Irish Genealogy: Introduction

You know how to do a DNA test, don’t you? You just put your lips together and fill a plastic tube with saliva.

I’ve gone a bit genealogy mad over the last week or two. Thank goodness I’m not alone — according to TIME Magazine, genealogy is the second most popular hobby in America, behind gardening. (They titled their piece “How Genealogy Became Almost as Popular as Porn,” as genealogy sites are, according to the article, the second-most visited sites behind pornography; I suppose both are mechanisms of documenting how a family might be made.)

While we’re talking about numbers, I’m part of a passingly small group that comprises about 2.5 percent of the general population, in that I was adopted. I’ve known it as long as I have known anything, and my adoptive parents couldn’t have hid it from me. They are small and dark-skinned and hail mostly from Belarus and Poland. I am tall and red-skinned and my ancestors, according to the adoption agency that handled my case, came from England and Ireland. So my parents never kept it a secret, and I grew up thinking of myself as English and Irish. Irish in particular.

I remember watching a strange movie when I was a very little boy. I remembered almost nothing about it, except that it was about a lake monster and included a tramp-like character who played a song very much like “When Johnny Come Marching Home” on a penny whistle. (As it turns out, the film was called “The Johnstown Monster,” from 1971, and tells of children who construct a monster in the lake near Johnstown Castle in County Wexford.) I remember being really absorbed with the film; it feels now like it was my first exposure to Irish culture and I was quite taken with it.

So I grew up with a sort of Irish identity that I constructed for myself, but one that probably isn’t that different from most Irish-Americans. I had a great interest in Irish music, and played penny whistle, and for a while had my own Celtic punk band called The Peter O’Tooles. I read about Irish history, and Irish-American history, and Irish theater and poetry. I spent a lot of time in Irish bars. There are a few places the Irish identity was really forged in America, and one of them is the pub.

Another is the church, and I didn’t come up in that, but that’s an increasingly negligible influence. There aren’t many of the sorts of heavily ethnic neighborhoods anymore, where the church represents the ethnic group of the neighborhood, and caters to them. Besides, only about a third of Irish-Americans are Catholic, while half are Protestant.

But the third place the Irish identity is formed in America is the family, and my adoptive family couldn’t offer that. Irish-Americans have an entrenched history in where they come from — not just the country, but the county, and the parish, and the town. There are family stories of famine, of crimes committed and fled from, of deadly sea voyages, of settlement in a new place that often didn’t seem like it wanted the Irish there at all. These stories make the Irish experience in America personal, familial, and I didn’t have them. All I had was assurances from my parents that I was Irish.

And even that was uncertain. Once I asked what they knew about my biological parents, and they told me the knew they were college graduates and had blue eyes.

“And that they were Irish and English,” I said.

“No, we said that because you look Irish and English,” came the reply.

So, to be certain, I contacted the adoption agency that had been responsible for my case and paid to have them look up all non-identifying information. They came back with a lot more than I expected: Detailed information about my biological mother, who came from a large Irish-American family. Less information about my Anglo-American father, who had likewise been adopted. And a photo that had been sitting in my file for almost forty years, of me as a tiny baby, before I was adopted.

I thought about pursuing it further, than decided I had enough for the moment. I told my parents they had been right, I was Irish and English, and they told me they had known it all along, as that is what the adoption agency had told them. They had no memory of every having told me otherwise, despite the fact that them casting doubt upon my ethnicity had caused a brief period of real existential crisis for me, where I would think, was it all for nothing? The penny whistle? All that whiskey?

About a year ago I decided to try something else — a DNA test. There is a service called 23andme, and their tests included, at that point, health information, which I was badly lacking. Most people can look at their family tree and see risks for cancer, or heart disease, or macular degeneration, or the like, because they have relatives who have it. I didn’t. And so I spit in a little vial and sent it away, and on Christmas day got back massive quantities of information. Some of it was not new — my ethnic profile was just as expected, although there may be some hints of Native-American, West African, and Northern European in there. Some was entirely unexpected, such as the fact that I am 2.9 percent Neanderthal. The health information was quite a relief, as I have very few genetics markers that should concern me.

But the test also connected my with biological family members. At first, distant cousins, hundreds of them, almost a thousand, immediately. And then, about two months ago, a first cousin. She emailed me and I emailed back, and she told me who my biological mother is. She passed away two years ago, but she was a scholar and writer, including writing quite a lot about Irish myth and legend. My cousin put me in touch with the larger family, and an aunt sent an extensive family tree, documenting names, dates, country, county, parish, and town.

It’s a lot of information to sort through, but, then, I am especially qualified to do the sorting, as my day job is at a historical society, where I sort through massive quantities of historical and genealogical information per day. In have been making a lot of use of ancestry.com’s online family tree software to make sense of all this biological family data that has come my way — the site was started my members of the LDS church, and Mormon religion encourages its members to create comprehensive family trees. As a result, the site is extraordinarily effective at churning through data, suggesting documentation, and helping to expand the family tree.

They also offer a DNA test, one that is far more associated with genealogy (and connects directly to your family tree), so I recently ordered one and sent it off.

As I work my way through all this, I’ll share what I learn. I teach a class through the historical society in genealogy and DNA, and so there is a further incentive for me to try it all out and see how it works. But beyond that, it provides me with something I have always keenly felt the lack of — the direct, biological connection to my ethnic identity. The family history and stories.

One of the first questions I asked my cousin, when we started emailing, was something that has bothered me my entire life. It’s one of those particularly Irish-American things, that they all seem to know and I never did:

What county are we from?

A few counties, as it turns out. Mayo and Meath in particular.

Now I know.

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Max Sparber

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