Thursday, 4 August 2016

Confusion and joy from AncestryDNA test results

A few months ago Ancestry very kindly supplied me with an AncestryDNA kit for a review. The results from my test are now available - was it worth the effort?

There are two ways that AncestryDNA says it can help with your ancestral understanding, based on an examination of a tester's autosomal DNA, which is inherited from both parents. The first is to give you a statement as to your ethnic identity and make-up, the second is to match you to potential cousins. My conclusion from the results is that one of these is just odd in terms of what is presented, whereas the other is indeed likely to be a massively major tool for the ancestral toolkit.

Let's deal with the weird bit first - the ethnicity estimate. According to AncestryDNA, the following is my ethnic make-up:


Apparently I am 52% Irish and 24% Great Britain, with a superbly exotic 18% from 'Europe West'. But what is this actually telling me? What does Ancestry mean by 'Ireland'? What does 'Great Britain' mean? What does 'Europe West' mean?!

Superficially, my documentary research shows that in terms of geographic locations, I am about half to three quarters Irish, in the sense that I have a lot of ancestors from Ireland. And about a quarter of my documented lines do indeed come specifically from birthplaces in Great Britain. The problem is that those geographic locations do not take into account the specific ethnicity of those born in those regions - if such a unique thing even exists, bearing in mind what a mix of folk we are from town to town, and country to country, within the UK and Ireland.

Well over half of my lines do come from Ireland - but the vast majority of those lines are originally of Scottish stock from the 17th century Plantations period, possibly later, and mainly from Lowland Scotland - with, I suspect, a couple of lines possibly even coming from England, just beyond the realms of what I have been able to prove so far by way of documentation. Only one line I have identified so far is of Irish Catholic stock, my Mooney ancestors from Dublin. Another major chunk of my ancestry is directly Scottish, but that is a mixture of Highland and Lowland Scots - but again, some lines much further back, such as my Graham and Bruce ancestors, are likely to be of Norman French stock. So on an 'ethnic' level, well over half of my ancestral stock actually comes from Scotland, albeit with several lines taking the scenic route via Ulster in recent generations, possibly England, France, and perhaps even elsewhere in Ireland much further back.

AncestryDNA's definition of what 'Ireland' and 'Great Britain' mean is so vague it is effectively useless. I've read reports online that suggest 'Ireland' in this context actually means descent from some wider Celtic stock, i.e. Ireland, Scotland, Welsh and even some English (Cumbrian etc). Great Britain supposedly means 'Anglo-Saxon'. But if that's true, the Anglo-Saxons came from western Europe, so why would they not be classed as Europe West? What exactly is AncestryDNA describing me as? The only word I can find is 'paranoid'!

Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I suffer from Sruth na Maoile Syndrome, with my identity stuck somewhere between Ireland and Scotland, and on that front, this really doesn't help...! The red rag to a bull idea of an American genealogy corporation trying to tell an Ulsterman whether he is 'Irish' or 'British', given our recent troubled history, and the baggage that comes with both labels in terms of cultural identity as well as ethnic identity - when it doesn't actually clarify what they mean by those terms - probably means such a description lies somewhere between being delicously ironic and just irresponsible. I was seriously unimpressed with this, because I actually haven't got a baldies what it is supposed to mean.

On another front though, things are considerably more exciting...

AncestryDNA matches my results to others in its database who share parts of my autosomal DNA, which is inherited from both parents. Some matches will be from my father's side, some from my mother's, with the descendants of my most recent ancestors having enough lengths of identifiable DNA to flag up a possible connection to me. First cousins will share a lot of that DNA, making a match more likely, whilst fourth cousins may contain a much tinier fragment that is barely long enough to make a confident match. Ancestry identifies those with possible matches, indicating a possible relationship and a probability of them being connected.

So far, two of those results are spot on, identifying fourth cousins who I have in fact already been in touch with long before doing this test. The probability for each having a match to me is reassuringly noted as 'high'. So far so good. What is more exciting is that a couple of further matches are there, cited as possible third cousins - a closer connection by one generation - with an 'extremely high' probability of being connected to me. I've not heard of either of these folk before, so this bodes well. I'll be chasing them up shortly to work out exactly where the matches lie.

So is the AncestryDNA test worth doing. Yes absolutely. Just take the ethnicity descriptions with large columns of salt...!

AncestryDNA kits are £79, available from

(With thanks to Ancestry for supplying a testing kit for review)


For details on my genealogy guide books, including A Decade of Irish Centenaries: Researching Ireland 1912-1923Discover Scottish Church Records (2nd edition), Discover Irish Land Records and Down and Out in Scotland: Researching Ancestral Crisis, please visit


  1. I consider the "ethnicity" report a kind of "parlour game" - kind of fun, if you don't take it literally.

  2. I found a 2nd cousin match; but that person has decided not to reply to me. Go figure.

  3. To my surprise I am 62% Irish and 32% Scandinavia with less than 1% "Great Britain". Haven't found any actual Scandinavian connections in the 5,500 people in my tree and am surprised that my English Grandmother and her antecedents seem not to have contributed much to my DNA. Had it been a Grandfather missing from my DNA then... ..

    The Ancestry map suggests "Irish" covers all of Ireland, Scotland, Man and a wee bit of England with GB overlapping to some extent. All very fascinating but useful? Some very high probability 4th cousins from whom, after 4 weeks, I have yet to hear.

  4. Glad I'm not the only one finding it all a bit odd Stewart! The cousin match facility is certainly useful though - but as you point out, it does take two to tango.

  5. Chris, you need to read their White Paper on the admixture stuff, it will explain exactly how they came up with the Irish and British data (apart from the precise data on which Irish counties and surnames!).

  6. I had my DNA analysed by The results state that I am 42% Irish.
    This is baffling as research has shown no Irish connections for the past six generations.
    I have an abundance of Scots and Cumbrian forebears though.
    Family Tree DNA analysis supports the lineal research, stating that I am 80% British , FTDNA providing a map on their site detailing where the closest DNA matches to mine are to be found- Southern Scotland, Cumbria and Lancashire.
    How can two analyses be so much at variance?

  7. Ancestry results show me as 42% Irish.
    Odd as can trace back family for 6 generations - mostly Scots with some Cumbrian and Lancashire admixture.
    13% Scandinavian? Going back to the Vikings? Hardy DNA
    1% Slavic. Odd again. Have some Czech ancestry from a few generations back. Surprised so little of it left.
    But - Irish? Seriously - and that much? Can only assume this is an error for the Scots.

  8. It is a bit vague. My Ancestry DNA results are 50% Irish, 38% Europe west, only 4% GB and 4% Iberian peninsula, 1% Scandinavia and some trace regions also of Europe. I have recent ancestry in Southern West coast Scotland and the borders and a french great grandfather. I have researched that much of Irish population are descended from early Spanish fishermen migration, Bronze age seafarers who settled in Dalriada Ireland and this area spread to west coast Scotland and due to geography influencing population (little overseas immigration) to create much of an admixture, there is a prevalence of the DNA being shared between both places with a sprinkling of Viking and other influences being rarer. I guess it is also nice being connected to perhaps such an ancient culture. I can often tell from appearance and personality those of similar Irish ancestry.

  9. Trouble is that research is only as good as the fact recorded. My birth certificate doesn't record my genetic father - it records the man my mother was married to!

  10. I found the AncestryDNA test tied in very well with my genealogical research with the only real question mark being my 9% Iberian Peninsula result, but I figure that may have been caused by Basque migration to the British Isles at the end of the last Ice Age.