Recently my friend Harry asked me if I could look at his AncestryDNA Ethnicity Estimate, as he was a little puzzled by the results. The puzzle for him was he had a fair amount of Irish in his estimate even though he wasn’t aware of any Irish ancestors. I asked him if he had any Scottish ancestry and it turns out his mother is from Edinburgh. In Harry’s case, my hypothesis was that his 37% Irish could be due in part to his Scottish ancestors.
I get asked questions like this quite a lot. Many people find that their estimate does not seem to reflect what they know of their paper ancestry. Specifically, people often ask how they might have Irish in their AncestryDNA Ethnicity Estimate if they have no known Irish ancestors in their tree. The answer to this is easier to see if you look at the area that the Irish region covers on the AncestryDNA map.
If you look at the map you will see that although the Irish estimate primarily represents ancestry from Ireland, it also covers many neighbouring parts of the world – Scotland, Wales, England and parts of North Western Europe. The reason for this is that individuals in this region of the world have moved around a great deal over the past several hundred years — and they’ve taken their DNA with them. This means that often times, even people with deep roots in a given area can still have a signature of Irish ancestry in their ethnicity estimate, particularly if that area is close to Ireland.
I have written previously about the averages of estimated Irish ancestry for individuals across the UK & Ireland. But I thought it might be useful to show some examples from friends of mine.
The chart above is the amount of Irish ancestry estimated for myself and a few friends with different backgrounds. Starting with my own result, I have an Irish Ethnicity Estimate of 93%, which is typical for a native Irish person.
If we look across the graph, beside my result are Sue, Dan and Harry who are British. Sue is English with an Irish mum and a Scottish dad. Her estimated Irish ethnicity is 61%. Dan is Welsh and his estimate is 50%. Harry is English with a Scottish mother and his estimate is 37%.
Moving further afield is Scott, who has an ancestry estimate of 28% Irish. Scott is American, but as you might guess from his name, he has Scottish ancestry. Finally, there is JP who is French and has an Irish ancestry estimate of 24%. When I saw JP’s ethnicity estimate, I asked him if he had any Northern French ancestry. And sure enough, he does.
As you can see, among my friends the Irish ethnicity estimate decreases as you move away from Ireland. The estimate is highest with me, then lower for my British friends, then lower again for my friends from further away.
Looking at the results for my friends and I, there are two interesting questions to consider.
- Why is the region called Ireland and not, for example, Celtic?
- If I do get an Irish estimate, does it reflect heritage from the island of Ireland or something wider?
Taking the first question, why is the region named Ireland? There are a couple of reasons for this. But the simplest explanation has to do with the reference panel that is used to determine your estimate. The AncestryDNA reference panel is the set of DNA samples, representing individuals from particular regions around the world, to which your DNA is compared to obtain your ethnicity estimate. The individuals in the reference panel used for Ireland have deep roots in Ireland going back several generations.
Understanding the reference panel is also important in answering the second question. What an AncestryDNA ethnicity estimate tells you is that you share a genetic ancestry with a given group of people who are intended to represent individuals from a specific place of the world. That shared genetic ancestry may be hundreds to thousands of years ago.
In the case of Ireland the ethnicity estimate tells you that you share genetic ancestry with modern people of Ireland who have deep roots in Ireland as documented by their pedigrees going back many generations. However, we also know that even despite these deep roots, the regions neighbouring Ireland have strong historical, and therefore genetic, connections to Ireland too. So, it is natural that these connections would be reflected in the DNA of people from those regions, and therefore in their ethnicity estimates.
How, then, should you interpret your Irish estimate? The answer to this is to approach it like any family history question and look for supporting evidence. Do you have documentary evidence indicating Irish or perhaps Scottish ancestry? If so, then the ethnicity estimate is likely corroborating the documentation. Or perhaps your surname is Fraser or Jones, typically Scottish or Welsh surnames. Again, this may be an indicator of a Scottish or Welsh source for your Irish estimate. What you are looking for is multiple sources of evidence telling the same story.
If you don’t have any supporting evidence there could be several explanations for your Irish estimate. It is very possible that your Irish ancestry is beyond the reach of your paper trail. However it may also be that your Irish ethnicity estimate may represent ancestry from Scotland or Wales, elsewhere in the UK, or even a bit further afield. But to me, that is one of the exciting things about AncestryDNA. It is not just an answer to a question but the beginning of a deeper exploration and understanding of the story of you.