Irish genealogy: Ethnicity, family, and DNA

99.3% European, 100% Max Sparber

Every time I discuss the experience of being adopted, I realize that I tend to overstate my isolation as an Irish-American in a family of Jews. To listen to me, you’d think I was raised in a European ghetto, surrounded by Yiddish speakers, and all I knew was that somewhere else, across a distant sea, there were blue-eyed people who looked like me and drank whiskey.

In fact, I’m not the only Irish-American Sparber. My side of the Sparber family has been pretty thoroughly colonized by the Irish. There are only two male Sparbers from the previous generation, my father and his brother. One of the brother’s several wives was an Irish-American woman named Eileen, who I grew up with.

I recall coming home one day to find a small man dressed in green in our backyard. “Hello,” I said. “Fine day,” he answered in a nearly incomprehensible Irish brogue.

I went into our house to locate my mother. “There’s a leprechaun in our back yard,” I said.

“No,” she said. “That’s your aunt Eileen’s father.”

Eileen and my uncle had a son, and he’s half Irish-American, just like I am. My brother married and divorced a woman that I am told is part Irish, and they have two blue-eyed children.

I wasn’t precisely silly with Irish experience when I was younger — thinking about it, I actually did grow up in a sort of ghetto, in that I come from St. Louis Park, which is where something like 40 percent of Minneapolis’ Jews live. But the generations of Sparber I grew up with proved to be unusually democratic in their sense of family, adopting and marrying Irish-Americans.

There was an earlier generation of Sparbers who were all European Jews, and their version of cultural democracy was that German Jews might marry Polish Jews, no matter who might frown and say that it will never work out. But these latest generations have been even broader in who they accept as members of our tribe — our last addition to the family is half-Thai.

So I’m pretty typical of Sparbers nowadays, in that we’re now a hyphenate people. And that’s pretty typical in America. It also makes genealogy an interesting topic for investigation.

One of the things a DNA test does is return information about your ethnic heritage. This is a pretty new science, and is still mostly a game of likelihood rather than precision. But most people get surprising information in their tests, as genes go back further than most family trees do. Somebody who is certain they are, say, 100 percent German may be astonished to discover they have African blood. Almost all of us do, through some source or another. People who are sure they are a quarter Cherokee are astonished to discover they’re actually a lot less Indian than they suspected, probably because their Cherokee grandfather was himself only a percentage Indian.

I was fairly certain about my biological mother’s side of the family when I took my first DNA test. The adoption agency had told me she came from a large Irish-American family — although I didn’t realize how close the family was to Ireland until I connected with the family; as it turns out, half of her grandparents were from Ireland, and all but two of her great-grandparents were likewise Irish. My biological mother used this to get dual citizenship in Ireland in the 1980s, and eventually all her sisters did likewise, and this makes me eligible for Irish citizenship, which I may pursue.

But I didn’t know much about my biological father’s side, as the information from the adoption agency about him was slight. He claimed to be English, but he was also adopted, and so nothing was certain.

The DNA test brought back a result of 61.1 percent British and Irish, and then most of the rest of my DNA is what’s called “Broadly Northern European” and “Broadly European,” meaning that they are so common in Europe as to be unidentifiable. The British and Irish have this DNA too, so, but for 0.2 percent sub-Saharan African that I didn’t know about (there’s the part of me that’s African), there was nothing unexpected in this test.

But the tests also look into something called haplogroups, which, as 23andme explains, are “families of mitochondrial DNA types that all trace back to a single mutation at a specific place and time.” This gives a different picture, and a much deeper picture, of the past. My maternal haplogroup, as an example, is K1a, a group that traveled from the ancient near east to Europe — and, unexpectedly, is one of the groups that founded the Ashkenazi Jewish populations. So even though my maternal family is Irish, we have a closer connection to my adoptive family than I previously would have expected.

My paternal haplogroup, in the meanwhile, is a large collection of letters and numbers: R1b1b2a1a1. This is a subgroup of a haplogroup that doesn’t really feel like a smaller collection of letters or numbers: R1b1b2. The R haplogroup is extremely common throughout Europe, originating in southwestern Asia and then spreading west to Europe at the end of the last ice age.

Doggerland, a place I never knew existed before I found out that it’s where I came from.

The haplogroup breaks down further, with R1 being found in half of all European men, and R1b1b2a1a1, my haplogroup, being found mostly on the edges of the North Sea. 23andme tells me that there is cause to believe this haplogroup developed in Doggerland, a landmass that existed between Great Britain and Continental Europe and then was submerged when sea levels rose, perhaps cataclysmically by a megatsunami around 6200 BC. Believe it or not, this is the exact place that Robert E. Howard placed as the origin for his character Conan the Barbarian, which he named Cimmeria.

I don’t know precisely what to do with this information, although it does cause me to want to identify myself as Max the Sparberian.6200 BC is a long time ago, ethnically speaking, and leaves me with no further idea where my biological father came from. The haplogroup does seem common enough in England, but it also appears in Scotland and the Netherlands. I don’t expect I will really know until I track down who my biological father was, and who knows when that might happen.

I expect it will be soon, though, or at least I will discover a close family member on his side. Closed adoptions were a product of a time before cheap DNA testing, when records could be sealed and could be counted on to stay sealed. I am a fairly early adopter of this sort of genetic testing, as this sort of inexpensive DNA service has only been available for a few years. Nonetheless, it only took me eight months after the moment in my sample to be matched with a first cousin on my biological mother’s side, and I expect soon enough a match will happen with a close relative on my biological father’s side. More people are taking these tests every day. They are so cheap and so interesting, there doesn’t seem to be a reason not to.

It’s a fraught thing, though, because it uncovers things that were hidden, such as me. I will discuss this more in a later blog entry, but I do want to mention that I represent an early example of what I think will be a sea change in the world of adoption, in that it will no longer be possible for it to be a closed event. I think it is likely that this sort of DNA test will be extremely common in the future — in fact, it may prove to be so medically useful that it becomes one of those standard tests you give to children the moment they are born.

I have been in touch with the adoption agency that handled my case 46 years ago, as my biological mother’s husband has kindly suggested that he would be happy to ask them to release my adoption documents. When I contacted them and told them what I was looking for, and that I had discovered my biological mother as a result of a DNA test, they were flummoxed. They have been helpful, but have approached this very cautiously. This is very new for them, and there aren’t clear legal precedents in place or best practices they can consult.

Every time we discuss it, I want to tell them, well, get ready. I’m the first drop at the start of a flood of adopted children who locate their biological parents via DNA test.

There’s a megatsunami yet to come.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.