I thought I was Irish – until I did a DNA test

A ‘just for fun’ home test kit produced results that changed the lives of two families

Who is Alice Collins Plebuch? A DNA test revealed that she is half Jewish and has Middle Eastern and Eastern European blood rather than being of only Irish descent. Photograph: Yana Paskova for The Washington Post/Getty Images

Who is Alice Collins Plebuch? A DNA test revealed that she is half Jewish and has Middle Eastern and Eastern European blood rather than being of only Irish descent. Photograph: Yana Paskova for The Washington Post/Getty Images

 

Alice Collins Plebuch, a retired IT manager from Vancouver in Washington State, thought she was of Irish ancestry, on both her mother’s and her father’s sides. That was until a “just for fun DNA test” sparked a three-year quest to unravel a mystery that turned the lives of two families upside down.

A DNA test “can change the future and it can change the past. It can change our understanding of who we are”, wrote Libby Copeland in the Washington Post last week. Copeland was referring to DNA testing for the purposes of “recreational genomics”, and the life-changing fallout two families experienced following such a test.

Collins Plebuch, now 69, initially thought an error had been made when her saliva test results revealed that she had a combination of 50 per cent European Jewish, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European bloodlines, along with the expected Irish component.

Forensic investigation

But on reflection, she decided to undertake a forensic investigation of her own and her near relatives’ bloodlines and family histories, to try to find an explanation, and to reach an understanding of her “new” reality.

The story of that search is compelling, with a twist in the tale, and the Washington Post telling of it went viral as soon as it was published.

Speaking to The Irish Times this week, Collins Plebuch said: “Immediately after the story was published, I signed on to Facebook to share the URL with family and friends. But it was too late – complete strangers had already posted the story and it was spreading like wildfire.”

Discovering that her father wasn’t who she thought he was – and wasn’t who he had thought he was either – was a life-changing moment for her. But despite the impact the revelations have had on not only her own family, but on another family drawn into the story, Collins Plebuch does not regret sending away that “for fun” DNA test.

“There’s no question about it, yes, I would do it again. I was very close to my father, as were my siblings, and finding the family he never knew was a labour of love. I always thought there was a good chance I’d eventually find Dad’s family, and admit to having become compulsive in my search,” she says.

DNA testing for the purposes of genealogy is becoming increasingly popular – it is estimated that nearly eight million people worldwide have used an at-home kit. For less than €100, you can learn more about who you really are, and where your ancestors were from, just by spitting into a test tube and posting it off to a lab. What’s not so cut and dried, however, is the outcome.

Genetic testing

According to the Washington Post, 23andMe, a genetic testing and analysis company based in the US, estimated in 2014 that “7,000 users of its service had discovered unexpected paternity or previously unknown siblings”.

For Collins Plebuch, her test results “meant one of her parents wasn’t who he or she was supposed to be – and, by extension, neither was she”, Libby Copeland writes. Adoption was ruled out when her sister Gerry Collins Wiggins’s test indicated that the full sibling also had “significant Jewish ancestry”. Nor was the surprising finding the result of an extramarital affair.

Narrowing the search for the Jewish ancestry down to her deceased father Jim Collins’s side – less was known about his immediate family as his mother had died when he was a baby and his father had sent him and his two siblings to orphanages – brought some startling new information.

Extending the DNA testing to her cousins led Collins Plebuch to the realisation that “her cousin wasn’t actually her cousin. And her dad’s sister wasn’t actually his sister”.

Copeland notes that the sisters “came to the stunned conclusion that their dad was somehow not related to his own parents. John and Katie Collins were Irish Catholics, and their son was Jewish”.

“I really lost all my identity,” Collins Plebuch says. To try to unravel the mystery, Collins Plebuch, a data specialist, signed up for a class in how to use DNA, and began a wide-reaching research project with the aim of discovering who her father really was, starting with his birth certificate, which stated that he had been born at Fordham Hospital in the Bronx, on September 23rd, 1913.

Theories disproved

Three years on, and with several theories disproved and dead ends encountered, a breakthrough came when a stranger reached out to Pete Nolan, a “cousin” who Collins Plebuch now knew was not actually her blood relation.

In North Carolina, a woman named Jessica Benson – with no apparent connection to Collins Plebuch – had also taken a DNA test “on a whim, hoping to find out more about her Jewish ethnicity”. Benson had discovered she had some Irish blood, rather than the purely Jewish ancestry she had expected. The DNA database at 23andMe indicated to Benson that she had a close relation she was unaware of – and it was Pete Nolan.

The two women dug deeper into their family histories, and discovered that Collins Plebuch’s father, Jim Collins, and Benson’s grandfather, Phillip Benson, had been born on the same day, in Fordham Hospital.

“Someone in the hospital back in 1913 had messed up. Somehow a Jewish child had gone home with an Irish family, and an Irish child had gone home with a Jewish family. And the child who was supposed to be Phillip Benson had instead become Jim Collins”, Libby Copeland writes.

Phylis Pullman, first cousin to Alice Collins Plebuch, and Alice (centre) chat with Alice’s second cousins Dan Klein and Jerry Klein, in Seaford, New York. Photograph: Yana Paskova for The Washington Post/Getty Images
Phylis Pullman, first cousin to Alice Collins Plebuch, and Alice (centre) chat with Alice’s second cousins Dan Klein and Jerry Klein, in Seaford, New York. Photograph: Yana Paskova for The Washington Post/Getty Images

The impact of this mix-up on both families has been significant, but Collins Plebuch sees it in a positive light. “Finding Dad’s family was probably the most thrilling thing that’s happened to us,” she told The Irish Times.

Members of both extended families have met up, and exchanged stories, and have holidayed together and developed new friendships. “Several of us have become very close with our first cousin Phylis Pullman [the daughter of Jim Collins’s “unknown” biological sister], and her children, as well as her nieces and nephew, and communicate almost daily,” Collins Plebuch says.

Earlier this year, the seven Collins siblings went on a cruise holiday with Pullman, and Jessica Benson’s aunt. And the web continues to expand.

“Right before the cruise, I found Dad’s first cousin, Ruth Klein, a lovely 85-year-old woman, through DNA. She and her three adult sons invited us for a reunion picnic. She and Phylis has lost touch and had 40 years of catch-up. Additionally, the Kleins had the address of another cousin who only lives 65 miles from me, who I’ve gotten to know,” Collins Plebuch says.

The adventure has helped her get to know not only relatives she never knew, but also herself. “I felt adrift [after the initial results], she says now. “I didn’t know who I was – you know, who I really was.”

To read the Washington Post article, Who was she? A DNA test only opened new mysteries, click here. If you have done a DNA test like this, we would like to hear your story. Email abroad@irishtimes.com and tell us what you discovered.

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