26 July 2009

Ireland: A Focus on Genetic Genealogy

Genetic Genealogy, the use of DNA testing to aid traditional genealogical research, is the most accurate tool a genealogist has. it can prove or disprove a lineage, help genealogists pass through brick walls, assist in locating lost relatives, and aid an adopted person in finding family.

A short history of Genetic Genealogy

Over the last nine years DNA Testing for genealogy has developed from one man's quest to find his ancestors to a world-wide interest for modern genealogists. That one man is Bennett Greenspan, a genealogist, who in 2000 established Family Tree DNA, the largest company focused on genetic genealogy. The company has remained in the forefront ever since. It offers the most genetic markers applicable to genealogy and has the largest database with which to compare a tester's results. This International business has expanded its offices to Europe, has participated in the 2009 Who Do You Think You Are? Conference, and was the only DNA company present at The Gathering 2009 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Since 2000 many other companies have been established with some now gone and new ones taking their places. In those short nine years, Genetic Genealogy has come a long way and is still progressing quickly! Geneticists and genealogists now work together in some realms of this science. The popularity of DNA testing is constantly increasing as more and more genealogists realize its value in their research.

Why is Ireland a major focus?

Currently, the highest concentration for genetic genealogy testing is done by Irish populations. Three major reasons place the focus of DNA Testing on Ireland:

1. The Irish Diaspora

2. Trinity College's paper A Y-Chromosome Signature of Hegemony in Gaelic Ireland (December 2005)

3. National Geographic Society's Genographic Project

Irish Diaspora

Since the seventeenth century Irish families have left Ireland for various reasons, including the Potato Famine, the opportunity of acquiring land not accessible under the inheritance laws at the time, and deportation by the English. Various sources state that Irish emigrants and their descendants are found in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, states of the Caribbean, and continental Europe. It is estimated that over 80 million Irish people live outside Ireland. This number represents over thirteen times the population of the island itself (6.11 million in 2007). This massive exodus has led many genealogists to long for knowledge of their ancestors who once lived in Ireland as well as the hope of finding living cousins.

It is clear that Ireland recognizes her lost cousins and finds value in identifying them as stated by Ireland's former President Mary Robinson in her 1995 address entitled Cherishing the Irish Diaspora: On a Matter of Public Importance, given to the Houses of Oireachtas:

The men and women of our diaspora represent not simply a series of departures and loses. They remain, even while absent, a precious reflection of our own growth and change, a precious reminder of the many strands of identity which compose our story.

Ireland obviously cares about its departed family. Descendants of the emigrants have proudly announced their Irish heritage for all these generations. Sadly, what is lost in time are the ancestors who connect the Irish throughout the world. With the vast numbers of these expatriates around the globe it is understandable why Irish Diasporas plays a prominent role in the focus on Ireland.


Trinity College in Dublin is a pioneer in Irish genetics for using the old genealogies in genetic testing. In December 2005 Trinity published its paper on Niall NĂ³igiallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages) whose dynasty ruled Ireland for six centuries. Irish pedigrees were used to determine the surnames that could be related to descendants of the male lines of Niall which became the Clan O'Neill. Living males with surnames found in Clan O'Neill were located and tested. The study's findings suggested that about one in twelve men share the same Y-chromosome as the 5th-century warlord. Their work indicated that 21.5% of the men in Northwestern Ireland are estimated to have his DNA signature.

Trinity College's study sparked an interest for Irish genealogists everywhere. For scientists to use genealogy and DNA testing to determine who among the living is related to a particular fifth-century clan was a major step in placing Ireland on the Genetic Genealogy map.

National Genographic Project

In April 2005 the Genographic Project was created by the National Geographic Society, IBM, and the Waitt Foundation. This five-year anthropological study was established to test indigenous people throughout the world in order to better map the migration patterns of our most ancient ancestors. Anyone can submit their DNA to this project as ti is one of the few scientific studies that allows the general public to participate. As a result of this venture, many Genetic Genealogists established various geographical projects to provide a permanent place for the public's test results since at the end of this study, the results will be available, but the DNA Will be destroyed, thus not allowing an opportunity for anyone to upgrade their test in the future.

The Ireland Y-DNA Project was created in December 2005 as its administrators saw the need to preserve the Irish DNA that the Genographic Project collects. The Y-DNA Project's roots lie in Ireland as two of the three administrators live there, thus providing the expertise needed to help Irish genealogists. This project is the largest Y-DNA project with over 3,300 testers, not including those from other companies which raise the number closer to 5,000. With the expert help of the administrators and the vast number of testers, the project results are revealing that some DNA signatures are more prominent in certain counties of Ireland. This provides a probable location for a researcher whose family left Ireland years ago to being their search in the mother land. The size of the Ireland Y-DNA Project is testimony to the inter st in the Emerald Isle.

In genetic genealogy the Y-chromosome is used to test the all male line (top line of a pedigree chart with the tester as number one on that chart) as this chromosome is consistent over time. For this reason a living male can be tested to determine the DNA signature of his ancestors in his all male line. The same is true of sections of the mitochondrial (mtDNA) which tests a person's all female line (bottom line of the pedigree chart if the tester is number one on that chart). Men can test both their Ydna and their mtDNA as every mother passes her mtDNA to all her children. However, only the daughters can pass the mtDNA to her children. Women can only their their mtDNA, as naturally, they do not carry their father's Y-chromosome. As Ydna mutates (changes that do no harm the species) more often it is possible to determine matches between testers within genealogical time. The mtDNA is slower to mutate, thus common the common ancestor of testers who match is not always within genealogical time. Testing the mtDNA has been immensely useful in solving specific problems for genealogists. Refer to SUCCESS STORIES at www.isogg.org for examples.

The next article in this series will focus on Irish DNA Success Stories.

Family Tree DNA
President Mary Robinson's address
Trinity College paper: A Y-Chromosome Signature of Hegemony in Gaelic Ireland
National Geographic Society's Genographic Project
Ireland Y-DNA Project
FTDNA site for the Ireland Y-DNA Project

1 comment:

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