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Saturday 21 April 2018

How Irish are we? Our writers take the DNA test

As we celebrate St Patrick's Day, five Weekend writers take a DNA test to discover their ancestry

Fiona O'Mahony helps Bairbre Power complete the kit. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Fiona O'Mahony helps Bairbre Power complete the kit. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Research: Pól O Conghaile takes the DNA test. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Curious: Ruth Griffin uses a cotton swab to collect cheek cells for DNA analysis. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Here in Ireland, we're often equally impressed by and sceptical of the millions worldwide who claim Irish heritage on March 17. But then, if Barack Obama can find that he has Irish ancestors, perhaps anyone can.

It was the team at Irish Family History Centre (IFHC), located within the EPIC museum in Dublin, that traced the former American president's family back to Co Offaly. The centre helps budding genealogists to trace their family history through records and historical documents. It also offers DNA testing, using Family Tree DNA kits, to offer greater insight into people's origins. "DNA testing is extremely popular in the States and the UK at the moment, and it's becoming more popular in Ireland," says IFHC head Fiona O'Mahony. "We have a lot of people coming in who will visit EPIC and it will inspire them to think about their own heritage."

The DNA for the tests is gathered by rubbing cotton swabs on the inside of the subject's cheeks to collect cells. The sample is then placed into a sealed vial and posted to the US for screening. An autosomal test looks at both maternal and paternal lines, while the mitochondrial test traces the female line and the Y chromosome test the male line. Results take six to eight weeks and show where your family is from, your 'ancient origins' make-up, and any relatives who may have taken the test by comparing your DNA to their growing database.

You can read what our writers discovered below, but, in effect, the results show how every person is connected - which is what EPIC stands for. Since it opened in May 2016, the emigration museum has attracted visitors from all over the world, but some 40pc have been locals interested in finding out more about our shared history.

"We chart the story of 1,500 years of Irish history and show how the Irish have shaped and influenced the world," says EPIC marketing director Aileesh Carew. "It's the world's only fully digital museum, with 20 interactive galleries. You can see the more serious side of emigration but also that not everyone left Ireland because they had to." 

 

Bairbre Power

Fashion and Lifestyle Editor

Who am I? Well, no one could accuse me of being a blow-in. I'm 86pc local with four fifths of my ethnic make-up traced back to Ireland and the British Isles. Add to that 10pc West and Central Europe, and this, apparently, comes from the last 1,000 years.

I could be jumping to conclusions here, but I would think that European link is the Normans coming through. They arrived here from France back in the 13th century and the Norman invaders operated under various names from De Poer, de la Poer or De Paor and morphed into the English form, Power. Digging further, trace results also showed 2pc South Eastern Europe and 2pc from East Middle East.

Any family history research I've done to date related to other people who I'd interviewed. I've had a modicum of success and found it thrilling - your heart pumping as you go through Famine shipping lists and there, on the turn of the page, you find the name you're looking for.

I was curious if this genetic genealogy experience would throw up the names of people with similar DNA across the world. My heart sank a little when in the opening minutes I was told, "You don't have any close matches at all: the closest are second to fourth cousins, quite remote."

I was invited to look at the names to see if any jumped out at me. I hopped on Kenefick, which was a name I remember my Crowley/ Hosford maternal grandmother mentioning, but that turned out to be a fifth cousin, which goes back a long way, back to a great-great-great-great-grandparent. I was clutching at straws but I was not going to be defeated. There are second cousins there, the bulk of which are from North America. Of the 103 matches, some put up family trees but, frustratingly, many are blocked when you click into them. There are, however, email addresses so I'm going to compose an email and blast it out there.

My ancient origins revealed I'm 46pc hunter-gatherer, 41pc farmer and 13pc Metal Age invader, or Beaker people.

Last weekend I went back into the data with my son and we started digging further. I spotted a second cousin with the name McCarthy and, on closer inspection of her family tree, there are also Looby connections in Clonmel, which is where my late dad, Billie Power, came from. His father, Patrick Power, had a draper's shop called Tobin Power, so that's some of my fashion DNA, surely. This is going to be the next step of my search and, as fate would have it, there's a Barbara in there too on the family tree.

Clonmel, here I come! 

 

Ruth Griffin

Beauty writer

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Curious: Ruth Griffin uses a cotton swab to collect cheek cells for DNA analysis. Photo: Steve Humphreys
 

I've wanted to get a DNA ancestry test done for a long time. Where our ancestors may have travelled from has always intrigued me. Their story - though I know so little of it - is also my story and that of my son.

We are a mosaic of all the people that came before us, and with such advances in gene testing and DNA technology, it's wonderful to be able to travel back through time and find out a bit more about them.

My sisters and I know our dad was from mostly Irish and Welsh stock going back many centuries. But we've always wondered where my mother's people came from. As she is a 6ft-tall, raven-haired, dark-skinned woman - not all that usual for a Waterford woman - we presumed that a swarthy Spanish sailor might have slipped into the gene pool somewhere along the line…

The mitochondrial test that I took examines the maternal line. You rub a simple swab on the inside of the cheek for 60 seconds and then send the swab away for DNA screening. My test resulted in 93pc British Isles ancestry, 4pc Scandinavian, 2pc Finnish and the remaining percentage comes from Eastern Europe and, rather bizarrely, North and Central America. Not a Spanish sailor in sight!

This has been one of the most intriguing, interesting things I've done in years, and has made me more interested in history and genealogy. I'd recommend it to everyone interested in their family's history. 

 

Pól ó Conghaile

Travel Editor

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Research: Pól O Conghaile takes the DNA test. Photo: Steve Humphreys
 

Send away my DNA? Dig into the roots of my family tree? I'm not as excited by all this cheek-swabbing as I feel I should be. If anything, I'm a bit creeped out.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and I pitch up at the Irish Family History Centre with a mix of wariness and scepticism. 'The Wild Rover' is being piped through the music system. A genealogy expert opens up my dashboard on familytreedna.com and dives straight into my 'matches' - a page of 2,950 possible connections. I'm curious to discover a well-known broadcaster is a "2nd-4th cousin", but my guide is giddier to see the top result - a match who, coincidentally, appears to be one of the best-known genetic genealogical experts in the country.

"If you're interested in learning more, you should definitely make contact with him," he chimes. I feel guilty at not sharing his enthusiasm. I wouldn't say no to a random celeb relationship, or a skeleton in the closet, but this - and other tools like the 'Chromosome Browser' and 'Wellness Report' (for an extra payment, I can receive "actionable insights" into the right diet, exercise and supplementation for my DNA and lifestyle) - just aren't doing it for me.

Next up, we click into 'My Origins'. It reveals that 86pc of me is from the British Isles (harrumph), 4pc from Scandinavia and 10pc from South Eastern Europe. "There's something real behind that," my guide says. "Do you have any Greek or Italian grandparents?" I do not. "Great-grandparents, then?" Nope. "Oh, well. It is significant, though."

My 'Ancient Origins' are even more vague. Using this cutting-edge tool, I discover that I am 47pc hunter-gatherer, 40pc farmer, and 13pc Metal Age invader.

I leave with a few genealogical insights, and one big personal one. Genetic genealogy is an extraordinary field of science that could richly reward those with the patience and curiosity to give it time as a hobby. But I'm happy with a bit of mystique.

 

Leslie Ann Horgan

Weekend magazine Editor

I have to admit to an initial flush of disappointment when I saw the results: "100pc European". I suppose with my pale complexion and red-tinged hair, my make-up was unlikely to throw up anything more exotic, but who wouldn't like to have an Arabian prince as a great-great-grandfather?

Delving further into my ethnic makeup, the tests show that 85pc of my DNA is from Britain and Ireland, and 15pc from Eastern Europe. Clearly my ancestors didn't have the travel bug. Indeed, my ancient origins - which date back thousands of years - show that I am 47pc hunter-gatherer, the first humans to reach Ireland; 41pc farmer, who came next; and just 12pc of the final wave of Metal Age invaders.

I'm told that, unlike Central Europe - where most people's male line comes from the invaders who cut a swathe across the continent from Russia - it's common for Irish people to have an older, more closed-off bloodline.

My own ancestors may not have journeyed far, but it seems that their family members did - the database introduced me to 2,178 new cousins! The closest match is one John Michael Hegarty, who shares 3pc of my genes, making him a second or third cousin. His links are to Galway, Monaghan, Donegal and Cork, where my father is from.

I haven't yet used the email addresses provided to find out specifics from these new family members, but most appear to be based in America and Australia. That's unsurprising in itself, given that those are the countries where DNA testing for ancestry is most popular, but I was struck by the fact that there are thousands of people out there who are eager to trace their ancestry back to Ireland. It's left me feeling quite proud of the 85pc of me that is from these parts - something that I will celebrate with a renewed sense of delight today. Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh!

Katy McGuinness

Food writer and restaurant reviewer

It's not a surprise to find out that I am officially, genetically unmodified 90pc British and Irish DNA. You really would only have to look at me to know that - I have the pale skin and freckles to prove it.

The 10pc of me that isn't wholly from these islands is, intriguingly, Slavic. (This has amused my children no end.) Sadly, I do not have the cheekbones to prove this - although perhaps they are lurking there under the freckles.

One look at my spade-like hands would indicate that I am from farming stock but, apparently, I am more hunter-gatherer. The farming came later.

On summer holidays as a child in Kerry, where my mother was from, I remember meeting relation after relation and existing in a state of perpetual confusion as to where exactly I fitted into the big jigsaw. There were Lynes, and Moynihans, and Smyths, and O'Sullivans, and Daniel O'Connell the Liberator was in there, too.

Once upon a time, we owned all of the land but now it was mostly gone, they told me. I looked like my grandmother, whom I never met, they told me. I was the spit of her, said an old crone in a cottage up the side of a mountain who featured in my nightmares for weeks afterwards. But then when I met my father's relations from Liverpool, I looked like that grandmother, too. I was the image of her, said my aunt.

Some of those names that echo down the years feature on the family-finder pages of the site; fourth and fifth cousins I have never heard of whose own DNA is rooted in that same tiny corner of Kerry. It's fascinating, but - as Brian Donovan of the Irish Family History Centre told me - I am probably no more closely related to them than I am to anyone that I might pass walking down Grafton Street this afternoon. We Irish, you see, share a lot of DNA.

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