A recent episode of RTE’s “The Week in Politics” once again left me frothing at the mouth. This time, though, it wasn’t the politicians. As a bit of light relief, RTE had invited a geneticist and a political scientist to discuss the results of their study into the connection between genetic inheritance and political allegiance. Worthy as that sounds, what they were actually looking at was the hoary old chestnut about Fine Gael being Anglo-Norman and Fianna Fáil Gaelic Irish. Unsurprisingly, they found that FG supporters were indeed marginally more likely to have Anglo-Norman roots.
But how did they discover this? They tested politicians’ surnames, of course. This is the point where I turned purple. Exactly what scientific test did they perform on the surnames to determine their level of Gaelickery or Anglo-Normanosity? Did they carefully take swabs from the insides of the surnames’ cheeks? Did they culture the surnames in their lab?
The truth is that Irish surnames are utterly unreliable as markers for cultural inheritance. Yes, ‘Fitzgerald’ sits at the other end of one particular spectrum from ‘O’Brien’. But what about a venerable Fianna Fáil Kerry surname like ‘McEllistrim’, “Son of Alastair [Fitzgerald]”? Or the apparently impeccably English ‘Higgins’, from a diminutive of the understandably widespread peasant name ‘Hick’. Which in Ireland can be an Anglicization of either Ó hUiggín, from Uiggín, Gaelic for ‘Viking’, or Ó hAodhagáin, grandson of big ould Hugh. Put that in your political science petri dish and smoke it.
Before they are anything else, surnames are words, embedded in language and mutating under the pressure of history like all other words. Maybe, once upon a time, they started out as badges of tribal identity but those badges have long been distorted beyond all reliability by the twists and turns of Irish history and individual Irish family histories. Reducing them to a quick political litmus test is just plain dim.
The real joy in the programme was seeing the scathing scepticism of the Fine Gael politician they asked for a response, none other than the delightfully-monikered Leo Varadkar. His people came over with Strongbow, you know.
The real lesson is that scientists are only marginally less likely to peddle bunkum in return for publicity than non-scientists. I read that in a recent survey.