Entertainment Radio

Sunday 20 January 2019

Radio: If your genes are partly Irish, come into the parlour

Ryan Tubridy
Ryan Tubridy
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

It's St Patrick's Day, when people all over the world claim to have some Irish heritage. But can we know our genetic history for a fact?

According to You & Yours (BBC Radio 4, Mon-Fri 12.15pm)… not really. DNA testing kits are a big thing, with folks sending off money and a saliva swab for a biotech company to analyse. But results, as they say, can vary.

Different companies draw wildly different conclusions. One woman was told that she was partly Italian and Ashkenazi Jew, while another company said she was Native American and Scandinavian - big variance.

Reporter Winifred Robinson spoke to Debbie Kennett, honorary research associate at University College London's Genetics Department, who studies DNA and ancestry. She said: "It's a myth that you can take a DNA test and find out your ancestry. What you can do is use DNA testing as a tool, in combination with genealogical research."

The best method is looking at the people who most closely match you in the genetic database: your "genetic cousins". So, say, if you match a lot of people with Italian surnames, you're probably of part-Italian extraction.

But all these companies, Debbie went on, use "different research populations and different algorithms", which inevitably leads to divergent results. "They do use proper scientific methods," she said, but the time-scale is far in the past - these tests don't give any clue as to ancestral history for the last millennium or so. They were designed to examine genetic differences between populations, not the ancestry of an individual.

Ryan Tubridy (Radio 1, Mon-Fri 9am) had a fascinating interview with musician and academic (and an OBE), Chi-Chi Nwanoku, about her unusual version of Irishness. An intelligent woman with a beautiful voice, her mother was an Irish nurse working in 1950s London; her dad was Igbo Nigerian.

They fell in love, married, had children. This, Chi-Chi said with wry understatement, was "unconventional"; society "was not in favour of this kind of union".

Her mother's parents disowned her, although Chi-Chi's Nigerian relatives welcomed her mother with open arms. And when they came back to Ireland for one last visit before retiring to Nigeria, Chi-Chi said: "Everywhere we went, we were embraced."

She added: "I can't tell you how much myself and my siblings love Ireland. I've brought my children and there's just an undeniable bond. Ireland is in us."

An equally fascinating woman, in a very different way, featured on The Green Room (Newstalk, Sat 8pm). A new documentary, Bombshell, explores the scarcely believable double-life of Hedy Lamarr: Hollywood megastar and the scientist who essentially made possible the Wi-Fi world we now inhabit.

This was, as one bit of audio told us, the "perfect crime fighter-by-night story". Hedy was billed "the most beautiful woman in the world", but was also something of a genius.

She became a pioneer in the field of wireless communications during WWII, inventing "spread spectrum technology" which was used to create unbreakable codes. Later, Hedy's invention was placed on ships, had numerous military applications and, most significantly, eventually resulted in the wireless tech that makes our mobile phones and a million other gadgets work.

The documentary was based on tapes of an interview she did, with Forbes journalist Fleming Meeks, in 1990. Himself the son of an astrophysicist, Meeks told Orla Barry that Hedy had almost felt handicapped by her beauty. She was a huge star but wanted - and rightly so - more credit for her brains. Finally, now, she's getting it.

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