We could talk about vegetarians, and if they live longer and are happier; or about the happiness of various nations; but Ireland has been much in international news and we shall concentrate on that. Last week the Queen made the first visit by an English monarch for 100 years. This week President Obama made the 5th visit in 48 years by an American President to the place of his Irish roots. And we had the death of Garret Fitzgerald, former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) whose obituary here by Michael O’Kelly contained two rather nice pieces of information about him. He was known as ‘Garret the Good’- a nickname given first in derision but then in respect, and surely an enviable obituary line for any of us; and, more pertinently for this column, he was a man who actually seemed to love statistics. Politicians all too frequently misquote, distort and abuse statistics for their own ends; here was one who was very obviously passionate about them and the truths they contain. (Harold Wilson, Prime Minister of the UK in the 60s and 70s, was another. He was not only a statistician himself; in 1972-3 he was President of the Royal Statistical Society.)
But to return to visiting rulers: Her Majesty visited a well-known Dublin brewery, where a pint of Guinness was poured for her; but sadly she did not try it. Did you know that Guinness holds a revered place in the history of statistics? The brewing company was a pioneer of scientific agriculture, and
employed, uniquely, back in 1899, a chemist whose sole job was to make sure that its barley, hops and other ingredients were consistent in flavour and of the best possible quality; the man they chose, one William Sealy Gossett, pioneered the use of statistics in doing so, and invented for that purpose something that ought to be called the Gossett t-test; however, since Guinness didn’t allow its employees to publish scientific papers, he had to do so under a pseudonym. He called himself ‘Student.’ Now every student of statistics is taught Students t-test; and ought to raise a glass of dark beer to Gossett when he or she has learned it. (See the link top right for more - it has some nice pictures from Guinness as well.)
On to our second visiting head of state, Barack Obama. For Presidents of the United States the visit to Ireland in search of ancestry seems to be an obligatory rite of passage.
Perhaps this is not surprising given the size of the Irish-American vote back home. Between 1830 and 1914, almost 5 million Irish men women and children emigrated to the United States. Obama’s grandfather’s grandfather was one of them. They had offspring: a total of 36,278,332 Americans—estimated at 11.9% of the total population—reported Irish ancestry in the 2008 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Even given that statistic, a surprising number of American Presidents can find the Irish village of their forebears. Wikipedia lists 22 presidents who can claim Irish ancestry - which since Barak Obama is the 44th President, sets the proportion at exactly half. Their degree of Irishness varies. Among the most-Irish was Chester Arthur, President number 21 (1881-85) – one of the least-known US Presidents, it has to be said, though it seems an extremely capable one. Both of his parents were not only of Irish descent but were actually born in Ireland. Since Jack Kennedy set the precedent in 1963 Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush have all made that visit – and Carter and Bush Senior could validly have done so. Barak Obama’s Irish links stem from his mother, Ann Dunham.
On the eastern side of the Irish sea, English – I cannot speak for Welsh or Scots - seeking to trace their family tree tend to have a different goal; a common ambition among the genealogically-inclined is to try to claim descent from William the Conqueror. This is not actually too unlikely. If you assume three generations per century, 28 generations take us back to 1066AD; each of us has two grandfathers, four great-grandfathers, and eight great-great-grandfathers; keep on multiplying and the number of 26-greats-grandfathers each of us has is around 67 million - 67,108,864 if you want it exactly. The population of England in 1066 was under 2 million; so there is obviously a fair bit of ancestral duplication. It is, statistically speaking, almost impossible for someone claiming any English ancestry at all not to have William the Conqueror among his or her forebears. And as President Obama’s mother had English ancestry as well as German, Welsh and Irish, it is more than probable that he too is descended not only from Falmouth Kearney of Moneygall, and (through his father) from the Luo people of Kenya, but from William the Conqueror as well. Eat your heart out, Donald Trump.