Cross-disciplinary Studies of Migration of Irish, Hiberno-Norse and other Gaelic-speaking populations in the Viking Age
Viking Age Migration

Genes of Gallgoídil

Cross-disciplinary Studies of Migration of Irish, Hiberno-Norse and other Gaelic-speaking populations in the Viking Age

This project established an international network of academics from Ireland and Britain from a variety of disciplines, both in humanities and in the sciences. Our remit was to examine the different perspectives on Viking ethnicity and migration that exist in modern academia and to attempt to forge interpretative models which we could all share and which might lead to collaborative and inter-disciplinary research proposals in the future. In the Irish context, we began by looking at a seminal article on the evidence for a Viking/Scandinavian contribution to the Irish population in terms of genetics: “The scale and nature of Viking settlement in Ireland from Y-chromosome admixture analysis” by Brian McEvoy, Claire Brady, Laoise T Moore and Daniel Bradley, published in the European Journal of Human Genetics (2006) 14, 1288–1294 and available online.

The conclusions of this article were that only a relatively small percentage of Scandinavians settled in Ireland and that much of the population of the great urban enclaves of Dublin, Limerick and Waterford as well as most of the rural population which settled outside of these was probably of native insular origin. It was decided to hold a Network meeting in Limerick in November 2009 to examine this conclusion from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds.

Network meeting in Limerick, November 2009

Papers were presented by the following:

Anne Connon Independent researcher :
“The  nature of Irish genealogies”
Dr Judith Jesch Professor of Viking Studies, University of Nottingham:
“The nature of Scandinavian Ostmen”
Emer Purcell Lecturer in History, University College Cork: “The nature of Irish Ostmen”
Dr Turi King Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, University of Leicester :
“Geneticists and the study of historical population movements”
Lenore Fischer independent researcher currently attached to UCLA, California:
“Nature of evidence for Vikings in Limerick”
Brian Hodkinson Director, Limerick City Museum:
“Nature of evidence for medieval surnames in Limerick”
Dr Dan Bradley Professor & Head of Molecular Population Genetics Lab, TCD:
“The future in genetics research”
Professor Michael Breen Dean of Arts, Mary Immaculate College:
“Media strategies and research agendas”

At this November meeting, the network also considered Scandinavian ancestors in Irish genealogies; the Cloghermore Cave excavations outside Tralee and their implications for Scandinavian settlement and the project being undertaken by Sligo Institute of Technology to investigate the ancient DNA of skeletons found at Ballyshannon in Co. Donegal.


With regard to one of the central research questions with which the Network is concerned (Namely: do the small sample sizes used in some of the earlier genetic studies limit their usefulness as valid indicators of historically attested migrations?), we have learnt that the small sample in our case study (e.g. McEvoy et al. 2006) is merely considered to provide a test case for conclusions based on testing on a much wider scale. The network is divided as to the usefulness of doing more samples in terms of the hypothesis of McEvoy et al., but we have provisionally decided to accept the proposition that there was very limited Scandinavian settlement in Ireland as the premise on which our work is currently based. Rapid developments in genetics means that DNA testing is already taking into account a much greater variety of markers than simply the Y-chromosomes which formed the basis for the McEvoy et al. study of 2006 but this greater detail means that the cost of testing samples is not decreasing as rapidly as it might.

As a result of the Irish Network Meeting, greater knowledge and appreciation of the different data in our respective disciplines and their varying methodologies was created. The term ‘Ostman’ has been investigated and the possibility mooted that its 13th C usage in Ireland reflects not direct Scandinavian migration but rather secondary migration from England, fuelled by commercial considerations. A list of Irish dynasties bearing surnames with Old Norse roots was examined and it has been suggested that the Norse genetic contribution to such dynasties was probably quite small. The early (9th/10th C) genetic and archaeological Viking material from Cloghermore Cave, Co. Kerry with its clear implication of incomers who had a distinctly Scandinavian culture and genetic background was compared with the more diffuse evidence for Scandinavian settlement in the Limerick region from throughout the Viking Age. Questions concerning the mechanisms behind the diffusion of Scandinavian-style artefacts to rural hinterlands were raised – do they represent ethnic colonisation or simply trade with native inhabitants? Of relevance here is that the pattern appears to represent Scandinavian contact with rural élites and that we have no evidence as yet, for major influxes of new groups.

With regard to further investigations, the group found it impossible to come to a unanimous conclusion as to the best approach to identifying “pure” Irish samples which could provide the genetic basis for distinguishing between characteristically “Irish” and “Scandinavian” haplotypes. To date, many genetic investigations of historic population groups have relied mainly on geographical location to determine the identifiable characteristics of a particular sample. In so far as historic considerations come into play, they have tended to limit their sampling to people resident in a particular area for more than two generations. Work done in the Lancashire and the Wirral, however, which focused on examination of people whose surnames are attested locally in the fifteenth century, has produced interesting results in that the percentage of the sample showing Scandinavian ancestry becomes much greater when using this methodology. This implies that historical events subsequent to the Viking era have diluted the genetic impact on the modern regional population as a whole.

One possible avenue for further investigation in Ireland is to use material already collated by the Limerick City Museum to investigate the medieval surnames of Limerick with the aim of identifying modern descendants and to replicate the Wirral study in an Irish context. Similarly, it has been suggested that an experiment on those whose modern surnames suggest origins amongst the Ostmen populations of thirteenth-century Ireland particularly in the Waterford region) might also yield interesting results.

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Contact info for college departments ... Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland
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