Ireland was first settled around 9,000 years ago by a mysterious race of people who travelled by land and sea up the coast from northern Spain and southern France. Who were these people, how did they travel and why does their legacy prevail to this day? Were they our ancestors? The very latest genetic research is begining to provide the answers.
In Programme One, Prof. David McConnell of Trinity College Dublin explains how DNA - our genetic code - contains a vast storehouse of information about who we are and where we have come from. Unravelling our DNA is like opening an atlas and tracing our lineage back across the continents. Diarmuid Gavin picks up the story in the Eastern Rift Valley Kenya where, around 65,000 years ago, our ancestral family began a migration that over millennia would bring then to Ireland. He meets the palaeontologist Louise Leakey, daughter of Richard Leakey, the world expert in human origins, as she gently uncovers the fractured skull of an early hominid. Louise explains that the archaeological findings and the genetic evidence now point to an African origin for our species around 200,000 years ago. Then around 65,000 years ago humans began to expand out of Africa to eventually colonise the entire Globe.
Meanwhile in a cave in Northern Spain, Diarmuid discovers that during the last Ice Age, around 20,000 years ago, a few small pockets of Europe still remained habitable. The beautiful wall paintings of animals in El Castillo cave in Cantabria are clear evidence that humans thrived here over many thousands of years. Is it possible that the ancestors of the Irish were among them?
There are old myths and stories which link Ireland and Spain. In the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin there is a rare manuscript from the middle ages which tells the story of the invasion of Ireland by the Milesians, who were sea-warriors from Spain and reputed to have established the ancient clans of Ireland. Diarmuid travels to the fishing port of Bermeo in the Basque region of Northern Spain and is surprised at how similar the local people are to the Irish. But how close are the genetic links between the Basques and the Irish?
Scientists have been collecting and analysing DNA samples from people all over Europe to build a map of genetic diversity across the continent. In Trinity College Dublin, Prof. Dan Bradley and his team are using Irish Dna to explore our ancient origins and connections with other peoples. As part of this research, they have discovered that 20% of men in the north-west of Ireland are descended from just one man, Niall of the Nine Hostages, the well known high king from the 4th century who brought St Patrick as a slave to Ireland.
Diarmuid Gavin travels to the West of Ireland where he meets local people who believe that their dark features are a result of a Spanish influence along the coastline since the time of the Armada. To find out if this is true, Diarmuid collects saliva samples containing Dna for analysis. The results will be revealed in Programme Two of Blood of the Irish and will prove to be an vital clue in the search for the true origins of the Irish.
Can we extract and analyse the DNA from this ancient body? Charting real science in action, in programme two Blood of the Irish will reach some stunning conclusions.