Irish Geneaology: A word of caution

It’s a simple test, but it has its risks.

When you start pursuing genealogy with any seriousness, you start learning all sorts of jargon. For instance, indirect relatives — people who share ancestors but aren’t people you are directly descended from — are collateral relatives. Uncles, aunts, cousins, etc., all collateral. You learn the language of wills: abatement, de bonis non, exheres. And you learn the phrase “non-paternity event.”

What is an non-paternity event? Well, I am, for one. It’s any situation when a biological father is somebody other than the one who raises the child. In some instances, as with me, this is a known fact — I was adopted, and presumably my adoptive father wasn’t surprised by this. But it isn’t always a known fact by everybody. Non-paternity events occur at a rate of somewhere around 10 percent — if there are 10 children, one of them is being raised by somebody other than their biological father. And in many of these cases, this fact is unknown, or a secret.

Traditional genealogy never really concerned itself with non-paternity events. The child’s paternity was whatever the paperwork said the paternity was, and unless the truth came out, that’s what went onto the family tree. I don’t know how often the truth came out. Soap operas would lead me to believe it was inevitable and dramatic, but I imagine there are many people who went their entire lives mistakenly believing the father who raised them was the father who sired them.

This will be one of the casualties of DNA genealogy. It already is — I follow stories about DNA genealogy in the news, and every week seems to bring a story like the one of the Oklahoma representative who discovered via DNA that his biological father was a different man that the one who raised him. Further, he discovered an entire family of half-sibling who all knew, but had promised to keep it a secret. He even discovered he had nearly taken a cousin to prom before his parents forbid it.

There also was a recent story of a stem cell and reproductive biologist who took the test and discovered a long-lost half brother, fathered long before he was born. The half-brother had been given up for adoption, and finding him apparently opened old wounds, as the biologist’s parents divorced.

These are the risks. Of course, they’re just a new wrinkle on risks that have always come with genealogy. Anyone who has worked on their family tree have had family members that everyone was deliberately vague about. A little digging produces something shocking, or shameful, or something that was once shocking and shameful but now seems perfectly ordinary. Bringing this to light runs the risk of upsetting family members, who stuffed that skeleton in a closet for a reason, after all.

I have known dozens of adoptees in my life, many of whom reconnected with their biological family. It’s always fraught, even when it goes well. It’s a hard subject, even for the adoptive family. When the subject of my adoption would come up, my mother would look panicked and go into a monologue about how she always saw me as her son, like her other sons, even though I was adopted.

Sometimes, biological parents don’t want to be found. A non-paternity event isn’t often a happy one. I am fortunate in that my biological family had been extraordinarily welcoming, but my biological mother’s husband has been a bit more cautious. He’s been extremely generous, but cares very much for his wife’s privacy, and has not wanted to rush the announcement of my existence. But he has sent me books that she wrote, and talked with me at length on the telephone, and hunted down records to send to the adoption agency to release the records of my birth.

It could have gone differently, and still might, when I find out who my biological father is. These are the risks of genealogy, and especially the risks of DNA-assisted genealogy, and people should be aware of them.

But genealogy is the act of uncovering history, and these are the same sorts of risks all historians face. I work as a researcher in a historical society, and every time I dig into the past, I discover stories that I am sure some people would prefer just be forgotten. It’s always worth weighing the general good of information against the possible harm of it, but, when in doubt, err on the side of general good. It is not our jobs to clean up history to spare feelings.

Your genealogy is your history, and you have a right to it. It is history at its most personal and intimate. As an example, it is one thing for me to read about the coffin ships that brought the Irish over, and killed many of them on the journey. It’s another thing entirely to now know that I had a great-grandfather who boarded one of the ships in 1854 with four children and arrived in America with three. I wouldn’t know this without knowing my biological family tree, and I wouldn’t know the family tree without having had the DNA test.

Before the DNA test, I was sui generis; I was a creature without history. Now I am embedded into a history, and I am glad to know it, because it is the story of how I came about. I am glad to know the story, even if it isn’t all genteel and worthy of boasting. Much of it is quotidian. Some of it is tragic, or terrible, or embarrassing. But it’s all history, and it’s all my history.

And the truth is, as anyone who has done genealogy will tell you, sometimes the most shameful limbs on the family tree are the most exciting to learn about. Nobody enjoys a genealogy of saints; we all enjoy a villain now and then.

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Max Sparber

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