Get Your DNA On

Today is National DNA Day. April 25th commemorates the successful completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953. It’s a day given over to learning more about genetics and genomics. For genealogy it’s also an opportunity to pick up some great deals on the various DNA kits available.

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You can find a list of the various sales available from the various genetic genealogy providers here

https://nationaldnaday.com/dna-day-sales/

But if you’re not already familiar with DNA testing for genealogy what do you need to know? What are the differences between the various tests?

The most common test (and the most affordable) available from most of the providers is the Autosomal test, otherwise known as the Family Finder test. It tests back along both the male and female line. It can also provide clues to the ethnic background of the tester. However, this should always be taken with a certain amount of caution. There are any number of variables which can skew the test and sometimes the different providers will provide a tester with very different results. Autosomal tests also have a limited range, only been accurate within seven generations.

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Ethnic breakdown from Family Tree DNA autosomal test

What makes autosomal testing so useful for genealogy however is that it can provide you with direct matches to potential cousins. This can be particularly helpful for getting beyond those pesky brick walls if you can connect to someone who might have been able to progress further in their own research. If you want to narrow your results to a particular branch of your family then a helpful strategy is to test a relative connected to you on that branch. For example if you wanted to find more connections on your paternal line, then ask a first cousin or uncle or aunt, to take the test also. You can then compare any matches in common. Similar can be done with second cousins for information on great grandparents and so on.

If you are curious about the origin of your surname or looking to go back further along the male line, then the test to take is the Y chromosome test. The Y chromosome is passed down along the paternal line from father to son. As such only men can take it because women don’t inherit that piece of DNA. This test can go back much further, roughly 1000 years, hence why it is so useful for tracing the origin of a surname. From my own experience though, it might not tell you a whole lot if you have a common surname like Ryan. Another limitation is that the test won’t necessarily help you find close cousins.

For those looking to trace the origin of their maternal line, they can take the mitochondrial DNA test. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited along the female line for both men and women. It also doesn’t mutate at the same rate as other types of DNA and can be traced back much further. However, because women often change their surname when they marry, it has limitations if you are trying to connect with a specific individual. However, one interesting use of mitochondrial testing in recent years was the identification of the remains of executed 1916 leader, Thomas Kent. By taking a sample of mitochondrial DNA from his surviving nieces, they were able to confirm his identity.

If you are looking for more information on DNA testing then the video below should be of help

There are also plenty of other great articles and blogs out there. You can also find some excellent videos on personal experiences with DNA testing for genealogy on YouTube, courtesy of Genetic Genealogy Ireland.

 

 

 

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Genealogical Appreciation

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Traveller Caravan in Cork Public Museum

Last Friday afternoon I attended a fantastic lecture on Irish Traveller genealogy and culture at the Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street in Dublin. This was the first of the 2017 expert workshops organised by the Irish Family History Centre.

The lecture was prompted by recent DNA findings from a new study carried out by scientists in the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland and the University of Edinburgh. You can read a bit more about that here. However, instead of simply concentrating on the genetic side of things, the lecture allowed for a member of the Traveller community, Michael McDonagh, to talk about Traveller identity.

Those outside of Ireland might have only the vaguest sense of who Irish Travellers are. Coming up with a definition that doesn’t sound condescending or discrimination can be difficult. Sometimes they are referred to as Gypsies or Tinkers, along with many other derogatory terms. Perhaps the simplest definition is to say that Travellers are a minority group within Irish society  who maintain their own separate identity. There have been many rumours and misconceptions as to where they originated from. Some believed they were an entirely separate race from the Irish, more closely related to Roma Gypsies. Another widely held theory was that they were the descendants of those forced off their land during the Great Famine. This last belief was to be responsible for much of the prejudice faced by Travellers and a lot of the harm done to their culture through a misguided belief that they should be reintegrated into mainstream Irish society. While the motives for this may have been benign, the lack of proper understanding of their culture caused a lot of long term damage. The talk from Michael was a fascinating insight into this culture. I would have loved to stay on afterwords to talk with him and ask some questions but unfortunately I had to rush for a train back to Cork.

What the DNA evidence has shown is that Travellers are not related to the Roma and are indeed Irish. What it also suggests is that they split from mainstream Irish society roughly around the mid 1600s. The authors of the study are cautious in trying to identify any specific historical event which might have led to the split, which seems sensible. Further testing might alter those conclusions and push the split even further back. The full paper of the study is available to read for free here. Hopefully this will lead to a better appreciation of Irish Travellers and their place within Irish society as a distinct group.

The lecture and the study also got me thinking of two articles I had read in recent months concerning the Tenement Museum in New York. The first article reported on a rise of anti-immigrant comments from visitors to the museum and how staff were attempting to deal with this. Then a few weeks ago, Annie Pollard, their Senior Vice President for Progams and Education, wrote this article on the immigrant experience in the past compared to the present immigrant experience.

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One of the restored apartments inside the NY Tenement Museum (Image courtesy http://tenement.org/)

What all of this got me thinking about was the role that genealogy can play in conversations relating to discrimination and prejudice. It’s worth remembering that the waves of Irish and other immigrant groups arriving in the US in the 19th century weren’t always met with open arms. Some of the rhetoric directed against them is reminiscent of what has been heard in more recent times. Can genealogy help lessen some of this hostility?

Perhaps it is human nature that we will always be suspicious of those who speak a different language, have different cultural traditions or simply don’t look like us. Genealogy certainly isn’t a magic bullet for defeating prejudice but at the very least maybe it can help us appreciate some of the commonalities we share with other groups.