Newfoundland — a far-flung diaspora

Newfoundland — a far-flung diaspora

A new academic study shows that a substantial proportion of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador has strong genetic connections to Ireland and southwest England

A STUDY of the modern population of Newfoundland shows that a significant proportion is descended from Irish stock, and from incomers from southwest England some 300 years ago

The founder population of Newfoundland and Labrador — that is,  the original European settlers in that area — is a unique genetic resource, in part due to the area’s geographic remoteness and until recently, cultural isolation.

Historical records show a migration of European settlers, primarily from Ireland and England, to the area in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Newfoundland and Labrador make up the most eastern Canadian province — Labrador is on the Canadian mainland, and the island of Newfoundland lies off the coast in the North Atlantic. 

A new study by RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, based in Dublin, and Sequence Bio, a genomics and precision medicine company based in St. John's in Canada, has produced a genetic analysis of people living in the province. 

The study, entitled "Newfoundland and Labrador: A mosaic founder population of an Irish and British diaspora from 300 years ago," has been published in Communications Biology.

By studying the genetic profiles of 1,807 volunteering individuals from Sequence Bio's Newfoundland and Labrador Genome Project (NLGP), and comparing the results to reference datasets for Ireland and England, scientists have shown that a significant proportion of the European-derived population of NL can be traced back to settlers who primarily migrated from southeast Ireland and southwest England around three centuries ago.

"In looking at the ways Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are genetically related to each other, and to present day Irish and English individuals, we were able to show that European ancestry in NL is mainly descended from Irish and English settlers in the time of the late 1700s to early 1800s," Dr. Edmund Gilbert, the first author on the study said. His team used what he called “well-characterised’  population reference datasets like the Irish DNA Atlas to link English and Irish ancestry in Newfoundland. to specific regions in Ireland, and to track how social and geographical isolation influenced NL communities at the level of their DNA.

According to the study the genetic analysis supports the historical accounts that around 25,000 European settlers came to Newfoundland in the 18th and 19th centuries, mainly from Ireland — predominantly Waterford, Wexford, south Kilkenny, southeast Tipperary, and southeast Cork — and from Dorset and Devon in England as well as fishing ports such as Dartmouth, Plymouth, or Southampton.

Professor Gianpiero Cavalleri, Professor of Human Genetics at RCSI said: "In the study, we could see that Catholic background in Newfoundland and Labrador is still today strongly associated with Irish genetic ancestry as is Protestant background with English genetic ancestry." (Quoted in Communications Biology)