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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: August 12, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    Swimmers or spellers?

    John Grenham

    The marketing of genetic genealogy means that it needs to be approached with deep scepticism. It is far too easy to pay $200, have yourself pronounced 38% Viking, and get a (free!) plastic Viking helmet. Only one kind of test is unambiguously useful: a yDNA test of any group of men can establish with a high degree of precision when their most recent common ancestor lived. The most obvious use for this is in surname studies: a group of unrelated men with the same surname, particularly an unusual surname, can find out if they are all descended from a common ancestor, or whether their surname arose independently in different areas.

    Wait a second. Grenham is a rare enough surname. In Ireland it is restricted to a very precise area in south Roscommon. And it also exists as a surname in the south-east of England – there’s even a “Grenham Bay” in Kent. So are we descended from a stray English soldier who went native in eighteenth-century Athlone? (We’re quite native, you know.) Or, did the family come from across the river in Offaly, started by a Grennan who was a good swimmer but a poor speller?

    For a long time I’ve liked the uncertainty. It’s a good representative of the deep ambiguity that lies at the root of many surnames in Ireland. But a yDNA project can completely remove that uncertainty. Comparing yDNA from Grenham males with roots in Roscommon and those from Kent can objectively identify when our most recent common ancestor lived. If it was some time in the last four centuries, we probably need to start searching early British military records. Otherwise, we should embrace our trans-Shannon cousins.

    The problem, as always, is that someone has to take responsibility for such a project. I think I just nominated myself.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/magazine/column]

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