Bringing family histories to life in the present

Last month, the Maine Irish Gaeltacht DNA project joined up with the Irish Cultural Center of New England (ICCNE) for a workshop focusing on DNA testing and the ways in which it can connect us all with our past and our future. The information they shared with workshop participants offered a fascinating look at the study of geneaology and the wonderful ways that gene-based science can bring our history to life in the present.

The day kicked off with ICCNE Librarian Dave Barrett giving an overview of the history of his organization and also that of the Maine Irish Heritage Centre (MIHC) and their shared interest in tracking familial DNA connections from New England back to Ireland and elsewhere.
Historians from the Maine side presented information about the Gaeltacht project, a labor of love born from a desire to trace family roots and to connect families in the Portland, Maine, area, many of whom can claim family origins in the Galway region of Ireland. The center itself hosts an online database where those searching for long-lost cousins can register and find other like-minded individuals who’ve spent time researching family trees.

The database contains over 130,000 names and the Maine project boasts over 1,000 participants.

The presentation showed that with budding geneaologists now having science at their very fingertips, today’s studies are a far cry from the old days of tracing correspondence and trying to recall family lore. Family Tree DNA, the preferred testing company of the Maine DNA Project, offers At-Home Autosomal Test kits that allow users to take a simple swab test that is then analyzed in the Family Tree lab for genetic markers that can be pinpointed to specific locations around the world.

This reporter was on hand at the presentation and participated in a demonstration meant to show the ease of the testing: a simple one-minute swab of the inside of the mouth collects enough DNA to give deep insight into one’s genetic makeup.

There are several other home DNA test kits available to consumers, such as “23 and Me” and “Ancestry,” both of which offer autosomal testing. It costs about $80 for a basic test, and all results will be stored for a number of years.

Deb Sullivan Gellerson of the MIHC stresses the importance of testing older generations while their members are alive. “If funds are limited, it is always best to test the oldest living relatives as they will carry more of the DNA of the previous generation. With every generation, we lose up to 50 percent of our DNA from ancestors.”

For many, genetics testing – essentially a treasure map back to the lives of grandparents, great grandparents, and beyond – offers an opportunity to connect future generations with living relatives they may not know exist.

For more information on this project, which is free to join, contact Margaret LaCombe at