Origins: hello sailor!

My umpteenth great-grandpa?

 Most of us are interested in our origins, whether we think we know a lot about our ancestors or not. Our abiding interest supports numerous genealogy search engines, professional genealogists and several versions of a TV show where the host reveals a celebrity’s ancestry on camera (the celebrity often cries in response, but it seems to be real emotion, not bathos).

I mine my love of origins for the fiction I write, and I have pursued my own origins as an amateur genealogist. I thought I knew my family’s origins well: my mother came from Northern Ireland and my father’s family were overwhelmingly English, traced on one side to the 16th century, with only one Polish or German great-grandmother known to me. Still, how could I resist the availability of DNA test kits for genealogical information? I didn’t even try.

I chose the National Geographic test kit, since the results become part of an international research project. While waiting for the results, I was certain that the matches would be completely English/Irish/Scottish, but I hoped for a big surprise: the telltale of a hidden coupling. The National Geographic’s testing also searches for matches with very old genes, back to the Neanderthals. I have long been somewhat obsessed with and heartbroken for the Neanderthals, the hominoid group that failed. I’m thrilled at the result of a higher than average percent Neanderthal match. Plus, it explains a lot.

The matches to my more modern genome sequence were in fact a bit of a surprise: only 56% to Northwestern European, which includes Ireland and the United Kingdom, but a whopping 25% match to Southwestern European (The Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal, and Southwestern France), 11% Eastern European (the graphic of the match hovered over Poland) and 8% Northeastern European (where Russia meets Finland). This set of matches is very close to what the National Geographic labeled a French pattern.

The European-only result was not a surprise (but admittedly, a bit of a disappointment: no secret Native Americans, Africans, Asians, or Jewish Diaspora), unlike my greater match to the French pattern than to the British. Light dawned when I remembered the Norman Invasion of England and Ireland, bringing French blood, as had the mysterious Celts/Gauls much earlier, a migration wave that began in Central Europe and moved west.

As for the Iberian Peninsula match, the Spanish Armada brought Spanish and Portuguese blood to Ireland when the ships crashed on the western Irish coast in 1588, and while most of the crews were killed by Irish lords in cahoots with the English, those who made it to Ulster, not then under English control, were welcomed to stay or helped to safety in Scotland. Bingo. My maternal grandmother’s Scots-Ulster family were “Black Irish” because of their black hair and eyes, and olive complexions, rumored to have sprung from some lucky Spanish Armada sailor.

With my own results in hand, I did some research on Irish genetics and found a Hub post by Marie McKeown, in which she discusses recent research into Irish DNA, which reveals several waves of migration to Ireland over the millenia. According to the analysis, the early settlers of Ireland were not directly related to the Celts. In fact, analysis of a 5,200 year-old Irish farmer points to Spain and Sardinia, although the farmer had little relation to modern Irish people. Moving forward in time to 4,000 years ago, a heavy dose of Russia and Ukraine was found, and a much closer genetic link to the modern Irish, Scottish and Welsh than the old farmer’s. Analysis of modern Irish people also suggests a close relation with the people of northern Spain, particularly the Basque region.

Bingo again? Maybe. A common theory is that the “Black Irish” are descended from the survivors of the Spanish Armada, but it’s equally possible that the ancestors were Irish traders, sailing between Ireland and Spain, or Spaniards not of the Armada who resettled in Ireland.

I prefer to stay with my sailor, my umpteenth great-grandpa, that dark-haired, fortunate fellow, who found succor in Ulster or Scotland, and ended up in my genes, along with all of the others: pass the pierogies, por favor.


One thought on “Origins: hello sailor!

  1. My first encounter (at long last!) with your writing and your new website was as the gorgeous image of the Antrim (?) coast unfurled (slow internet here). It was the visual equivalent of “You had me at ‘Hello!'” I found your entry about your own experience with these new genetic research capabilities riveting and very much took to heart your own reasoning and recommendation of the National Geographic’s DNA testing service. While I’m not certain if I’ll be finding samples of your new fiction on this site, I promise myself to return often – it is a delight to have found a new source for well-written, well-conceived prose and to hear a voice that genuinely has something to say, something worth hearing. I gather that voice will have an occasionally Irish accent, and that will doubly welcome. What good fortune for me – it is precisely what I wish for you as well, in this and all your writing endeavors. Congratulations and and godspeed sailor Emmett.

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