The Real Irish Genealogical Housewives of Orange County

Last week I got a call from the producers of  ‘The Real Housewives of Orange County’. Really. They were in Ireland filming, and needed an emergency genealogist. One of their housewives had Irish ancestry, could I whip up her family tree and get back to them in 10 minutes?

Whoooah there, Neddy. That’s not how it works. First off, what does she already know?

She already knew quite a bit, it turned out. An uncle had done some serious research and, on the basis of an emailed tree, I was able to connect her with actual parish records and Griffith’s and come up with some great grand-aunts and uncles in 1901 and 1911.

Then they had me come down to their hotel, Powerscourt just outside Enniskerry, to spring the results on the unsuspecting housewife. Reality TV, you see. So far, so good.

Things got a little strange after that. Her nineteenth-century ancestors were O’Tooles, with the forename Phelim recurring in every generation, all based in Greystones, just 3 km down the road from Powerscourt. And of course the O’Tooles of Powerscourt were notorious/renowned for their part in the sixteenth-century rebellion against the Tudors, when their leader was … Phelim O’Toole of Powerscourt.

At this point the word “karma” crept into the conversation.


Real Powerscourt. Not real housewife.

Finding O’Tooles in north Wicklow is the genealogical equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, so I laughed it off and joked that if she wanted to meet a living relative, she should just go down to Greystones, tap anyone on the shoulder and they’d be her fourth or  fifth cousin. Big mistake. Californians (and Californian TV producers) tend towards the literal.

That night, in Johnny Fox’s pub in Glencullen, they put out the word they were looking for O’Tooles. Naturally, a family stepped forward who claimed direct descent from Phelim of Powerscourt.  Naturally, I was asked to authenticate the connection between them, Phelim and the real housewife.

And, naturally, I made my excuses and exited.

Ancestry DNA

I recently had an Ancestry DNA test done. The process is clean, well-designed and private: 10ccs of spittle in a plastic container sent off in a pre-addressed package identifiable to the testers only by a reference number. Once the test is complete – only a matter of weeks – the results are available using the reference number.

Until recently, most genealogical DNA testing focused on the Y chromosome for direct male father-to-son descents, or mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) for mother-to-daughter descent. In both cases, the tests seek out small inherited mutations. By comparing the results of large reference groups, it is possible to infer roughly when and where each mutation first arose and, by extension, the most recent common ancestor of everyone whose DNA includes that mutation. The rate of change on the Y chromosome is much faster than for mtDNA, and the inheritance from father to son mimics European surname inheritance, so Y DNA testing has long been the most genealogically useful.

ancestrydna-welcomeWhat Ancestry does is different. It is an autosomal DNA test, taking samples from across the entire genome, all 23 chromosomes, rather than just part of a single sub-chromosome. They test 730,525 points, over 7% of the entire genome. Even three years ago, industrial DNA-testing on this scale was barely imaginable, and it makes possible broad-brush comparisons on a completely new scale.

What do those broad-brush comparisons tell you? Ancestry uses the results in two ways. First comes an “ethnicity estimate”,  giving a percentage match to each of 26 ethnic groups. Second is a search across other Ancestry test results to uncover unsuspected 2nd, 3rd and 4th cousins.

So when I got the email saying my test was complete, I was like a child on Christmas morning. Would I be 40% Iberian, 10% Eastern European, 20% Finnish? Third cousins in Hawaii, please, please, please.

No. Apparently, I’m 98% Irish. After trying to choose which of my treacherous Brit fingernails to pull out in order to make the 100%, I took a closer look at the way the results are created. There’s a margin of error of +/- 5%. So I could actually be 103% Irish – Hiberniores Hibernicis ipsis, more Irish than the Irish themselves. Wrap the green flag round me, boys.

pathetic 95-percenters
Pathetic wannabe 95-per-centers

More seriously, that 98% points up the limits of autosomal testing. It is very broad, but also very shallow, its accuracy limited to four generations, great-great-grandparents. This is because you get half your DNA from each parent, who each got half from their parents and  so on, halving with each generation. As a result, the amount you share with any of your great-great-grandparents is just 6.25%.

I already know who all my great-great-grandparents were and where they lived, all along the Galway/Roscommon border, God help them. Not a Finn or a Polynesian among them. So Ancestry was telling me nothing I didn’t know.

Ethnicity is also much slipperier and more dangerous terrain that Ancestry seems to realise. In the US, being “Irish” or “Italian” or “Polish” is an interesting twist on basic American-ness: it might be pistachio or vanilla, but it’s still ice-cream. In Europe, we spent most of the 20th century fighting genocidal wars that revolved around a toxic mix of  ethnicity and nationalism. Not ice-cream at all.

The second part of the Ancestry DNA experience is genuinely useful, though. On Ancestry itself, I found four third-cousin families, all of whom have extended family histories about which I knew nothing.

And when I uploaded my results to the open-source, I found even more, and closer connections.

The Ancestry test costs £99 and is well worth it, especially if your main interest is the broader extended family. Just take the ethnicity side of things with a grain of salt.



Epic Ireland

On Saturday I loaded up on all the scepticism I could muster and headed down for a sneak preview of the Epic Ireland visitor attraction in the CHQ building on Dublin’s Custom House Quay. (Full disclosure: the reason for the invite is that the Family History Centre attached to Epic has licensed some of the software from my site)

Custom-built “visitor attractions” are not generally high on my wish-list: being told what to see, even in velvety PR-speak, gets my hackles up. And after all the fruitless ballyhoo a few years back over a National Diaspora Centre, I was afraid this private-sector version might go for the paddywhackiest of paddywhackery. So I entered the CHQ vaults with a clenched heart and some trepidation.

And two hours later emerged with my heart melted, a lump in my throat and my eyes out on stalks. The place is simply extraordinary. First, and most important, it is honest. The reasons for leaving and the lives left behind, the individual stories, the huge chronological and geographic span of migration from Ireland, are all
presented straight.

The barrel-vaults in the basement go on and on

But the wonderful use of touch-screens, hi-definition projectors, motion-sensors and especially of the barrel-vaults of the building itself make it possible for a visitor to skim or go deep, to linger over the role of the Irish in Bordeaux wine-making or the battle of Fredericksburg, to whip through Riverdance or be hypnotised by the spectacular animations illustrating the history of Irish science.

In the end, it was one of the most moving museum experiences I’ve ever had. I suspect anyone with Irish blood will find it just as emotional.

Quibbles? Of course: There’s not enough about the awkward Other Irish, Northern Presbyterians, responsible for the winning of the American War of Independence, a fact worth bigging up. I found the passport to be stamped as you go from section to section just a tad on the hokey side. The sheer scale can be a bit overwhelming. And there is some mission creep – it covers aspects of contemporary Ireland with only the most tenuous links to the Diaspora.

The passport at least gives a sense of the sheer scale of it all – each of these areas could take half-an-hour or more to explore fully

But, all in all, it is breathtaking.

Epic Ireland opens to the public on Saturday next, May 7th. I’ve been to the current top attraction in Dublin, the Guinness Storehouse, and Epic is much better. If there’s any justice, it will be a runaway success. And so will the Family History Centre.