Fascinating new insights into the origins of the Irish Traveller community have been made that suggest they date back as far as 12 generations, long before the Great Famine.
It has long been thought that the Traveller community was formed as a result of the Famine in the mid-19th century, but that theory has been dismissed.
Experts at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland have collaborated with colleagues at the University of Edinburgh on the study.
They found that while Travellers originally descended from the Irish population, they are now very distinct from it, to the point that they could be classed as an ethnic group in their own right.
Professor Gianpiero Cavalleri was one of the leaders of the study. He explained that the genetic gap between Travellers and the Irish population is now as far apart as the gap between the Irish and the Spanish.
He said: “Travellers cluster with the Irish but they are very definitely distinct from the Irish. There is a considerable genetic distance between them.
He added that the findings suggest Travellers should have their own ethnic status recognised.
“We think this is a nice piece of evidence for that complex debate,” he said. The research group “would be supportive of some form of ethnic status”.
The study involved looking at the DNA of more than 11,000 people from numerous ethnic groups, including Travellers, Roma Gypsies, settled Irish, British, Continental Europeans and individuals from the rest of the world.
The aim was to work out the time when the Traveller community began to form as a separate group to the native Irish, but not to make assumptions about any one event being behind it.
“We tried to avoid speculating. You could point to Cromwellian times but it is speculation.” Prof Gianpiero said.