Looking for your Irish ancestors can be like trying to put together a puzzle with only half the pieces. Many Irish records have been lost or destroyed, and oftentimes Irish ancestors who came to America left too few clues about where they came from. Fortunately, DNA can now provide much-needed puzzle pieces that can help complete the picture of your Irish ancestor.
When I started my search for an elusive Irish woman who immigrated to Pennsylvania, I was working with only a handful of puzzle pieces. Bridget Doherty braved the trans-Atlantic trip as a young woman in the 1800s, and her 2x great-granddaughter – let’s call her Maggie- was eager to find out where Bridget came from in Ireland. We scoured countless records in Pennsylvania, but they said nothing about Bridget’s origins. To make matters worse, Doherty is a common surname in Ireland, with many different spellings (Dougherty, Docherty, O’Doherty, etc.). With a common name and no good place in Ireland to start looking, it seemed our puzzle would stay half-done.
But then we looked at Maggie’s AncestryDNA results. To our delight, they gave us a whole new set of pieces to work with. AncestryDNA linked Maggie to a region in County Mayo, Ireland. This region was only 12 miles wide! Also, Ancestry told us that Maggie had over forty 4th-6thcousins with roots in this same place; this implied Maggie had a recent ancestor (within five generations) who came from that area. We knew Maggie had other Irish lines in her tree, but they came from County Cork; none that we knew of came from County Mayo. This 12-mile spot was likely where Maggie’s 2x great-grandmother Bridget came from.
Now that I had a place in Ireland to start looking, I went through the baptismal records of the local Catholic church. Sure enough, I found a Bridget Doherty who was born in Lecarrow Townland, right in the center of those 12 miles. This Bridget and her family matched up with what I knew about Bridget’s family in Pennsylvania. I confirmed this was the right Bridget Doherty. Thanks to DNA, Maggie now has a new connection to Ireland and more names to add to her Doherty family tree.
Lack of helpful records can make the search for an Irish ancestor’s origins difficult, even frustrating. The next time you go looking for your Irish ancestor, try including DNA in your search. It can point you in the right direction and give you the right pieces to complete your puzzle.