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Study on ancestry of Irish Travellers details genetic connection to settled community

The research comes as the Irish State is expected to formally recognise Travellers as an ethnic group.

Traveller children pictured at a site in Cabinteely in Dublin in 1997.
Traveller children pictured at a site in Cabinteely in Dublin in 1997.
Image: RollingNews.ie via Eamonn Farrell

IRISH TRAVELLERS HAVE no connection to Roma gypsies, did not descend from the famine and are genetically as different to Irish settled people as the Spanish.

That’s according to a new study led by the Royal College of Surgeons (RCSI) and the University of Edinburgh.

It confirmed that Travellers are very much of Irish ancestral origin and, for the first time, gave an estimate of when Travellers split from the ‘settled’ population in Ireland.

There’s a common misconception that Travellers split from settled people at the time of the Great Famine (1845-1852). However, the researchers estimate that the separation began far before that, around 360 years ago in the mid 1600’s.

Associate Professor in Human Genetics at RCSI’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Therapeutics, Gianpiero Cavalleri told TheJournal.ie:

“The study rules out famine as a cause of the split, however it’s not clear what event, or events, caused that divergence.”

Professor Cavalleri also explained that the genes of Irish Travellers are closer to the settled Irish population at a genetic level, as opposed to the common misconception that Travellers are a hybrid population of settled Irish and European Roma.

There are lots of misconceptions around who Travellers are and what their history is. First of all there is no connection with Roma gypsies, people use these terms interchangeably but there is no ancestry between Irish Travellers and Roma gypsies.

He added that although Irish Travellers come from an Irish ancestry, they are genetically distinct from the settled Irish.

Genetic distance 

Cavalleri described how it’s possible to measure the genetic distance between populations and said the distance of Travellers to settled Irish people is around the same as Irish people to Spanish people.

The genetic distance that exists between Travellers and the settled population can be attributed to genetic drift, brought on by hundreds of years of genetic isolation combined with a decreasing population size.

Irish Travellers have a history of nomadism, where cousin marriages (consanguineous marriages) are commonplace and they are socially isolated from ‘settled’ Irish people.

When populations are small and tend not to mix with other communities, the gene frequencies can change very quickly and that extents the genetic distance.

Cavalleri added, “All the data point to the Irish Travellers being a genetic isolate who could potentially be valuable for understanding the genetic risk factors for disease in Ireland – both among travellers and settled people.”

The research, which has been published in the journal Scientific Reports, comes as the Irish State is expected to formally recognise Travellers as an ethnic group.

Professor Cavalleri said, “I hope these results and this work helps settled people understand where Irish Travellers came from and that Travellers get a better sense of who they are and where they come from.”

Read: Only 8% of working-age Travellers have completed the Leaving Cert>

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