 March 2011 / 3:37 pm

    The jury is still out wit me regarding DNA testing. I’m sure I will be tested eventually but I want to trace my heritage back as far as I can first using the paper trail. This method has served me well so far.

  19. Carmen Ortiz 26 November 2011 / 9:42 pm

    I know I’m a decendant of his son Fiachu. Tom Broderick, thanks for that information about Queen Tephi. I certainly hope that I’m not really related to Obama and McCain, especially the first, who is supposed to be related to half the politicians in the USA including Cheney. How did I get to be that “lucky”. Hey, maybe they will let me run for president.

  20. Shane Clark 6 March 2012 / 4:26 am

    3 Million is very big number and if it’s true then I have to think twice over this High King.

  21. Evelyn Kelley 8 March 2012 / 4:39 am

    Damn, I descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages!!!!! How unlucky can one be. I have researched for 45 years, off and on, and no breakthrough on the “Kelleys”. I thought DNA would be the answer, but no, I’m more confused than ever. I QUIT!!

  22. Margaret Niles 12 May 2012 / 9:54 am

    Wow! I really am heading down the rabbit hole here. I am tracing my family and we are from Maine. I have made it Nova Scotia so far tracking my Grandfathers. We were always told we were English but that depends on the time and place in history. Sometimes, they were American and then Canadian and then English. I am sure when I hit the big island there will be more rabbit holes to explore. My Grandfathers had big families and there are repeats of first names and juniors and seniors so it gets confusing. I would love to have my Dad and Brothers do some DNA testing. I am learning so much from the comments. If anyone has any suggestions please let me know.

Comments are closed.