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!

    1. I am in the same predicament. I had long suspected that the man listed on my birth certificate -- my mother's first husband -- was not my biological father. With his German and African races conspicuously absent from my racial profile, now I think it is safe to assume that my "dad" was not, in fact, my father.

      Just today, a woman sent me a message saying that I am probably her cousin. Yet none of the surnames in her family tree match any of mine. I am beginning to wish I had never done the DNA test!

      I live in the U.S., but 73% of my racial profile is British, 16% Irish. After growing up believing that I am 1/8 Black and 1/8 German, I don't know what I am anymore. I do look Irish: turquoise eyes, reddish blonde hair, lots of freckles. So I guess that part is right!


  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.

  11. I struggle somewhat with Ancestry (and the subsequent press) interpretation of 'British' being 'Anglo-Saxon'.

    There were inhabitants in mainland Britain before the Anglo-Saxons arrived. Recent archaeo-DNA research has indicated that the Anglo-Saxons integrated with the inhabitants they found there, so where is the DNA of these inhabitants?

    My own DNA test indicated that I am 40% British and 52% Westen European. I would normally expect this to mean I had one continental parent - but this is not the case.

    My family tree show no folk joining it from anywhere outside the Midlands and Northern England, let alone any marriages to continental Europeans in the family tree at all in the two centuries I've managed to go back. The recent Genetic Communities feature has strongly reinforced this.

    So, one interpretation of this, which is pretty much the one I've gone with, is:
    "British" = Ancient British roots
    "Western Europe" = Anglo-Saxon roots

    1. Another interpretation:

      Ireland = typically found in higher percentages in the Isles highland region, or Northwest.

      Britain = typically found in higher percentages the Isles lowland region, or Southeast.

      West Europe = typically found in higher percentages throughout Western Europe.

      Scandinavian = typically found in higher percentages in the South Baltic.

      The point being: the result is geographic not ethnic.

      Ancestry's error lies in the label 'Ethnicity'. The test is not checking ethnicity (i.e. English, Irish, Scottish or Welshness), it's checking the geographic distribution of given DNA patterns.

      I am 61% Ireland, 30% Britain, 4% West Europe, 2% Scandinavia. Which means the larger part of my atDNA finds its match in the Islands, then the Continent, then Scandinavia.

    2. From what I have read, it seems Ancestry made some basic mistakes in their categories. Instead of Irish, they should have used Gaelic. Instead of GB, they should have used Anglo-Saxon-Jute. If you are p-celtic (a true Briton from pre-saxon days), you are screwed, I don't know how they account for the pre-saxon Britons of p-celtic origin.

    3. you mean before the Saxons arrived?

    4. Id take the test if it could confirm my P-Celtic 'Dumnonian' Britishness vs AS-ness - looks like a waste of time.

      i understood from this

      that the AS contribution is very small in the 'English' and indistinguishable from Dane-ness, and that it was mostly British and 'French' but still distinguishable from the Cornish and Devonians

    5. Think of it this way. They aren't digging into ancient burials and saying "this was your great-great....grandfather". All they are doing is comparing your results with the current inhabitants of a region (who can trace their grandparents to the same region).

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  14. Waiting for my results from FamilytreeDNA. I know, (or should I say assume), it will be predominantly Irish, (mum's Irish), but dad's side is a heavy mix so it will be interesting. After a bit of research about this type of testing, I didn't trust Ancestry to do this test for me.

  15. Got my results back....50% British, 40% Irish and 10% other. I was adopted by 2 Sicilians and never knew my actual background. Born in Florida, USA. In America majority of adoptions are sealed. My parents choose to not tell me I was adopted till I was 34. Now 50 and want to know my background.

  16. My family on both sides have been in the US since the late 1690's. I came out to be 85% GB with a few percent in other European countries. From what I've been reading I'm quite unusual with that high a percentage.

  17. I have just received my results and it says me English ancestors are from the midlands and the north. However, my grandmother was from Kent and I have traced the majority of her ancestors to the early 16th century and they are all from Kent. My Grandad was from Essex and I have traced his family (the majority) back to the early 17th century and they were all from Essex/Suffolk. So how did I end up with none from either of those regions? The other half is Scottish.

  18. My DNA shows I'm 83% Eastern Europe and 18% Great Britain. 5% Ireland. Is it possible my great great grandfather was British?

  19. My DNA shows I'm 83% Eastern Europe and 18% Great Britain. 5% Ireland. Is it possible my great great grandfather was British?

  20. My Ancestry DNA test shows 1% Native American which I haven't seen referenced in any lists of the makeup of 'British' people - is it unusual to have this? Has it occurred in anyone else's results?

  21. My ancestry DNA test showed 1% Native American which I haven't seen referenced in any lists of the make up of British people, has anyone else had this in their results?

  22. Just got my results with 97% British. This either makes me a Thorobred or an inbred. I can't quite decide. I am interested in the thread around British being ancient Celts or Anglo Saxon. Still an excellent and intriguing experience and pleased I did it.

  23. Just got my results with 97% British. This either makes me a Thorobred or an inbred. I can't quite decide. I am interested in the thread around British being ancient Celts or Anglo Saxon. Still an excellent and intriguing experience and pleased I did it.

    1. This is my exact result as well! A bit shocking, I'm American with a grandfather born in Belfast, Ireland. Wondering if the GB overlaps with Northern Ireland or the Scotch-Irish...anyway, most Brits are 60% so we are way more native than the natives! Weird.

  24. Did Ancestry test.Somewhat confused on the results as well. Got percentages of British, Scandinavian, Irish and Italy/Greece.
    Now, I personally thought British as pre-Roman population although ive now heard anglo-saxon? shouldnt that fall under West Europe instead?
    Scandinavian is somewhat clear. Italy/greece I gather to mean Southern Europe or perhaps Roman stock?
    Than Irish, which apparently covers Scotland and Wales as well so are they saying Irish to be the original British DNA indicated in my study?

  25. ALot of people will say how can this be I'v done my own research (what our family and parents tell us) consider the fact that people are unfaithfull at times and your entire research gos in the water. Since a child I thought I was spanish only to find out thats not the case Im Germanic and my grandmother obviously lied to my mother. Now I wonder if I should tell my mom.

  26. I found my grandmother's immigration form entering Canada from GB.Listing her stock as Irish. I had heard from my mother her mother was Irish.Immigration form tells me she was born Bradford,Manchester.Found her birth certificate,giving me the name of her mother born Ardwick,Manchester,her husband Hulme,Manchester.Her father born Manchester as was his father and my gggrandmother.
    This means I am back to 1800 and nobody born in Ireland.
    I am confused.I expected to find something by now.
    The I read article giving Manchester as a high percentage of Irish population.1700 perhaps.

    Dads family on his fathers side Wales. Mothers side England.

    DNA 48% England.

    30% Ireland.

    22% Scandinavian,

    At this point I am clueless.

  27. My problem with taking the test is, I will not be able to convince my family members to take it as it isn't cheap and you have to pay an annual fee for to keep up to date. I found my results inconclusive on my mothers side...

  28. I feel like the DNA test is beneficial if other family members do it as well. However, in my case, nobody else really cares about their history. I feel like my heritage is correct on my father's side, but skewed on my mother's side.