Searching for the Irish ancestor awarded your surname? Dublin scientist's new DNA venture has answers (First publish 3/2/12)

How hot is genealogy DNA testing these days?  The largest DNA testing laboratory, Family Tree DNA, posted that, as of Wednesday, they had a total of 361,933 records.  According to biotechnologist Tyrone Bowes, "It is the size of this database that facilitates the pinpointing of one’s ancestor, as many of the surnames associated with Ireland are well represented." In 2003, when commercial DNA testing first became available, Bowes, a Dubliner, jumped at the chance to have his family tested.  He discovered that his ancestors were "Native Irish," along with the name of their clan and where they lived for hundreds of years.  This discovery, combined with his passion for history, geography and biotechnology, led him naturally to become a genetic genealogist, helping people to find their "genetic homeland" via their DNA test results.

Through my own training in aboriginal spiritual practices and quantum physics, I have become convinced that we carry the "experiences" of our ancestors in our DNA and that we are always working through these inherited patterns.  While researching our last Q&A, with Irish psychotherapist Martine Brennan, I ran across Bowes’ new website, I have been watching his venture with increasing interest, so I contacted him to give us a preview of what services he will be offering. -- Alannah Ryane, Genealogy Producer  I understand that once someone has their "37 marker Y Chromosome" DNA test results, your website can provide information that helps people to make sense of their results, and, in the process, pinpoint where their medieval ancestors’ lived.You also provide a medieval map of the old Irish Clans and their territories. Could you please describe these services for us?

Tyrone Bowes: Yes, everything on the website was produced to assist anyone with Irish ancestry in interpreting their DNA test results and in the process help pinpoint where their Irish ancestors lived. To achieve this, I have constructed two databases. The largest, containing nearly 5,000 individual images, is an Irish surname distribution database. The surnames are taken from MacLysaght’s “Surnames of Ireland” and the data used to construct each image is taken from the 1911 census of Ireland.

Each image shows the distribution of a Surname throughout the 32 Counties of Ireland, and hence where it originates. They also detail the ethnicity, that is whether the Surname is of Irish, Norman, Viking, Scottish, English, Welsh, Gallowglass (mercenary Scottish), or later Planter origin. In the case of Irish surnames, information is also supplied on the number of distinct clans that used a particular surname. For example, there is only one clan that used the surname Sullivan and that surname is found concentrated in the Southwest [of Ireland], where it originates, while there are four distinct clans that used the Donohoe surname, found concentrated in four separate locations in Ireland. Since castles are an a actual physical reminder of a clan or of a family’s long historical presence in an area, I constructed the second database, called ‘Clans and their Castles,’ which consists of 401 images and shows the location of 1,375 castles associated with 401 of the most prominent clans and families.

I also supply three maps that are available to purchase called the “Surnames of Ireland,” “Clan Territories of Ireland,” and the “Castles of Ireland.” Each surname on the Surnames Map has been placed in the area where it concentrated in 1911. Since Ireland remained essentially an agrarian society, surnames could still be found in the areas where they originated. The idea is to stick pins on the surnames that occur as a genetic match, see a pattern emerge (with the pins clustering in a particular area) and literally reveal your genetic homeland, the area where your ancestors lived for centuries.

The Clan Territories Map details the areas of influence of over 400 of the most prominent Irish clans and Norman families at the time of King Henry VIII and prior to the later Elizabethan conquest and the destruction of the clan system in Ireland. The territories were literally reconstructed from the location of the 1,375 castles, which I could pinpoint using Google Earth and which I could connect historically to a particular clan or family.

It proved impossible to detail both the territories and all the castle information on one map, and I had, therefore, to construct a separate ‘Castles of Ireland Map’ which details each castle’s local name, the clan or family that either built it or was associated with it, and the precise geographical coordinates which one can put into Google Earth and zoom in and explore the remains of the castles where your ancestors lived.

There are also some open-access case studies that demonstrate how I made sense of some people’s results, and a sort of You Tube tutorial. I have also written some descriptive text on the colonization of Ireland and the science of surnames. On your website, you describe "Native Irish Gaels" as Ireland's inhabitants prior to the Vikings in 795 A.D. After 800 A.D., they were the first European country to adopt surnames describing one's affiliations, whereas the English surnames denoted one's profession.  You also stated that some people could actually trace their DNA back to the ancestor who was first granted that name!  Have you run across anyone who has discovered this?

Bowes: Remarkably, science has demonstrated that after nearly 1,200 years there is a 50 percent chance that as a male you retain the same (or similar sounding) surname to the one that your direct male ancestor first picked! In fact, for once Ireland has been leading the research in this scientific field. Irish researchers showed for example that 50 percent of people with the surname Sullivan were descended from a single individual, the first to call himself Sullivan, the Sullivan ‘Adam,’ so to speak, and that the other 50 percent had an association with the surname that has arisen as a result of what’s called a non-paternal event, usually an adoption or through infidelity. So 50 percent of the people for whom I complete case studies are, indeed, related to their surname’s founding ancestor.

Only through DNA testing will you reveal which 50 percent of the population you belong to! But matters can be complicated by the fact that many clans used the same surname. For example, there are many different O’Connor clans and Donohoe clans found in different locations. But, again, the DNA test results can determine which one you descend from, as the surnames of the people you match are a snapshot of your ancestor’s neighbors.

For example, I did a case study on an individual called Donohoe: His matches were to surnames found only in the Southwest, where there was a cluster of Donohoes in 1911 in an area associated with a medieval Donohoe clan territory (centered upon the town of Killarney). His ancestor was the founder of this Donohoe clan ­-- he could not have been a descendent of any of the other of the Donohoe clans found in Cavan, Wexford and Galway, as his surname matches cluster in that single location in County Kerry! I have actually used his results on the YouTube video to demonstrate the process.

Dr. Tyrone Bowes with sons Alexander, Fraser and Callum. Why are your services based on the results of only the "37 marker Y Chromosome" test, and what exactly is that ?

Bowes: The Y chromosome is the bit of DNA that is passed from father to son, it’s what makes males male, so to speak, and since DNA mutates, a son’s DNA will be ever so slightly different from his father’s. Scientists can look at 37 bits of the Y chromosome from different males and see how well they compare (or match) and therefore determine how distant their shared ancestry lived, after all if we go back far enough we are all related. The more markers you match with someone else, the closer in time your shared ancestor lived. For example, if you match someone in 36 of 37 markers, then your shared ancestor lived possibly within the last 200 years, while if you match in 34 of 37 markers your shared ancestor lived much further back in time. Pinpointing your Irish ancestors to an area using the Y-DNA test result exploits the link between the Y chromosome, surnames and land, all of which are usually passed from father to son. It is our notable Irish heritage that actually facilitates the whole process! Surnames in medieval Ireland denoted who you were, where you were from and to whom your allegiances lay. It mattered who you were in Irish society and surnames were literally a reflection of your genealogy, denoting one as Mc’ or O,’ the son of or grandson of. You had to have been someone special to be given a surname. These surnames stand in stark contrast to English surnames, which denoted your trade, where you were from, or a notable personal feature. Finally, land, where do I start with land? One cannot stress its importance to the Irish psyche, it is probably most notable recently in the massive property bubble that developed in the mid-1990s, as Ireland finally experienced a sort of late industrial revolution. Or one can just look at the film “The Field,” which starred Richard Harris, John Hurt and Tom Berringer, to understand its importance. Or you can examine how Ireland has discriminated against members of the ‘landless’ Travellers community, whose strong family ties and feuds reflect aspects of the old clan system. The result is that Irish people have an obsession with land and remained in areas even after conquest by Vikings, Normans, and later Planter settlers, merely switching a Gaelic chief for a Norman or English lord. Land was still passed from father to son, as was the surname, which, by the 20th century, was merely anglicized. So, by 1911, surnames were still in the areas where they arose, and since clans usually evolved from neighboring clans with whom they were related, this means that the surnames of the people you match upon DNA testing are literally a snapshot of your ancestor’s neighbors from over 1,000 years ago.

TheWildGeese: Finding our Irish ancestors who lived 1,000 years ago is exciting, but if you do not have any male relatives, what are our options?

Bowes: You can also trace your maternal ancestry, but in the absence of a maternal transmission of surnames or land it can be more difficult. Each of us receive mitochondrial DNA from our mothers and only our mothers, and one can similarly look at different bits of this DNA and compare it with others and determine how long ago a shared maternal ancestor lived. However, for it to work, it would require the large-scale testing of Irish women living in Ireland. I suppose as time goes by and more and more people get tested, the more we can decipher the story of our maternal line. What are all the membership services you offer, what new services will be offered in the future, and how much does your membership cost? 

Bowes:Although the databases will be open to the public, there still is a membership option, this is now lifelong in duration and as of mid-March a membership package includes all three maps (Surnames, Clan Territories, and Castles) for $99. With that, I also offer advice via e-mail on queries regarding surnames that members often have.

The maps can be purchased individually, and one can also commission me to do a personalized case-study, which costs $149.99. These can be quite delicate affairs as people often come to me wanting their results to reflect a link to a specific area.

What we often overlook is that 40 percent of people with Irish ancestry today will be related to people who may originally have been marauding Vikings, conquering Normans, English, or Welshman, mercenary Scots, or even later English and Scottish planters. If this is so, then the surnames of one’s genetic matches from DNA testing could lead back to the United Kingdom, Scandinavia or even the continent -- one must approach the process with an open mind.

I am taking a break from making thematic maps of Ireland, but I will certainly be making more, and am currently considering themes, like ‘Battles fought on Irish soil.’ What really got me interested in that was the ‘Battle of Affane,’ which I discovered when researching castles, was one of the last private battles fought on Irish soil between the two principal Norman families -- the Butlers and the Fitzgeralds in 1565. Queen Elizabeth the 1st was furious when she discovered that her own subjects had fought a private battle -- the chief of the Butlers was her first cousin. I suppose it was a case of the Normans or old English adopting bad Irish habits. Both families fought each other that day with their own Irish allies (the O’Kennedys and Fitzpatricks with Butler, and the MacCarthys and O’Sullivans with Fitzgerald) and each with their own supply of mercenary Scots to boot, and using Irish Gaelic law as a justification. Truly a case of the Normans becoming more Irish than the Irish.

I have also nearly completed a Scottish and English Origenes website, these are much smaller affairs and are designed to assist people with ancestry in these countries in interpreting their DNA test results. Since the Scots adopted a similar Clan system is is also quite easy to pinpoint a Scottish Genetic Homeland, while in England it can be more difficult and can require a lot of work.

I am also working on a Castles and Clan Territories App for tourists coming to Ireland and wishing to explore their Irish heritage. Lastly, I am seeking funding for a TV series called “Origenes” that will take members of the Irish diaspora and unravel the story of their Irish ancestors as revealed through their DNA test results. WG

PRODUCER'S NOTE:  My distant cousin Danny Martin, who provided the theme song for my video series "By Her Roots," has Y-chromosome DNA test results from Family Tree DNA. "By Her Roots" focused on our search for our "most distant ancestor," Peter Martin, who helped build the Canadian town of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1749.  Family lore stated he was from the Martin tribe of Galway. We took up the generous offer of Irish Origenes founder Tyrone Bowes to do an assessment of my cousin's Y-DNA test  -- Alannah Ryane

Part Two:  Dr. Bowes uses test results to trace back for our ancest...

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Tags: Gaels, Genealogy, Irish Surnames clans, castles of ireland, irish ancestors, tyrone bowes, y-chromosome dna testing

Comment by Alannah Ryane on November 4, 2013 at 10:38am

Part two of this series is the very interesting assessment Dr. Bowes did on my cousin's y-dna test results which really opened up our understanding of Scotch/Irish migration. 


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