DNA study: Travellers a distinct ethnicity

THE first DNA analysis of the Travelling community has proven that it is a distinct ethnic minority who separated from the settled community between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago, experts have claimed.

According to genetics expert Jim Wilson from the University of Edinburgh, though it is clear Travellers diverged from the settled community, it is not clear why.

He said Travellers are a distinct genetic group as different from the settled Irish as Icelanders are from Norwegians.

The revelation was made on RTÉ’s documentary, Blood of the Travellers, and will put further pressure on the Government to recognise Travellers as a distinct group of people.

In March, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern at the state’s “persistent refusal” to recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority, and pointed out that they satisfied the internationally recognised criteria for such a group.

In the first-ever project of its kind, DNA samples were taken from 40 Travellers around the country, and these were analysed by a team of scientists from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, the University of Edinburgh and Ethnoancestory.com to try and unlock the history of Ireland’s Travelling people.

What they found confirms that Travellers have a shared heritage with settled people but that they separated at some point between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago.

The programme was initiated by producer Liam McGrath and former Olympic boxer Francie Barrett, who said he wanted to uncover the history of his people and to try to understand why their culture is in danger of being wiped out.

Enlisting the help of geneticists Dr Wilson and Dr Gianpiero Cavalleri from the Royal College of Surgeons, they analysed the DNA samples collected to try and trace the origins of Irish Travellers.

Dr Wilson said he wants to carry out more research to pin down a more accurate date for the split and look at historical records for that period to try and find out why it occurred.

Recognition as an ethnic group would bring Travellers within the remit of various protections in international agreements.

In 2002 the Equality Authority published its most definitive position on cultural diversity in Irish society. It states that acknowledgement of Traveller ethnicity is not only a matter of academic importance but has significant practical implications in the promotion of equality for Travellers and in the elimination of discrimination experienced by Travellers.

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