I’ll admit it, I wanted to prove that I was Irish. Or at least that a good part of me was Irish (maybe even the best part?). I felt Irish. I believed deep down that I was Irish. My family tree research was turning up more Irish ancestors each time I looked. But proving that I was Irish in my very DNA, well that was an opportunity too tempting to miss.
So I ordered my AncestryDNA kit. I spat in the tube. I sealed it all up and sent it off – of all places – to Ireland to be tested. And then I waited. Little did I realize that I was about to get a whole lot more information from that little vial of spit than I had ever bargained for.
A few weeks later, the email arrived to say my results were in. I logged into my AncestryDNA account and dove in – heading straight for my Ethnicity Estimate. And…Irish was my highest percentage – at 40%. (Okay, it was 39% but rounding up is totally acceptable). Maybe it was my DNA then that explained my fascination with Ireland and Irish history. And that I thought was the happy end to my wee DNA story.
But once the new wore off my Ethnicity Estimates my attention became focused on my DNA matches (arguably the more scientifically sound portion of the DNA results). DNA matches are people with whom you share a certain amount of DNA. I had quite a few matches – more than I had every anticipated.
My three highest matches – all listed as probable third cousins – had me intrigued. Two of them were relatively easy to explain without a lot of effort. One by their surname (I already knew how our family trees were connected) and the second by examining their attached family tree. But the other match was a mystery.
The mystery cousin had an extensive family tree, yet I could find nothing in common with my family tree. Or, I should say, I could find no people in common. Where our ancestors lived was completely overlapping. And where our ancestors lived – a very rural part of Ontario – turned out to be the key.
My father never knew who his paternal grandfather was. His paternal grandmother had my grandfather (and another child – a daughter) before she was married. My grandfather was raised by his biological grandparents – with the story being that he was their child (and a brother to the woman who was actually his mother), a common story for the time.
Grandpa apparently knew who his father was but never shared the information with my father or any of my dad’s siblings. When my grandfather died, we assumed the name of his biological father died with him. I’d often wondered about my great-grandfather and the story of how my grandfather came to be. I had even spent some sleepless nights trying to come up with some way to figure it all out – but had only recently accepted that it just wasn’t going to happen.
It’s funny what can happen when you’ve given up all hope.
It took me a while to believe it, but the more I examined my match’s family tree, the more convinced I was that I was on the trail of my missing great-grandfather. Circumstantial as it was, the evidence showed that one particular line of her family tree was in the right place at the right time – in the exact right place at the exact right time. In fact, it was one particular member of her family tree that made the most sense. And maybe it's my imagination running wild, but I think my great-grandmother left us some clues that helped convince me I was right.
The clincher came when I sent a picture I'd found of him to my brother. Choosing my brother wasn’t random – but I had to know if he saw what I saw. His reaction didn’t disappoint. He opened the picture and texted me back: “That’s me”. The eyes, the lopsided grin, the cooler than cool demeanor…they were all there. To top it off, he happened to leave the picture open on his computer. When his wife came home that night, she said: “Who’s that? He looks like you!”.
And my brother said: “That’s my great-grandfather”.
We still don’t know the whole story. But we have a name. And that’s a start.