Genealogists are shy, retiring creatures, averse to daylight. Seeing so many of us at Back To Our Past over the last few days, all out in the open, blinking nervously at each other, was just a tad disturbing.
But, as ever, it was very worthwhile.
Yes, the event is full of ordinary, decent punters driven a little doolally by FoMO (Fear of Missing Out), as they try to collect every last piece of free paper from every single stand in the RDS. Yes, the corporate pitches can be teeth-grindingly high-powered. Yes, there’s always a vague but persistent sense that it’s all pointless but you still have to be there.
But you do have to be there. Nowhere else is there anything even remotely similar, with the entire gamut of those involved in genealogy in Ireland on display, from the billion-dollar-Ancestry.com to the humblest of crumbs-from-the-table self-publishers.
This year again the Genetic Genealogy Ireland conference ran as a welcome symbiote, and drew packed houses. I only managed a few of the talks, but got some of the best and worst. One jargon-filled hour interpreted in excruciating detail new methods of identifying chromosome subgroups within subgroups within subgroups. It reminded me of Lord Rutherford’s classic remark: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” This was stamp-collecting on steroids.
On the other hand, Paddy Waldron’s talk “The Ups & Downes of atDNA matching” (available here) was complex but a model of clarity, using case studies to show just how useful a tool autosomal DNA matching can be when mixed with existing research sources and trustworthy family trees. It persuaded at least one sceptic (me) that, in the right circumstances, atDNA can be a powerful clarifier of family history beyond the horizon of documentary research.
One aspect of the corporate selling of genealogical DNA tests got no attention at the conference. The ethnicity calculator used (especially by Ancestry) to sell its tests will tell you you’re 12% Native American, 60% Irish and 38% Viking. When challenged, the corporate PR response is to describe this as a harmless piece of fun. It’s not.
Ethnicity testing has become one of the main selling points of the phenomenally profitable genealogical DNA testing industry. It is pitched at and attracts many people with no interest in genealogy, who think they’re getting a scientific breakdown of their ethnic makeup. That’s just not true. It is pseudo-science at its worst, running on the unspoken but still queasy implication that race has some scientific basis – see here for a summary of the truth.
Apartheid South Africa used to have a test for distinguishing Blanke from Nie-Blanke. If your hair was curly enough to hold up a pencil, you were Nie-Blanke. Scientifically and ethically, DNA ethnicity testing is its contemporary equivalent.