If you follow me on Facebook, you saw the big Union Jack I posted recently to honor my British ancestors.
I took a DNA test through ancestry.com and the results came back as I expected, more or less. It came as no shock to me that I’m a white European, more than ¾ from the British Isles. That came as no shock either. My maiden name wasn’t McElroy for nothing, nor was my mother’s name McKinley or her grandmother’s name McGuirk. This may explain why I am comforted by Celtic music.
Up until now, I’ve traced my family through documents—wills, Bible records, deeds, diaries, marriage records and the like. One day I’d take all this a step further. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) helped push me to it when they recently decided to accept DNA evidence as proof of ancestry. Yes this sounds a little weird—an organization based on meticulous proofs of genealogy is just now getting on the genetic bandwagon, but if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.
DNA, as many know, is the genetic markers you inherit from both parents–half from your mother, half from your father. Unless you are an identical twin, no one else has your exact genetic makeup. What you inherit from each parent is a random mix of genes. This explains why siblings, though closely related, often vary in height, body shape, hair color and so on.
For $99 and change, ancestry.com will test a sample of saliva and let you know what ethnic groups are represented in your genes. Thanks to this test, I know that I’m 12 percent Scandinavian, which may explain my blue-green eyes and why I can seldom find trousers that are long enough.
I learned that I have trace elements of Italian-Greek, Eastern European and the Iberian Peninsula (Spanish/Portuguese). Those last results surprised me until I realized that my DNA profile is in fact a microcosm of history of the British Isles for the past 2,000 years.
I’m 43 percent Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland). This was expected because documents prove I have ancestors from each of those places. Many of these ancestors fled in the 1600s, when things were getting dicey for Baptists, Quakers, Puritans and Presbyterians. Better board a rickety boat for America than face more harassment, imprisonment or death.
I’m 34 percent Irish. No surprise there. Several of of my Presbyterians and Quaker forebears were coerced to leave England, Scotland and Wales for a resettlement project in Ireland’s six northern counties. You know how well that went, especially after the potato blight of 1845.
My Scandinavian genes surely relate to the invasions by Norsemen—Vikings, who dropped by to pillage and plunder. By the 8th century, Norse invaders sacked British monasteries, culminating in the famous invasion by the Normans (Norsemen) in 1066. Imagine General Sherman on steroids and you get the idea.
What of the Mediterranean elements in my DNA?
The answer is a bit further back in history. Roman legions under the direction of Julius Caesar invaded Britain in the first century. There are a few straight roads in England that date from the Roman occupation of Britain, along with scores of Roman sites such as Hadrian’s Wall on the Scottish border and the amazing Roman baths at Bath, England. And after 2,000 years, some leftover Roman genes make up six percent of me.
Spanish forces made landfall in Ireland in 1588 in a conflict that lasted until 1604. This may explain how Spanish or Portuguese blood came into my family.
As for Eastern Europe, I do have some German ancestors in the mix, including Wilhelm Rittenhouse, a Mennonite minister who brought the papermaking industry to America. His stone house still stands near Philadelphia. Were his people actually of Austrian or Czech or Polish extraction? Maybe.
I didn’t choose my DNA, but knowing what kinds of people make up my genetic background helps me better appreciate who I am. I’m not just “British’ or “Irish.” I’m a unique mix of genes passed down for untold generations from all over Europe. I now see my Italian and Spanish friends a bit more as family. And if I ever make it to Prague or Warsaw, I may feel a unique bond too.
I wonder what my late parents might think of what I learned. Growing up, I could imagine my Dad, a large-framed blond man with blue eyes, wearing a horned Viking helmet. Apparently I wasn’t too far off the mark.
Illustration credit: By brian0918™ – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=404735