A Journey into Irish DNA

Have you taken a trip into discovering more about your Irish DNA? The DNA phenomenon that has swept the globe has resulted in a new tool for genealogy research, and a potential key for unlocking ancestry mysteries. However, this new craze may have mixed results and findings.

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A Journey into Irish DNA

Did you know that “DNA Day” was celebrated earlier this week? I wonder who made that one up! To celebrate , we recorded a podcast that will come out next week – so do watch out for it. In the meantime, we thought it would be good to lay out the facts (and best guesses) around DNA testing for Irish family history purposes. 

A Journey Into Irish DNA

Have you had your DNA tested for ancestry research purposes? The price of DNA testing has dropped substantially over the past year or two and with that drop there has been a tremendous uptake in the amount of people taking tests to discover ancestral mix and hopefully establish a connection to a distant cousin or fellow-researcher. I thought it would be good to layout our own experiences with DNA testing as well as from correspondence with letter readers and Green Room members over the past number of years.

Since we started the Letter from Ireland in 2014, I have noticed many readers contacting us with comments like:

“My DNA results tell me I’m 17% Irish – and I am so delighted” OR

“My DNA results tell me I’m 17% Irish – and I am so disappointed”.

Other readers asked for advice on whether they should take a DNA test in the first place. Still more talked about how DNA testing helped them connect with distant relatives – and how they shared research into their common ancestry as a result. It was clear that testing of Ancestry DNA was becoming affordable and desirable for many of our readers.

So, I started to ponder some of these comments and questions!Let’s first “set the tone” with an excerpt from a Letter from Ireland originally published in 2015. Who better to comment than one of the fathers of DNA testing himself – James Watson – a co-discoverer of the double helix back in the 1950s. Here goes:Kristin, one of our Green Room members – recently underwent DNA ancestry testing – and was VERY frustrated with the results. Here is what she shared:

I am 98% European: 65% Scandinavia, 27% British Isles, 6% Southern Europe. Where is my Irish?? My mother’s ancestors included the names: Doherty, Riley, Roach, and Brady. But Ireland is not even listed in my results, except under British Isles!

Well first, Kristin – did you know that there is an Irish connection to the discovery of the DNA helix? Lizzie Gleason was born on a farm in Indiana in 1861 to Michael Gleason and Mary Curtin. Her parents had arrived as emigrants from Tipperary during the Irish famine. She later moved to Chicago where she married and started a family. In 1962, her grandson – James Watson, was awarded a Nobel prize for his co-discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA which is often considered the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century. Watson once commented:

“DNA is everywhere now in everyday life. People are always wondering about Nature or Nurture, and what we can learn from our hereditary genes. We don’t know, but we should and I think we will. I think knowledge of DNA will eventually encompass all medical knowledge about it, but it will probably take years.”

Those years came to pass – the genome was sequenced and personal testing become available to us “masses” through medical and ancestral testing services. We are now at a point where it is possible to take a DNA test to uncover your ethnic mix, discover others who share your ancestry and to help break through brick walls in your research. There are three general types of DNA tests available for ancestry research purposes. They are:

  • Y-DNA Test. This tests for the Y chromosome that passes from father to son. As a result, it can only be taken by males – it is a useful way to track your paternal surname back through a large number of generations.
  • Mitochondrial DNA Test. This tests for a chromosome that is only passed on by females. As a result, it can help you track back through a maternal line for centuries – but this information can be difficult to use due to a lack of surname clues.
  • Autosomal DNA Test. This tests for the remaining DNA that is passed through both your male and female lines. However, things spread out fairly quickly, so it is often only useful for 3-4 generations back. Also, this is the core test that DNA companies are pushing – it provides them with the quickest means of increasing their database of DNA samples (oh, cynical me!).

OK – enough of the Science lessons/reminders! In additions to Kristin’s comments earlier, I often hear from readers wondering if their Irishness was down to “nature” or “nurture”:

“I just got tested as only being 17% Irish – and my name is Murphy, how could that be?” or
“There was music, stories and a strong Irish ethos in our family, and although we were only a quarter Irish – that is the side that I grew up with the most!”

So, do you need a large percentage of Irish DNA to make you “Irish”? I personally think that the “nurture” effect – especially within the Irish female line, is the real secret weapon to preserving the Irish identity within a family. James Watson also seems to acknowledge this in his own experience:

“I’m a quarter Irish. My mother was a faithful member of the Chicago Irish tribe. I have always followed my Irish side.”

And that is what I have noticed in the hundreds of conversations I have with people of Irish descent – your Irish DNA may be a large, or small, percentage of your makeup. But that quantity of DNA is merely a spark, it takes nurture to really bring your Irishness to life.So, hopefully this story and James Watson’s comments put DNA testing for Ancestry research purposes into some context!

I believe that 99.99% of the people who read this are Irish by nurture and experience – however, it is nice to have that backed up by some specific evidence that can also be used to highlight connections to others who share that feeling of nurture!

Six Conclusions on DNA Testing For Irish Family History

Over the last four years in The Green Room (our members area), we have run a DNA study and come up with six main conclusions to the question: “How useful is DNA testing for Irish ancestral research purposes?” Here they are:

  1. Don’t Forget the Records. When I look at the goals of some of our readers, I notice that many aim to establish a place, name or connection in their family tree. However, some of these ancestors mentioned were alive in Ireland in the mid 1800s. It would be much more productive to do a current search of the records rather than expect DNA testing to provide this information. I know from one reader that felt they had exhausted this channel of checking the records – however, that was based on research they carried out over 10 years ago. But things are changing – more facts and connections are available online on a weekly basis. I did a quick check for this individual and found the names and dates they were looking for. I found them in the records – they believed they would have to use DNA.
  2. Ethnic Mix is a moving target. The “ethnic mix” part of your DNA report is a moving target. The testing companies seem to rely on “ethnic mix” as the main way of giving a client a good feeling on opening their report. However, it is based on comparisons to those already on their database – and as the database changes, the percentage mix may also change. Also, this concept of Irish ethnic mix looks highly suspect to a person living in Ireland – many of us are a broad mix already (Irish Gaelic/ Scandinavian/ Welsh/ Norman/ Scots etc). However, most people on this island seems to unite by culture as opposed to DNA – an Ulster Scot is usually just as “up for the craic” as a Munster Gael.
  3. You are buying the basic test. The tests sold by the DNA testing companies are just a starting point. Most people realise that the “suggested connections” part of the report is the most valuable after a while. More accurate connecting usually requires a deeper (and more expensive) level of testing. Also, you probably need to do testing with all companies if you wish to be exposed to the fullest possible number of people on the DNA databases out there. Having said that, services like GEDmatch are providing a very useful service by allowing people who get tested with one service to connect to people who use a different service.
  4. DNA Testing is just the beginning. Do not expect answers without quite a bit of effort on your part (reading and learning, reaching out to others – and waiting). The DNA test opens a door – it does not provide immediate answers – although advertisements lead many of us to believe that all will be revealed in an easy-to-read report. DNA testing is the first step in a process that may well extend for years into the future. As new people take the tests and add to the databases, your own testing will yield more useful results. You will also feel the pressure to undertake further testing to connect with these new people in a meaningful manner.
  5. The Native Irish are Missing. Very few people on the island of Ireland have ever taken – or see the need to take – a DNA test for ancestry purposes. As a result, the DNA databases of the testing companies feature few present Irish natives. That may change as the medical side of DNA testing takes hold. What does this mean to you? Finding relatives who live on the island of Ireland currently may take a few years – you are much more likely to discover distant cousins a few miles up the road from where you are living now. Finding present relatives on the island of Ireland probably means working forward from existing records – and then getting some “on the ground pointers” from local historians and genealogists.
  6. People want to believe. Finally, the world of Ancestry research in general is full of people who WANT to believe what they are presented with. I have noticed many “facts” being presented by ancestry.com members – and their new connections (often though ancestry DNA testing) were happy to accept these as “facts”. But, there is a lot of guesswork that does not stand up to much scrutiny. It is always worthwhile to check suggested “facts” against available accurate record sources.

So, let’s finish by asking you about your own experiences of DNA testing. How useful has it been to you? Has the experience been frustrating? Exciting? Productive? We do hope you will join us for our upcoming podcast where Carina, Mike and Courtney will share our own DNA testing journeys.

That’s it for now! As always, do feel free to share your Irish surnames – or maybe even a family story or two. We do look forward to you joining us again next week.

Slán for now, Mike & Carina.

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