Tuesday, 27 November 2007

DNA Testing and Ulster Heritage

One question I am asked often is ‘can you really locate your family in Ireland using a DNA test?’ … ‘has anyone already done this?’ ‘Yes,’ you really can and many families have already done so including my own. In the case of my McCains we left County Antrim circa 1719 so we were facing almost three centuries of loss of contact with our family that remained behind in County, Antrim. I not only located my family in Antrim, but also located branches in Canada, Scotland, and throughout the USA. It makes a trip over to Ulster very meaningful, when you can visit a house, a cemetery, etc., that you know is connected to your family and best of all you can knock on that door and find a nice cup of tea waiting for you served by ‘your’ family. Nothing like that feeling.

As I work with the Ulster Heritage DNA Project I hear many similar tales, some quite remarkable and moving. Some families not only locate their kinfolk in Ulster, but also discover even older links to Gaelic clans and historic families. As I sit and write this I recall many such cases; the famous Mac Eain families of both Ardnamurchan and Glencoe both were located as were the Ó Catháin families of Dungiven, the Hamiltons of Abercorn, just to name a very few. Some families discover they are related to a very famous bloodline and are left with a pleasant mystery yet to solve. Even those who test and do not have a dramatic breakthrough in their family’s history do enjoy finding out about their deep past and seeing if there is a Gael, a Norseman, or perhaps Norman there.

My own pet interests include the families of Argyll that are so connected to Ulster. Many of these are the Gallóglaigh families. The Gallóglaigh were a hereditary warrior caste that served the great Irish lords and gave rise to their own clans in time; some of their names are Mac Aileain (McAllen), Mac Suibhne (Sweeny), Mac Eáin (McCain), Mac Dónaill (McDonnell), Mac Alasdair (McAlexander). Their history is remarkable and they functioned in Irish society very much like the Samurai did in Japan. Their origins go back to the days of great Norse influence in the Gaelic world and the warrior cults of the Gael and Norse, such as the Jomsvikings or Mac Báis. They had a striking physical appearance, noted for using a two handed axe, coats of mail and a stylized conical helmet. Perhaps most remarkable is they continued to exist as an institution well into the early modern era unchanged in appearance and fighting style.

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