23andMe and Me

Like many people I have an interest in genealogy and over the years I’ve tried without success to get further back in the family tree on my father’s side.

My father died aged 99 in 2007 and along with a Scottish cousin I tried to track down his Irish relatives. The family lore handed down by my father was that they came from Mayo and had all left Ireland to go either to Cleveland, Ohio, or to Glasgow around the 1890s. As far as I knew, at some time in the 1890s three O’Malley brothers – Michael, John and Edward – had come to Glasgow and three sisters had gone to America. One of the brothers, Edward, aka Ned, was my father’s father.

But other than this, the scraps of information I had were thin. I knew the dates of my paternal grandfather’s life (1871-1929). I knew that my father had gone to Cleveland to stay with one of his aunts, Mary (O’Malley) Collinton in January 1930, supposedly as the advance guard of another emigration. The Great Depression that began in October 1929 cast a shadow over his stay in Cleveland and after two years my father decided he’d had enough and came home. He lost touch with his American cousins. As far as I’m aware he never went to Ireland and had no contact with the Irish side. I know that my grandfather, Ned, had been in Ireland in the summer of 1929, because after my father died I saw a letter from one of the Ohio aunts dated December 1929 that mentions that fact; but I never had the chance, or the sense, to ask my father if he’d ever gone to Ireland. All the things you don’t think to ask till it’s too late. Some relatives came over to Glasgow for my grandfather’s funeral in November 1929, but all I had apart from those fragments were unanswered questions and trails that ran cold.

Then in the summer of 2017 my wife persuaded me to take a DNA test for an ancestry service called 23andMe (https://www.23andme.com), suggesting it could open up new leads. She had done the test herself a few months earlier and it had enabled her to trace relatives on her mother’s Dutch line, as well as the Irish-Scottish line of her father, with some interesting DNA traces from other parts of the world dating back two or three centuries. I was pretty sceptical at first, mainly because £149 seemed like a lot of money just to get some spit tested. I didn’t know much about the science of it so I couldn’t really see how it might help me track down relatives across a century and two continents.

Anyway, I took the test, and the results have been a revelation.

There’s an option that allows you to connect with DNA relatives, i.e. those who share some of your DNA, and almost immediately I connected with Dominic, a third cousin living in Galway. It didn’t take long to establish that Dominic’s mother, Eileen, is my second cousin. Our grandfathers were brothers. Eileen’s grandfather, John O’Malley (1860-1942) was the older brother, but had outlived Ned by 13 years. Eileen, who was born in 1935, has memories of her grandfather up till the age of seven, whereas my own grandfather had died 31 years before I was born. We met up in Galway and exchanged stories, looked through photographs, filled in blanks. I heard moving details from her childhood, such as the memory of her grandfather singing “Two Little Girls in Blue” to her. Eileen’s mother and grandfather were O’Malleys, but if I had tried to search for her through her maiden name or married name I would not have found the link. The DNA connection enabled me to hook up with not just Dominic and Eileen but also dozens of other relatives in Ireland and America who had done the 23andMe test. I now know that some male relatives went to Cleveland in the 1920s or earlier, and that means some O’Malleys there are relatives, whereas before I thought the names had all changed. And interesting stories continue to emerge: for example I learned that Robert Emmet O’Malley, awarded a Purple Heart in 1966, was a cousin of my father’s (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pl6yl6PBlWw).

I’ve swapped book suggestions by email with a cousin who lives in the States whom I’ve never met nor seen a photograph of. I don’t need to know too much, but it matters to me to know that the family who left that little Irish homestead in the 1880s and 1890s is scattered across the States, and that some are still in Ireland, since one of those three brothers who went to Glasgow ended his days in Mayo. I’ve been able to visit that homestead twice now and each time I’ve been able to learn more of the family history that I thought was lost (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ6DFxWCl0U). I wish I had been able to talk to my father about this. If only I had asked him more questions when he was alive. My new-found cousin Eileen never saw my grandfather Ned, but she listened to his older brother John sing and speak, and meeting her really made me feel I’d got closer to my father’s father. There’s a 1929 recording of that song that my grandfather’s big brother sang to his granddaughter. Coincidentally, it’s a song about love and loss, brothers and sisters (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yn36MHFnptc).

It has to be said that not everybody is comfortable with the idea of DNA testing. There are companies out there that give it a bad name by making outlandish claims. People worry that the information gathered could be abused, especially the medical information that it can yield; or they worry that it encourages people to see others primarily in terms of race and identity, when we need to be very wary of defining or classifying groups of people. But it has enormous potential to do good. It stands at a fascinating intersection of science and the study of society and politics. For those of us whose families were forced to migrate for reasons beyond their control, for example the impoverished Irish or African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved, it gives us some insight into where they originated before they were moved, and about the social impact of colonialism, famine and war. As Professor Rick Kittles points out, the analysis of markers that show genetic mixing and population movement can allow us to deconstruct social and political ideas of race, rather than reinforcing them (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iby1C7bADno). It can also enable us to make connections with long lost relatives and get a clearer sense of the history that made us and the stories that tie us together. Finding evidence of these connections can lead us to greater understanding, to surprises and occasional shocks. It can fill in some of the gaps in the narratives that get passed down through generations, and put us within touching distance of our ancestors. For me above all it’s the identification of living relatives I thought I’d never know that means most.

To anyone who has been stumped by their family tree I would recommend taking the leap and getting your DNA tested by a reputable company. My tree now has many more branches than it did before and every month or so a few new branches get added, and all thanks to 23andMe.