Irish Genealogy: AncestryDNA and ethnicity

AncestryDNA: Suddenly I’m more Irish and a lot less English than I used to be.

I have gotten the results from my DNA test with Ancestry.com, which came relatively quickly — less than six weeks after I first spit into a tube and sent it off. But, I’ll tell you, when you’re waiting for your results, that wait is interminable.

Ancestry offers an ethnicity estimate, like 23andme, although also very unlike 23andme. The latter puts me at being 61.1 percent British and Irish, without differentiating between the two, and another 30.7 percent “broadly Northern European,” which represents DNA that is so omnipresent in Northern Europe, including Britain and Ireland, as to not be identifiable, and then another 7.5 percent that is even more broadly European.

AncrestryDNA is willing to speculate as to how Irish and British I am, and their speculation has me a whole lot more Irish and a whole lot less British than I expected. They put me at somewhere arounf 66 percent Irish, although they allow that it might be more — as much as 84 percent — or less — as little as 49 percent.

But Great Britain, the land of my biological father? A mere 5 percent, a pittance, and possibly as low as 0 percent.

How to account for this? Well, AncestryDNA does have a category called “Europe West,” which represents DNA that is broadly found in western Europe, including England. They average me out as having 21 percent of my DNA makeup originate from there. Presuming this comes from England, and coupled with the 5 percent they estimate to be British, that puts me up at a whopping 26 percent of my DNA that we can guess comes from Blighty. Of course, who knows? It might hail from France, or Germany, or Luxemborg. My biological father was also adopted, according to my records, and while he seemed to think he was English, his ethnicity has always been the greatest question mark in my genealogical research.

I will say this, though — even though I don’t blog about it, my English American identity is just as significant to me as my Irish-American identity, and it’s a bit startling to have so little of my DNA that Ancestry.com is willing to place directly in England.

That being said, the ethnicity estimates on these sites are, at the moment, highly speculative — so much so that many argue it is a junk science. As I understand it, the test looks at a few genetic markers and compares them with samples from contemporary populations in other countries. There are two sample sizes that are used here — the amount of your DNA they look at, and the number of people with similar DNA that are currently in their database. In both cases, at the moment, these sample sizes are relatively small, and are largely based on inferences. (There is another DNA test that I have not yet done, the National Geographic Geneographic project, that  seeks out more stable indigenous groups for identifying ethnic markers.)

There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but it means that as the sample sizes get larger, and as the science progresses, the way the data is interpreted can change, sometimes dramatically. This has already happened with AncestryDNA in 2013, when they updated their ethnicity summary. The change was dramatic — one account I read had a user go from 80 percent British Isles to 6 percent, and I have read many similar accounts. So I am just now 5 percent British, but I suppose it’s possible that with the next update I could be 80 percent.

It is worth remembering this when you get tested. I don’t know that I would call this a junk science, but I would say it is premature to see any results as definitive. And, in fairness to the DNA testing organizations, they don’t claim to be definitive — my results are labeled an “estimate” by AncestryDNA and 23andMe offers three different interpretations of my ethnicity, one labeled “speculative,” which makes it pretty clear that there are multiple interpretations possible just now.

It’s valuable to couple this with traditional genealogy, and, on my biological mother’s side, I can trace every line of her ancestry back to Ireland. But what is interesting is that, while my biological father’s family tree is now a complete blank, these tests have provided me with living relatives on his side, many of whom are doing family trees of their own. And while I don’t know where I fit on those trees, I can trace them back, to see where their ancestors came from. And, over and over again, they come from England.

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Max Sparber

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