Monthly Archives: October 2014

DNA: Gamechanger or ?

Autosomal DNA testing

DNA testing is being sold as an important new technique for family genealogy providing the potential to get past those troublesome blocks where the conventional paper trail has gone missing or been destroyed.

Now it is true that (like political careers) all genealogical lineages end in failure but genealogists (like all true obsessives & politicians) would like to delay this inevitable moment so any additional technique that might extend a lineage back a further generation or so merits consideration.

For a long time I resisted the temptation to engage with the subject – not because I was intimidated; quite the reverse. If I include  undergraduate and postgraduate studies I spent about 30 years actively involved in genetics. I left it over a decade ago and while I had enjoyed my time it was very much a case of ‘been there, got the tee-shirt’.

Still I can resist everything except temptation so about a year or so ago I succumbed and purchased the full range of genetics tests.

In the following series of posts I plan to track my progress as I try to make sense of my autosomal DNA test data. At the moment I can claim no firm matches or conclusions. However I hope I can offer an exploration of the possibilities.

An analysis of my Y-DNA data is presented here:

As currently operated Y gives information about deep origins and since it follows the male line (& surname) it has quite a narrow focus. Mitochondrial DNA is relatively stable over many generations and is not particularly useful in conventional genealogy. In this piece I don’t intent to dwell on these but rather confine my remarks to Autosomal DNA testing since this is the technique that has the most potential to provide pointers in the period back to about 1750 which is the time frame of most interest to family genealogists.

Autosomal DNA tests

Family Tree DNA family match identifies common blocks of DNA between related individuals who have taken their test. Although subject to random statistical variations in general the more DNA the subjects have in common the more closely they are related. Initially I  expected to identify common ancestors with my matches. In fact I didn’t and while this is possible, on reflection I realised that this is not where the test is most useful.

The internet through the use of various forums has made it possible for individuals who share a common ancestor to connect.

TJ McWilliam, Omagh to JR McWilliam, Australia,  12th Feby, 1873

” Willie, as you are probably aware, is studying law, and he’s a right smart, shrewd fellow, sure to make money if he lives, and equally sure to fight with at least half of his intimate acquaintances. No man could be more good natured but he is most awfully unreasonable and hot headed, without one particle of philosophy in his composition. He and I were brought up together, and I believe I know and like him better than any other member of the family can. He is much too sensitive, taking far too serious a view of trifles; and I have often reasoned with him on these points for hours, but generally without success. He’d rage and vex himself for a day over a thing never meant to annoy him, swearing all the time like a trooper, yet he would never hurt even a fly .
Altogether he is such a man that you could not help loving and laughing a bit at him, though in following the dictates of wisdom you’d hide your amusement to save a scene. Through all he’s one of the cleverest fellows you could find, and “Old Nick” could not keep pace with him in reading, and his memory is far superior to any of ours. He’s a great favourite, and makes an impression, while he is the most accomplished, harmless flirter I ever met.”

I knew that John Richardson McWilliam, the elder brother of my great grandfather, William, emigrated to Australia about 1853 so when I came across an internet message looking for information about their father, Rev Thomas McWilliams, the Presbyterian minister in Creggan parish, south Armagh I immediately, and as it turned out correctly, assumed that the message was posted by one of his descendants. As a result of this contact I was given a copy of a letter sent to John by a third brother, Thomas, from Omagh to Australia in 1873 from which the quote at the top of this post, relating to my great grandfather, William, was extracted. It certainly provides a more intimate and probably more accurate assessment of character than a laudatory obituary.

Where a paper trail already exists DNA testing is superfluous though extremely useful as confirmation. Now if I identified a common ancestor with a match in the test I would of course follow it up and based on my internet experience I might hope that the contact would prove rewarding but this is not what I expect to use the various tests for.

Problems encountered  in Irish (& other) genealogy.

In my previous blog piece I gave reasons why women tend to drop out of genealogies at least a generation earlier than men. I was particularly struck by the following list extracted from the burial registers of Killyman Church of Ireland:

Nov 5 1778 Owen McGlone’s wife buried
Jan 13 1779 Phelemy Rogers of Drumcrow his wife was buried
May 12 1779 Cormick Murphy’s wife buried
Feb 24 Wm Tobias’ mother was buried
May 6 1781 Thomas McGahans widow of Derrymain buried
Nov 1781 Edwd Morris’s wife buried
Jan 18 1782 James Dawson’s widow buried
Apr 26 1782 John Thompson’s sister was buried
Aug 12 1782 Edwd Hamilton’s mother was buried
Sept 16 1782 John Hyde’s mother was buried
Jan 22 1784 Toal Mattews’ mother-in-law buried
Oct 13 1784 John McCann’s aunt buried

At least in baptismal registers the mother’s first name is given.

Identifying place – Emigrants & others (McCulla)

My particular strategy was, rather than look for common names with my matches, I looked for common places. In one instance my match & I each had ancestors who had lived in the townland of Lisnafiffy, Tullylish parish, Co Down; in another the common place was the town of Dungannon, Co Tyrone where my mother grew up; in a third the townland of Lisnalee in Loughgilly parish, Co Armagh was implicated.

(In a follow-up post I will discuss one of these in detail but more as a cautionary tale than as a confirmed match.)

It can be difficult to link families of emigrants back to families in Ireland. The earliest records for many such families may be a census record stating ‘born in Ireland’ but without a precise location. In such cases a match to an ancestor in Ireland who is associated with a specific townland might provide the vital clue.

This may also be useful even when emigration is not an issue. My 2x great grandfather, William McCulla, is first described in the announcement of his marriage in a Newry newspaper but no further information about him is given. The name is not uncommon in north Louth, south Down & south Armagh but unless a DNA match provides a clue it seems unlikely that I will be able to identify his parents or other family.


In the case of adoptees it may well be that DNA testing offers the only hope identifying family.

In my own family the case of one of my maternal great grandfathers, Thomas Charles, offers an interesting problem. In his marriage certificate he gives his father as Henry Charles. MD. However the only Dr Henry Charles recorded in the medical register lived in Cookstown and his obituary in 1873 mentioned the death of his only son – clearly not my great grandfather who described being brought up by an uncle. From the names given it  would appear that this was DR DH Charles also from Cookstown, who was a brother of Dr Henry Charles. Inspection of the Derryloran Church of Ireland registers showed that Margaret Cheevers had two children in the 1860s, father, Dr Henry Charles (as alleged). My great grandfather was born about 1858 and no record of his birth appears. Was he another child of Margaret Cheevers or some other unnamed woman? Was his father really Dr Henry Charles?  I suspect that DNA analysis is the only way that this issue might be resolved.

Problems with the system

Traditional genealogical research requires Identification and access to the relevant sources. Exploitation of DNA matches requires, in addition, cooperation between two or more individuals to identify the common ancestor. In particular careful sharing of genealogical material, evidence and sources is essential but not always forthcoming.

Many emigrant  genealogies end with a census return naming an individual as having been ‘born in Ireland’. Identifying the common ancestor with a match in such circumstances directly may well be impossible.  Unless the match can come up with some additional clues to pin point a location, the resolution of such a block will depend on the identification of additional common matches.

Family Tree family match gives a relationship range for each match. Due to the nature of the test these relationships can only be estimates. It estimates that the closest series of matches identified in my test are 2nd-4th cousins. Since I know my genealogy quite well back to my 2x great grandparents I should be able to find a common ancestor for any 2nd or 3rd cousins. The fact that I don’t suggests to me that the Family Tree relationship estimates are too generous ie. 2nd-4th cousins should probably be 3rd-5th cousins.

Many of the individuals who have taken the family tree test seem to live in the US, Canada & Australia, while I would expect many of my distant cousins to have remained in Ireland or the UK where as yet DNA testing is less prevalent.


Extending many Irish family trees back beyond the first half of the nineteenth century can often present difficulties. This is partly due to the destruction of civil records in 1922. In addition few church records extend back beyond 1800.
While DNA studies may well prove useful in tackling this problem in the future, it is not yet clear that the potential has been realised.