Friday, 20 March 2015

That Genetic Study

In the media over the last few days have been reports about a genetic study published in the journal Nature that analyses what it calls "single nucleotide polymorphism data" (amusingly enough shortened as "SNP").

The headline finding has been that there is no single Celtic genetic group. That's hardly surprising, as academically speaking "Celtic" is a linguistic rather than a genetic categorisation. Most likely it would be found that there is no single Germanic genetic group either, with the area of the former East Germany notably "Slavic", and no doubt some other surprises too. Indeed, the reason that the "Celtic" finding has received such prominence may lie partly in the fact that everyone already knew the English were only partly of German stock.

Upon moving into a new office two years ago, the Blether Region found itself sharing a room with two Catholic colleagues, both of them with (Gaelic) Scots surnames. One of them, a middle-aged woman, even said that "we", meaning Northern Ireland people, had "come from Scotland". She was also a fairly staunch Republican, and often heard to lament the English habit of "taking over other people's countries". The fact that, unlike in Ireland, Britishness in Scotland was historically an act of self-colonisation didn't fit with that, of course, but that's another story.

Here, then, were two Catholics obviously partly of Scots ancestry, and anyone familiar with Northern Ireland knows that there's nothing unusual about that. Whisper it, but the surnames Hume and Adams are sometimes raised in that context. The Blether Region itself is mainly of Scots Presbyterian stock, but with a smaller Irish Catholic branch that, when looked into, turned up an Armagh Anglican element that presumably originated in north-west England. No one in Northern Ireland or anywhere else can claim to be genetically pure — and one wonders why they would wish to.

So much by way of introduction.

While one should of course be wary of abusing genetic data to aid one's own case, one should also be careful that it isn't used, knowingly or unknowingly, to further anyone else's agenda.

In that context, the Blether Region has a few words to say about Mick Fealty's interpretation of the findings on Slugger O'Toole:
"So on the genetic purity distinctions (still favoured by some of our politicians) between Planters and Native Irish the news from the science journal Nature is, erm, not so good."
While purity is a myth, it is surprising to say the least that the Slugger piece is not more nuanced, since Fealty quotes from the same BBC article linked to above:
"The study also notes that there are two genetic groupings in Northern Ireland: one of which also contains individuals across the sea in western Scotland and the Highlands; the other contains individuals in southern Scotland and southern England.
The former appears to reflect the kingdom of Dalriada 1,500 years ago; the other probably represents the settlers of the Ulster Plantations."
Fealty omits the second paragraph.

Whether the first group are best viewed as having an Ulster Gaelic marker or as a more general Goidelic one can be debated — unfortunately, the study didn't cover the Irish Republic, and of course it may well be pre-Celtic in origin anyway. Whatever the truth, it's highly likely that its range in Scotland was extended south in the nineteenth century as a result of Highland and Irish immigration to the Lowlands.

The "Northern Ireland/Southern Scotland" marker, on the other hand, still covers the entire south-west coast, including Ayrshire, from where most Planters came. Of course, it's also possible that the "Northern Ireland/Southern Scotland" marker originated in Ireland and was itself brought to Scotland at some stage in the dim and distant past (with or without mentioning the "Cruithin"). Less tendentiously, there may well be a link between it and the Strathclyde Britons.

Another interesting finding is the existence of two distinct "NE Scotland" markers; it is tempting to associate those with the Picts. Interestingly, the most iconic linguistic marker of north-east identity ("fit" instead of "whit") originated through Goidelic influence in the Middle Ages. However, that's no more and no less strange than a form of Portuguese being a marker of Celtic identity in Galicia — or, for that matter, Catholicism playing the same role in present-day Northern Ireland.

Assuming that Fealty did not deliberately confuse the study's findings, one has to ask how he was able to draw such conclusions. The answer to that question is most likely that the Highland Clearances, which left much of that part of Scotland empty, have somewhat obscured the prevalence of the "Northern Ireland/Western Scotland" marker — although it is still there if one looks.

PS — The most Gaelic place on the map would appear to be the Isle of Islay, which, fittingly enough, is also famous for the almost unfeasible prevalence of its whisky distilleries. The Blether Region will raise a glass to that.

Dolphin Square

Channel 4 News is carrying an interview with a victim of the sexual abuse at the former Kincora Boys' Home in east Belfast who has bravely waived his anonymity.

Interestingly, it is the first occasion of which the Blether Region is aware where a definite link has been established between abuse at Kincora and what went on at the Dolphin Square apartment complex in London, suggesting both that the Kincora abusers were active members of a paedophile ring rather than simply immoral opportunists (their victims were teenagers), and that there may be a London link to the intelligence services, who were reputedly aware of Kincora, exploited it for blackmail purposes, and protected the offenders.

The late Cyril Smith MP, about whom numerous allegations have surfaced in recent years, is also thought to have been protected by the establishment, with some observers wondering why a relatively unimportant member of a minor party should have been mollycoddled that way — well-liked as the jovial Smith was at the time. Of course, deference may be part of it, as, perhaps, may be the patronage of other highly placed abusers.

But it is also the case that the Liberals held the balance of power in the late 1970s, propping up Jim Callaghan through the Lib-Lab pact.

Smith's parliamentary career began when he was "hand-picked by party leader Jeremy Thorpe to fight Rochdale in the 1973 contest". Indeed, "His first frontbench job was as chief whip at the time when the party was being buffeted by the scandal over [the secretly gay] Thorpe's alleged involvement in a plot to kill Norman Scott [...]".

Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that "In 1978, Smith approached former Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath [about whom there have also been serious posthumous allegations] to discuss forming a new centre party."

Given the fact that there have been persistent allegations of a plot by the intelligence services to destabilise the Labour Government of the day, that surely merits further investigation — particularly since it involved Northern Ireland. In that context, it may be no coincidence that the operation was supposedly codenamed "Clockwork Orange".

As matters stand, Kincora has been ruled outside the remit of any inquiry into historical child abuse in England. That is a mistake, since, as Channel 4 has shown, the cases may well be linked. It is highly unlikely that Kincora can be adequately investigated by a tribunal in bankrupt Northern Ireland. That will suit any abusers who remain living — and it may also suit the powers that be.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Eiffel Advice

A work colleague recently commented to the Blether Region on the strength of some people's rejection of Irish, having watched a particularly animated television discussion on the subject the previous evening. Overall the Blether Region got the impression that the colleague's antipathy to Unionists — or at least the shouty, grandstanding kind — was greater than his love of Gaeilge.

That view was confirmed when he added that he would rather learn French himself.

The obvious response to such comments is "Well, why don't you, then?"

After all, listing random speech varieties whose cultivation might profit the common weal more than Irish is a favourite pastime of politicians and journalists, often — as with Lindy McDowell's call for teenagers to learn Mandarin — with little appreciation of the hurdles that the more exotic tongues might present to learners.

But of course, if those same people were themselves linguists, they would have rather more of an idea about all that.

The disturbing corollary of this is that the Blether Region's love of minority languages may to some extent be down to its being a good practical linguist itself. Indeed, the more one thinks about it, the plainer it becomes. Perhaps it is merely boring the cloth-eared majority with its attempts to universalise a niche interest.

What we can be sure about, however, is that many of today's Irish-speakers are such because they attended Irish-medium education, regardless of any innate linguistic ability or otherwise.

At the moment there are 5,000 children attending such schools. And yes, some of them might even be learning French.