yDNA Testing in the Irish Context

I have been managing yDNA projects for over eight years. The first, I helped to set up is the O’Shea yDNA Project (set up in 2003) as this is my maiden name, while the second project is the Ireland yDNA Project (set up in 2006). I have not blogged on this topic before but I feel the time is well overdue. I am the administrator of both the projects mentioned above.

I believe passionately in the use of yDNA in tracing paternal lines. Only men have yDNA so a man has to represent a family in a yDNA test. This is a disadvantage as sometimes there is no-one left in the male line to test. Leaving aside this obvious disadvantage, the advantages of using yDNA are many.  If your paper trail fizzles out, yDNA testing can help to find connections to others and help to find relatives. It can help to focus your attention on a particular location which may be useful in your genealogical research.

In a general sense, yDNA can help understand migration out of Africa (about 60,000 years ago) to all corners of the globe. The Genographic Project has focused on this area of human history and migration, exclusively. However, all yDNA testing involves learning more about our Deep Ancestry to a lessor or greater extent. As yDNA testing technology evolves, testing gets more and more able to work out the specifics of our paternal line.

DNA Research in Ireland

There is almost no media exposure for DNA testing in Ireland, even as part of population analysis. However, in the recent past, the Smurfit Institute of Genetics did produce some very interesting research papers which dealt with Irish yDNA.

There was a tv program on RTE calledBlood of the Irish and the DVD of this production can be purchased at http://www.bloodoftheirish.com/.

A landmark series for RTÉ One, Blood of the Irish explores the most fundamental questions about the Irish population; who were the first people to settle here and where did they come from? Why are the oldest Irish human remains less than 10,000 years old when just 100 kms away in Britain, human traces go back 700,000 years? Did the first Irish arrive overland on an ice bridge, or on a small fragile boat blown ashore by the winds of chance? The series combines cutting edge science, the latest archaeology and superb visuals to bring this enthralling topic to our screens for the first time.

There is to be a tv program called Blood of the Travellers on RTE on the 22nd may 2011.

The origin of Ireland’s Travelling people is a subject that has been debated for many years. Some say they are related to Romany gypsies or some other ethnic group that arrived here over the past 1000 years, others say they have been a community in Ireland long before the arrival of the Celts and subsequent invaders, while more say they are ‘settled Irish people’ who ‘took to the road’ during times of famine and eviction in the years since Oliver Cromwell.

Now for the first time this subject has been approached using the tools of DNA technology. Over the past year Olympian Francie Barrett has collected 40 Traveller DNA samples from every corner of Ireland. This DNA has been analysed by a team of scientists from The Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, The University of Edinburgh and Ethnoancestory.com to unlock the history of Ireland’s Travelling people.

What About Genetic Genealogy Tourism?

I have tried to raise the topic of DNA testing, in recent times, in the context of the Irish effort to “reach out” to Irish diaspora, but it falls on deaf ears. The Irish want to attract the Irish diaspora back to Ireland as “genealogical tourism” to boost the economy and there is a pilot scheme in East Galway which aims to get in touch with people abroad who know they come from the parishes in that area. See: http://www.irelandxo.org/

What about all those who don’t know which parish they come from? Recently, an American who is holidaying in Ireland was given my email address (by an acquaintance of mine who knows I promote the Ireland yDNA Project) to discuss DNA testing with me. This man is actually in Co. Galway and thinks his ancestors were from there but no-one can help him with his paper trail as his ancestors emigrated too early (1700s). Where is the help for people like this? I think the Irish government is missing a golden opportunity to help both the people still in Ireland and the people who emigrated.

Scenary in Ireland

There are nearly 4,000 people in the Ireland yDNA Project, which is run through Family Tree DNA , most of whom are from the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If more Irish men got involved, it would help their families reconnect with descendants of relatives who emigrated in hard times. Of course, it would help the Irish Diaspora find their Irish origins.

Overall, I see it as a win-win situation. No doubt, more of the diaspora would visit Ireland to see their relatives, their home townland, ancestral cottage or region where their ancestors lived.

Old headstones

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One Response to yDNA Testing in the Irish Context

  1. Susan says:

    Hello Margaret !

    I am very interested in genetic genealogy and your posts on the subject. I have had mtDNA full genomic sequence as well as a Family Finder test done but have not done the Y-DNA testing done as my paternal ancestry is not Irish.

    I think you’re on to something with the country missing the boat on genetic genealogy. Perhaps one of the reasons why the boat is being missed is because it is still expensive to get tested. I have urged several of my genealogy forum buddies and paper trail relatives to get tested as one means of validating our family trees, but I just don’t think they are interested and the price is probably one reason. For whatever reason, people think that spending money on a trip will bear some fruit in the research. But I have seen on the forums on more than one occasion someone saying they had a lovely time in Ireland but did not find anything out about their ancestors. The idea of traveling to Ireland is so much more charming and appealing than mailing away a cheek swab !

    Some people are also suspicious of DNA tests and they don’t understand them. Some view it as a very private matter. Unless one of them expressed a genuine interest in my family history research, I simply wouldn’t have the nerve to ask my Collins uncle or my male Collins cousins to submit a cheek swab for testing, even if I offered to fund it. Fear of testing may be particularly applicable to Y-DNA and the possibility of exposure of non-paternal events. That is so unfortunate, because my experience with the other types of tests – mtDNA and Family Finder, as well as the positive experience I’ve seen my husband have with his Y-DNA test results – convinces me that the Y-DNA is probably the *best* chance for people to narrow down where in Ireland their immigrant ancestors came from.

    One problem I see with mtDNA specifically is that unless the Full Genomic Sequence is done, it is not a particularly useful tool. It may be interesting from a genetic migration viewpoint looking thousands of years back. But historically it is notoriously difficult to track the movements of women, who changed their names when they married and usually followed their husbands to where they were living. With my FGS filters turned on at ftdna.com, I have 0 matches. Even if I had a match, what would it mean? That we had a common ancestor 4000 years ago?!?

    It so happens that I have recently met online a wonderful lady of my mother’s generation who it turns out is probably my 3rd cousin once removed in 3 different ways (if that makes sense!) and I believe we share the same direct mtDNA line. Since my mtDNA is so extremely uncommon then her matching test result would be solid proof our paper trails are sound.

    I see a very lop-sided demographic in my Family Finder test results. The vast majority of my matches are Americans whose Irish ancestor immigrated a long long time ago. Some barely having any knowledge of the ancestor in America, let alone Ireland. Some do not offer any family tree or even a surname list to look at, which makes me wonder if they think that family tree will just magically land in their laps! I have the opposite problem, in that my mother and some of her siblings immigrated relatively recently (late 1940’s on). The knowledge they have had of family back before their parents does not extend much beyond nickname patterns.

    In any case, my FF matches look at my tree and see no resemblance to any names they do know in their own families. Even with my few matches with well-documented family histories tantalizingly close, geographically, to my own family history, we are unable to go back far enough to close the paper trail gaps and point conclusively to a link. Achieving that seems just beyond our reach.

    My husband’s immigrant ancestor (1830’s) was a Hamilton from Scotland. Through a Y-DNA study of his paternal line, he has discovered more matches with people named Frame than Hamilton, which has already opened up some interesting avenues of study for him to pursue in the future. In talking to a cousin through his mother’s paternal line he encountered the resistance to testing which I have mentioned.

    I hope you keep pushing for genetic testing! In spite of its problems and difficulties, and perhaps some unrealistic expectations that a few people may place on it, it is still better than having nothing at all.

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