Siobhán Cronin’s New Year’s Resolution was to find out more about her past by having her DNA tested. But her dreams of discovering a Scandinavian inheritance were dashed by the surprising results
SINCE the 90s I’ve had an occasionally consummated love affair with Scandinavia, and with Iceland in particular.
Along with a school friend, I first travelled to Reykjavik in 1998 for a weekend break, on a bit of a whim, but as soon as my feet touched down, it felt like home.
And every one of the four times I have visited since then, I’ve had that same feeling of ‘coming home’.
In between, trips to Finland and Denmark also resulted in an eerie sense of familiarity with our northern brethren, though I had no known relations any further north than Malin Head.
I often wondered if those first monks who settled in the ‘Smoky Bay’ (Reykjavik), believed to have come, along with St Brendan, from the north of Ireland, might actually be long lost cousins on my Donegal side!
It’s not that widely known, but genetically, most Icelandic women are actually of Irish Celtic origin rather that Nordic, which might give you an idea of how some of the monks kept warm on that cold, foreign soil.
The idea of having my DNA tested was always at the back of my mind, but in those early days of genetic technology, the price was prohibitive.
However, in the last few years, DNA testing has become accessible to anyone who has about €100 to invest in finding out more about their roots.
DNA kits have become the new religion – or at least the must-have stocking fillers at Christmas – for anyone with a sense of wonder and adventure about the previous generations of their family.
This year my New Year’s Resolution was to find out more about the past – my past, in fact. And see if those familiar feelings on northern soil had any basis in fact.
Just before Christmas I ordered a DNA kit from the biggest provider of commercial DNA testing in the world – ancestry.com – and opened an online account with its Irish arm, ancestry.ie.
The thoughts of pin prick tests or something even more intrusive had also held me back before, so I was delighted to find that ancestry.com needed nothing more complicated than a few globs of my spit in a tiny test tube that arrived promptly in the post.
You simply seal the tube, stick it back in the provided padded envelope and post it back to base.
And then began my dreams of finding my long-lost Viking cousins – perhaps I could lay claim to an Ikea inheritance, or share in the profits of Volvo, or maybe even find my new family owned a stake in a hot spring spa in Iceland?
A few weeks later the email popped into my Inbox, telling me my DNA Results were in! I called my husband – a long-suffering recipient of my Sandinavian fantasies – and we both sat, silent, in front of the trusty laptop as I hit ‘enter’ on the link.
Under the heading ‘ethnicity estimate’ I gently squinted through one half-open eye, awaiting confirmation of my Viking past.
‘Discover your DNA Story’ it teased and then up popped the result … ‘100% Irish’.
That can’t be right, I thought.
Sure, who could be 100% Irish in this country of well travelled emigrants, bohemian explorers and new world adventurers?
I checked again … shurley shome mishtake.
Nope, it was true.
‘100% Irish’ I read aloud again, as my husband did a very audible guffaw in my left ear.
Not only that, but when I clicked on the large grey map of the world indicating where exactly my ethnicity originated, as if to mock me even more, the only part in colour was a large circle around the whole of Ireland, and the tip of north west Scotland.
But the results were frighteningly accurate in its estimate of my roots – dividing them evenly between Inishowen (where my mother was born) and North Kerry/North Cork (my grandparents were from Newmarket).
Still, it took some time to come to terms with my new thoroughbred status. A fully-fledged Paddy. Totally green. With a mandate to wear a ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish’ t-shirt on Paddy’s Day forever more.
And then I decided to delve a little further into the results, by clicking on the ‘View All DNA Matches’.
This, I realised, is the real reason why people take DNA tests, as a list of 368 ‘4th cousins or closer’, popped up.
While some may be dubious about such matches, I was instantly reasurred by the sight of my first cousin – Donegal born but now living in Australia – under the ‘1st cousin’ tab. It told me we shared 685 cM (centimorgans) of genetic coding, and so the system’s confidence was ‘extremely high’ that we were related.
But, get this: While my ethnicity was rated 100% Irish, she had just 76% of Irish/Scottish or Welsh ethnicity, and the remainder was from … Finland or Northern Russia, which is denoted as ‘traces as Scandinavia’!
I clicked on the name of a second cousin I also recognised – also on the Donegal side – and he had an 83% Irish/Scotland/Wales ethnicity, and again ‘traces’ of Scandinavia!
Oh, the torture!
Another Donegal-linked cousin popped up in my ‘predicted third cousin’ tab, and there it was again – a 2% Scandinavian ethnicity.
And on it went … all on the Donegal side.
I opted for the other end of the country cousins then – the Corkies.
I didn’t instantly recognise any of the surnames as being from my southern roots – I was looking for Cronins or Barretts, but there were none. At first I just decided that the Corkies were too cute to be having their DNA tested for all and sundry to mull over, or that the Donegallies were more likely to have emigrated and therefore keener on rediscovering relations.
But within days I started to get messages on my ancestry account.
The first was from a lady who was searching on behalf of her husband, and hence I would never have spotted her on the site.
She sent me the family tree and within a few minutes I was able to pinpoint my Cork-born grandmother’s name on his list – though he hadn’t known her surname so it was only by a process of linking her with named siblings and the location of their townland, that I realised who it was. Thank God for big Irish families, I thought, it’s no wonder we are all so easy to find.
Soon we were swapping stories of visits from ‘the Americans’ back home in bygone years, memories of now-deceased aunts and great-uncles and photocopies of Census forms and photos of ancestral homesteads.
I never did find that great Scandinavian inheritance – or even a big American one – but I have made, and am still making, friends with cousins old and new, known and unknown, and realising the full extent of my Irishness.
On March 17th, my t-shirt won’t say ‘Vancy a Vonderful Viking?’ but it might just well say ‘Poke a Purebred Paddy’.
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