Irish Genealogy: A Year of DNA

This is exactly the sort of photo my biological family seems to really like on Facebook.

It is now the end of Christmas day, and by the time I finish this essay it will probably be the following day. But I wanted to take a moment today to muse on the past year, as it was exactly a year ago today, Christmas morning, when I received the results of my first DNA test, through 23andMe.

Before that moment, I had a little information about my biological family, all non-identifying, provided by the adoption agency that handled my case some years earlier. I knew a bit about my biological family and a bit about my own ethnicity. I knew almost nothing about my biological family’s health history. I knew very little about my extended biological family — nothing beyond some scraps of information about my maternal grandfather.

The test, at first, provided a wealth of health information (suspended almost immediately afterward for people who took the test later than me, but probably to return.) There was nothing I should be too concerned about, thank goodness, although there were some thing I must be aware of, such as a slightly elevated risk of high blood pressure, and I am glad I know it. The test also told me that I was nearly three percent Neanderthal, which I find both fascinating and curious. It also provided me with almost a thousand cousins, all distant, but it was the first time I had ever communicated with a biological relative. And, for a while, that was it, although it was a lot, and it was plenty.

I was interviewed by our local paper about my DNA test results and started to teach a class about using DNA tests as a supplement to traditional genealogy. This was something I could then both speak a lot about — I work as a researcher in a historical society and help people research their genealogy every week — and was very limited in what I could talk about. After all, my biological family tree started and ended with me. There was nobody in the slots above me for mother and father, and nobody further back. My genealogy began the moment I was adopted, even if my story didn’t, and even though, thanks to the DNA test, I knew more about the distant history of that story than I ever expected to know.

So my class covered the various DNA tests, what sort of results they give, and what people could expect from taking them. And, over the year, I took two more tests from different services.

Eight months after I took my first test, a first cousin contacted me. She had likewise been tested through 23andMe, and when my name came up, she suspected who I might be. I had been a family rumor for years. I emailed her what I knew about my biological mother, and she wrote back and confirmed that I was the biological son of her aunt, who had died several years earlier.

I immediately began to research my biological mother, and, because she was the author of a number of books, there was a lot of material. I got in contact with her widower, and, with his help, got my original adoption records, which I just received a few weeks ago, and gave me a lot of information about my biological father, who is still unknown to me.

I have also been in frequent contact with my biological mother’s extended family. One aunt sent me the family tree, and a cousin connected me with an online version of the tree. As a result, I was able to follow my family history back to Ireland, and, in a few cases, even back a few generations further. I started this blog about the same time, in part because the subject of the Irish-American experience has always been of great interest to me, and in part because suddenly I was connected with it in a way that I hadn’t been earlier.

I have not actually met any of my biological family members yet. I have a few standing invitations that I plan to take advantage of the coming year, and we follow each other on Facebook, which has led to at least one amusing development. I will post pictures of myself drinking mixed drinks now and then, which is something my adoptive family tends to ignore, but my biological family sort of goes wild whenever they see me with a drink in my hand. My page will light up with likes from Monaghans, Prices. Gordons, and the rest, some even in County Mayo, where part of my family came  from. I don’t think the Irish genuinely are bigger drunks than anybody else, but I do think we are entertained by alcohol in a way others aren’t.

It has been an awful lot to process, although I have greatly enjoyed learning as much as I can and connecting with my biological family. I was ambivalent about the subject before it happened — after all, as an adopted child, I already have a family, and suddenly there were all these people who were also family, at least genetically speaking. I’m not the most social man and tend to keep my group of friends rather small, and was worried I might be a little overwhelmed to suddenly be part of this massive Irish Catholic family.

But that hasn’t been the case at all. I’ve enjoyed it enormously. Their everyday lives fill my Facebook news feed now, and I watch it, fascinated. It’s a group of people who all look like me, who all seem to share my sense of humor and my interests, and it’s delightful. I know my adoptive parents may feel some trepidation about this; I think there is a sort of inevitable fear that the adopted child will find his biological family and suddenly feel that they are the real family. I don’t. I just find them an extraordinary supplement to my adoptive family, who are, after all, who I grew up with and who will be in my life for as long as we are all mutually around.

But, my gosh, it has been just a year, and this DNA stuff is all still so new. I can’t imagine what the next year will bring, or the next decade, or the rest of my life. It’s been a lot of year stuck in between one Christmas and the next. And there is a lot I have yet to look forward to, I am sure of it.

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Max Sparber

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