Watch: A race apart - Lough Neagh people descended from ancient tribe

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Loughshore people are most likely living in the same ‘tribe’ that first settled the area thousands of years ago.

That’s the claim made by an eminent local historian in response to the latest large-scale DNA study of Irish and British people.

A fishing boat on Lough Neagh

A fishing boat on Lough Neagh

Many people in Ireland and Britain claim to feel a strong sense of regional identity and scientists say they a new study from Oxford University proves that the link to birthplace is DNA deep.

Their findings are backed by Galbally author Danny Donnelly, who said that scientific evidence suggested that the communities living along Lough Neagh’s shores retained strong links to the ancient tribe that first settled the fringes of Lough Neagh in the Mesolithic era.

His comments came after researchers from Oxford University found genetic signatures among Britons that betray their historical roots in particular locales of the United Kingdom, leading to the finest-scale map of genetic variation yet created.

In fact, their map showing tribes of Britain in 600AD is almost identical to a new chart showing genetic variability throughout the UK, suggesting that local communities have stayed put for the past 1415 years.

Geneticist Professor Sir Walter Bodmer of Oxford University said: “What it shows is the extraordinary stability of the British population. Britain hasn’t changed much since 600AD.

“When we plotted the genetics on a map we got this fantastic parallel between areas and genetic similarity.”

Mr Donnelly, the author of the landmark history books On Lough Neagh’s Shores and The Sperrins and Their Foothills, said that geographical and cultural barriers prevented the early loughshore tribe from mixing with settlers arriving in the Neolithic era, who populated the uplands of Tyrone and Derry.

These barriers persisted for the main part until recently, said Mr Donnelly.

“The fishing communities arrived about 10,000 years ago and settled the northern and western parts of Lough Neagh, as well as Coney Island,

“According to archaeological studies at Mountsandel they were most likely the first settlers in Ireland. They were fishing folk who survived on the lough, and their fishing methods and lore were handed down to the present day loughshore fishing families.

“They were completely different from the later neolithic peoples who came at about 3,000BC, and who were farmers. While there may have been some mixing between the tribes at certain fords or crossings on the rivers, this was very limited.

“The later neolithic people settled in the uplands, and it was them that cleared the forests and initiated the farming culture.”

One example of the loughshore people’s difference from the rest of the population lies in the shape of their skulls. Mr Donnelly quoted a Queen’s University research study, which found the shape of their heads differed greatly from that of the rest of the population, and closely resembled that of upper Paleolithic skulls originating from central Europe.

Speaking from his experience as a former teacher, Mr Donnelly said he always noticed that the loughshore pupils were a race apart.

“The loughshore people had certain traits, which I always saw coming through in the pupil from that area.

“They were very musical and had a rich cultural heritage. They had characteristics that were not associated with pupils from other areas, such as Dungannon and Coalisland.

“They were very into nature and the lough played a large part in their upbringing. Many of their fathers were long-line fishermen, who used a very ancient method of catching eels.

“The evidence suggest that over the centuries there was little mixing between the loughshore people and the other tribes. Fishing families would have crossed the lough to marry into other fishing families, rather than mix with the farming folk.”

Mr Donnelly’s books have been lauded for their detailed and exhaustive research.

They encompass a wide spectrum of social history, archeology, geographical and economical studies, and are regarded as the first port of call for anyone wanting to find out more about the history of Lough Neagh and the Sperrins.

Although now out of print, they have an enduring value, depicting local people’s relationship to the unique geographical phenomena of this part of the world.