Wednesday, 23 June 2021

The Mayo O'Malley's - distant cousins of Niall of the Nine Hostages

In the third of a series of articles (see the previous ones here and here), we discuss the largest group within the O'Malley DNA Project, namely Group 3. This has 41 members and is further subdivided into 6 subgroups labelled 3a through 3f. Currently 22 of these members (54%) have done Big Y testing, which is particularly necessary in this group because of Convergence, which results in chance matches, which in turn muddies interpretation of the results and can lead to inaccurate grouping of project members.

Some DNA History

All participants within these subgroups sit on a branch of the Tree of Mankind characterised by the SNP marker M222 (in fact it is one of 36 SNP markers associated with this specific branch). The branch arose about 4000 years ago and is famous for its association with the semi-mythical figure of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who sits on one of its descendant lines.

Like many family trees, Niall's story is a mixture of fact, fantasy, inaccuracy & legend
(image from Thrillist)

The history of the M222 branch is quite fascinating. Back in 2004, a genetic genealogist (David Wilson) noted that a specific STR signature (STRs are one type of DNA marker, SNPs are the other) was associated with men from Ireland and western Scotland. [1] The following year, this STR signature was the topic of a seminal article from Prof Dan Bradley's team at Trinity College, Dublin, who christened the STR signature with the name "Irish Modal Haplotype" (abbreviated to IMH) and linked it to Niall of the Nine Hostages, which immediately captured media attention and the public imagination. [2] 

Heat Map showing concentration of IMH signature in Ireland
- O'Malley clan territories encircled in red
(from Moore 2006 - see reference 1 in Footnotes)

David Wilson suggested that the IMH signature might be linked to the SNP marker M222 and in 2007 a paper was published confirming the association. [3] However, it was not until comprehensive SNP testing became commercially available (around 2013, with the introduction of tests like the Big Y) that a multitude of new sub-branches below M222 were discovered (the so-called SNP Tsunami). This process is ongoing and the number of branches below M222 is now 1093 (which currently represents 2.5% of all the branches on the Tree of Mankind). [4]

This wealth of information has allowed more accurate dating of the M222 branch (which actually consists of a block of 36 SNPs) and current estimates for the TMRCA (Time to Most Recent Common Ancestor) of all living M222+ men is 2100 years ago (95% Confidence Interval 1750 - 2400 years before present, which gives a date range of 380 BC to 270 AD). Given that Niall is supposed to have lived from about 370 AD to 450 AD, the M222 branch predates his existence by some 100 to 750 years. This simply means that the M222 SNP did not arise in Niall himself, but rather in one of his forbears. Niall is thus a descendant of M222 rather than its progenitor. And most men who carry the M222 SNP today are more likely to be distant cousins of Niall rather than his direct descendants.

Nevertheless, the forbears of Niall (whoever they were in fact) created a very successful dynasty, spreading their particular DNA signature far and wide, as a result of which some 21% of men in northwest Ireland carry that signature to this day. [1]

Origins of the M222 branch

Where the M222 branch arose is still open to question. There was certainly much commerce and traffic between western Scotland and the north of Ireland over the centuries, so (seeing as how it arose some 4000 years ago) it could have originated in either place.

However, the association between the Mayo O'Malley's and the M222 marker is not at all surprising, given that the Clan Territories of the Mayo O'Malley's were close to the area of high concentration of the M222 / IMH signature, and that the ancient genealogies record that the O'Malley's are descended from Brian, brother of Niall (and thus they would have shared the same direct male line ancestors).

O Hart's Irish Pedigrees details the genealogy of the Mayo O'Malley's from ancient times
to the founding of the O'Malley surname and up to the late medieval period

There are 7 subgroups of the Mayo O'Malley's (Groups 3a to 3f) and this raises a very interesting question: which one of these subgroups represents the descendants of the progenitor of the O'Malley surname? Let's take a closer look.

The Seven Genetic Groups of the Mayo O'Malley's

As mentioned previously, 22 of the 41 members of the Group 3 subgroups have done Big Y testing. This has proved essential because some people who appear to be closely related have turned out to share a common ancestor over 1000 years ago. These "misleading matches" arise due to a phenomenon known as Convergence and make it difficult to accurately group people on the basis of their STR marker results alone (i.e. Y-DNA-37, 67 or 111 marker tests). Big Y testing is necessary in most cases in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Portion of results table showing STR marker values for Group 3 subgroups
(from Results Page of the FTDNA website)

The terminal SNPs associated with the various subgroups are listed on the project's public Results Page (6th column from left). The green text indicates that the individual has done SNP testing. Note that not all people with green terminal SNPs have been Big Y tested - some only did SNP Packs and hence only have identified an "upstream" SNP (e.g. those above designated as M222 & DF85). They would probably move to a branch further "downstream" (i.e. towards the present day) if they did a Big Y test. 

The SNP Sequences (i.e. list of ancestral SNPs) associated with each of these terminal SNPs are easily generated via the SNPs to Breadcrumbs tool and are as follows:

  • Group 3a ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > BY35731 > BY35730
  • Group 3a ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > BY35731 > BY35730 > BY35759
  • Group 3a ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > BY35731 > BY35730 > BY35759 > FT86146
  • Group 3a ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > BY35731 > BY35730 > BY35759 > FT86146 > FT145889
  • Group 3a1 ... M222 > BY35297
  • Group 3b ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > DF85 > FGC71316 > BY35719 > BY170664
  • Group 3c ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > DF85 > S673 > S668 > BY11548 > A10680
  • Group 3d ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > ZS8379 > BY11707 > A11227 > A11427 > BY21143 > ZS10825
  • Group 3e ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > A18726 > Y96240 > BY71053
  • Group 3f ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > A10528 > A10526 > FT375497

Laying the sequences out in this fashion helps us see how the various groups are related. For example, the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) between Group 3a1 and all the other groups would have carried the M222 marker and thus lived about 2100 years ago. The MRCA shared by all the other groups would have carried the SNP marker DF105 and thus lived about 1850 years ago. And the MRCA for Group 3a carried the marker BY35730 and thus lived about 1100 years ago (based on SNP counting of the number of SNPs in the left-hand column of the Block Tree).

By adding estimated dates to each of these SNPs, we can create a "genetic family tree" for Group 3 (below) which gives a better idea of the distances between these various subgroups.

The "genetic family tree" for Group 3 O'Malley's
Note: TMRCA, Time to Most Recent Common Ancestor.
Dates for SNPs in black text are from YFULL - the rest (red text) 
are estimated from SNP counting (Block Tree).
Timeline not to scale.

Let's look at each group in turn and leave the largest group (3a) till the next article in this series.

Group 3a1

SNP Sequence ... R-M222 > BY35297

There is now only 1 O'Malley in this group. I moved 3 people (that were placed here provisionally) back into Group 3a because new data became available. None of them have been Big Y tested so only time will tell where they truly belong. We will discuss these further in the next article.

This individual's MDKA (Most Distant Known Ancestor) was from Teeranea, Tiernee, Co. Galway, Ireland. He has no close matches (either among his STR or Big Y matches) and sits on a very isolated branch of the Tree of Mankind. His common ancestor with his nearest Big Y match is some 1600 years ago. 

Group 3a1 ... R-M222 > BY35297

It may be that he belongs to a rare branch of the O'Malley's with few surviving descendants and he is the only one to have tested thus far. Alternatively, there may have been a Surname or DNA Switch in his direct male line and he carries Y-DNA associated with a previous surname. However there are no significant clues from his STR matches or Big Y matches in favour of one option or the other. 

It remains a waiting game to see if any closer matches will appear in the database over time.

Group 3b

SNP Sequence ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > DF85 > FGC71316 > BY35719 > BY170664

There are still only 4 people in this group. An additional group member has done the Big Y test (since the previous Clan Rally update) and this has moved the people in this group one branch further downstream on the Tree of Mankind to branch BY170664.

Group 3b on the Block Tree ... distant Big Y matches suggest a possible Scots-Irish origin
(click to enlarge)

This group also sits on an isolated branch of the Tree of Mankind. They share a common ancestor with their closest Big Y matches some 1400 years ago. Among these, 4 record an Irish origin and 4 record a Scottish origin (see the flags in diagram above). The Big Tree's version of this branch illustrates some of the surnames on adjacent branches, many of them Scottish.

The Big Tree's version of the BY35719 branch reveals neighbouring surnames

In addition, one of the group members has an MDKA from Scotland. So this adds further weight to a possible Scottish origin and maybe an association with Scottish surnames such as Milloy, Melloy, Mellon & Mellen. Interestingly, three of the group members have assigned "Ireland" as their country of ancestral origin.

Within the group, the two individuals who test positive for BY170664 appear to share a common ancestor about 1500 AD (based on SNPs) and 1300 AD based on the TiP Report. [5] The key point to take from this is that this group's DNA signature appears to have been associated with their surname for at least 500 years, and thus this represents a well-established surname, albeit with several different modern variants - Maley, Mellen & O'Malley (although the latter member is not certain to belong here without confirmatory Big Y testing).

Because of the problem of misleading matches due to Convergence, the surnames among their STR matches offer no clue to the deeper origins of this group. However, there is a man named Melly among them who is not currently in the DNA Project so I have emailed him and invited him to join.

Further Big Y testing of the men in this group may offer some additional insights, but really what we need is more people to join the Y-DNA database and match the people in this group.

Group 3c

SNP Sequence ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > DF85 > S673 > S668 > BY11548 > A10680

This group still only has 2 members (i.e. no change since June 2019). One is a Craig (who matches several other Craig's) and the other a Melloy. Both did the Big Y test some time ago and their terminal SNP remains as A10680, which suggests a common ancestor some 1500 years ago (according to the Block Tree). Similarly, their Genetic Distance (20/111) suggests a very distant connection and the midpoint of their TiP Report is >24 generations (i.e. >720 ybp) ... so it may be that they should not be grouped together at all.

The Big Tree version of this portion of the Tree of Mankind has changed little in the past 2 years

Previous analysis of these adjacent surnames suggested a heavier presence in the Down / Antrim area, which would be consistent with a Scots-Irish origin for this group. 

Group 3d 

SNP Sequence ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > ZS8379 > BY11707 > A11227 > A11427 > BY21143 > ZS10825

It has previously been established that this particular group is associated with the Molloy's of Firceall in County Offaly. Not surprisingly, they can trace their genealogy back to Niall of the Nine Hostages. They are represented by Group 4 of the Molloy DNA Project

Our Group 3d is equivalent to Group 4 of the Molloy DNA Project

The Molloy's of Firceall, Offaly - their overarching SNP is A11426

Group 3e

SNP Sequence ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > A18726 > Y96240 > BY71053

There is also no change in this group since the previous update (see 2019 Clan Rally video here). His terminal SNP (BY71053) is shared by a man called Gaitens and they share a common ancestor about 800 years ago. However, one of his closest STR matches is a man called Malloy with Irish origins (GD 5/111) and the midpoint TMRCA estimate from the TiP Report is 6 generations = 180 ybp = 1770 AD, so if there has been a Surname or DNA Switch somewhere along the line, it probably was not in the last 200 years. It would be interesting to see Big Y results for this match.

Disagreement between FTDNA’s Block Tree & The Big Tree
re placement of Groups 3e & 3f on the Tree of Mankind

Coincidentally, this participant's group (Group 3e) is reported to be adjacent to the next group for discussion - Group 3f. However, there is disagreement between the Big Tree and FTDNA on the precise placement of these two branches on the larger tree.

Group 3f

SNP Sequence ... M222 > S658 > DF104 > DF105 > A10528 > A10526 > FT375497

This is a new group since the previous update. A new project member turned out to be a match to someone in the Ungrouped section and together they formed a new group - Group 3f. One of them has done the Big Y test and the terminal SNP is currently FT375497.

The two participants are close matches (GD 2/37) which suggests a close connection (midpoint TMRCA estimate from TiP Report is 8 generations = 240 ybp = 1710 AD or thereabouts). Also, there are other O'Malley's on their respective lists of matches but none of them are closely related:
  • one participant matches two O'Malley men: a) a member of Group 3a (probably a "chance match") and b) someone who is not in the project (he has been invited again). This latter match has a GD of 4/37 so he could also be a "chance match".
  • the other participant matches 6 O'Malley men, but all are in Group 3a (GD 3/37 to 4/37) and so these are (most likely) chance matches too (two definitely are as they have different terminal SNPs).

There is a lot of Convergence in this group and one of the participants has 131 matches at the 111-marker level of comparison (which is huge). 

So there is nothing to suggest that the association of the O'Malley name with this particular DNA signature is well established. On the contrary, it may point more toward some sort of Surname or DNA Switch at some time in the distant past (perhaps more than 200 years ago). However, there are so many different surnames among their matches that it is impossible to get a feel for what this previous surname might have been.

So for now it is a waiting game for more close matches to join the FTDNA database and turn up in this group's match lists.

In the next article, we will be taking a close look at the largest of the Mayo O'Malley groups - Group 3a.

Maurice Gleeson
June 2021


[1] Iain Kennedy wrote a nice history of the M222 marker and the associated STR signature here  ...

[2] A Y-chromosome signature of hegemony in gaelic Ireland. Moore LT, McEvoy B, Cape E, Simms K, Bradley DG., American Journal of Human Genetics, 78, p334 - 338 (2006). Available online here.

[3] Garvey, D., Sub-Populations Within the Major European and African Derived Haplogroups R1b3 and E3a Are Differentiated by Previously Phylogenetically Undefined Y-SNPs, Human Mutation: Mutation in Brief #940 (2007). Available online here.

[4] See the M222 branch on FTDNA's Public Y-Haplotree here.

[5] The two BY170664 participants share 7 & 5 Private Variants (i.e. unique SNPs, 6 on average) which allows a crude TMRCA estimate thus: 6 x 80 yps = 480 ybp, and 1950 - 480 = 1470 AD. They have a GD of 16/111 and the midpoint of the TiP Report is 21 generations which equates to about 21 x 30 = 630 ybp => 1950 - 630 = 1320 AD.

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