Luck of the Irish American

Day 53: Looking over a two leaf clover

(iPhone photo #53 in my 2012 365+1 project)

My niece says that her father, my brother, must be Irish because he spots four-leaf clovers like nobody’s business. He doesn’t have to search for them. He just spots them while walking across the yard. She says this is irrefutable proof of Irish ancestry. I think it might be the excellent pattern recognition skills that also make him good at building things. I don’t know if that is Irish or not. Either way, it is a skill that has eluded me.

I grew up assuming we were of Irish ancestry, but after seven generations in the American South (nine if you count down to my brother’s grandchildren), it’s a little difficult to verify anything. Turns out other branches of the family think that our great-great-great-great-great grandfather came from France instead, and no one can track down the paperwork to prove any differently. He’s our genealogical brick wall.

His name was James Gerald (m. Mildred Taliaferro), and he lived in South Carolina in the 1700s. After working hard for a couple of days to find the information on him that others have failed to find in half a century of shared family research, I decided that I had to prove we were Irish with or without the paper trail.

I ordered a DNA test. That was before I knew anything about how DNA tests for ancestry worked. I’m glad I did order that test. I was fairly well fascinated by the results. Nonetheless, it wasn’t the type of test to tell us whether James Gerald was Irish or French. We needed another James Gerald and a Y-DNA test for that.

Y-DNA tests check for certain markers that are handed down generation after generation from father to son. Once again, I encountered something I could not do. Only men can take this test.

Luckily enough for a potentially Irish American, my brother James agreed to take the test, and my three brothers all chipped in to pay for it. Results are in, and things are looking pretty positive for the Irish in the male line from one James Gerald down to another.

Nothing is definitive.

1. I’m playing amateur detective in all directions. I have no experience in interpreting DNA reports.

2. We haven’t found anyone yet who is a close enough genetic match to verify a particular family connection.

It pains me to admit the results are not entirely definitive. At first I thought they were more definite. That was before I figured out how to read all of the charts. We might have “strongly leans toward Irish,” but we don’t yet have “definitely Irish.” Not yet.

What we do have is a handful of genetic matches to people who have listed their family ancestry as Irish. Our earliest known ancestor was 7 generations back. The closest of the family matches we’ve found in the DNA database has a common ancestor at about 15 generations back.

If I had to make a call on it right now, I’d say we have good evidence of Irish ancestry. We did not hit any verifiable genetic matches to people with ancestry other than Irish, and we did collect several matches to people with Irish ancestry. Still, this trend could change as more people take the Y-DNA test and enter their results in the same database. We could also end up with other results if other known descendants of our James Gerald added their DNA to the project. As I understand it in my very amateur capacity, Y-DNA can be handed down for thousands of years virtually unchanged, but it can also mutate somewhat along the way. We would need some DNA from distant cousins to truly verify the results.

I wasn’t sure I had time to wait for Gerald men to decide to spend money. I ordered an additional test myself, and we are still waiting for the results.

In addition to finding family matches, one potential way to narrow down the country of origin for an ancestor is to identify your haplogroup. Currently, my brother’s haplogroup is listed as R1B1A2. This is the group that 80% of Europe belongs to. There is something called a deep clade test, though, that attempts to place you in a more specific sub-category. Sometimes these sub-categories are associated with particular countries or particular clans of people. That’s what we’re waiting for now. It will probably take about 6 weeks to find out if this new test places us in a group that is more specific than Western European.

That’s where we stand now. If you are interested in tracing your own ancestry through DNA, we ordered the Y-DNA test from www.familytreedna.com. If you are trying to find family matches, you need at least a 67 marker test — or so I have been told. If you are a Gerald man who is a descendent of James Gerald of South Carolina in the 1700s, I’d be very interested in finding out how your DNA matches up to that of my side of the family. I’m not interested enough to pay for your test, you understand, but I’d be happy to see you order one from the same company and post the results to the same database.

Meanwhile, I’ll just go on with my efforts to prove my Irishness by searching for four-leaf clovers. So far, not so good. I only found the two-leaf clover pictures above today.

Better luck next time.

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