I did an ancestry kit and – surprise, surprise – I’m pure Limerick
I am genetically ‘pure’ enough to set up a Celtic ethnostate. Maybe even a Limerick one
I did an ancestry kit but there were no surprises in my roots. Photograph: iStock
I did a 23andMe ancestry kit. Yes, yes – before you say so, I am aware of the potential ethical questions around personal data like this being stored by companies, but decided after careful consideration that I was all right with it.
I wanted to do it because I am curious, and because I am afraid. Afraid that I could be predisposed in some way to the cancer my mother died of, or that I might be a carrier for a complicated or debilitating medical condition.
23andMe checks your ancestry but also your genetic predisposition to certain conditions. I was afraid also that my entire genetic history would somehow indicate that everyone in my family line, from time immemorial, was, like me, from Limerick, and that consequently I would be the human equivalent of one of those poor inbred flat-faced cats that snuffles while it eats in a way that, though darling, indicates significant distress and a moral problem.
There were also loftier questions about personal and national identity, and how this intersects with what we presume about our own genetic and cultural identity as individuals. Plus, I wanted to see if there was anything cool in my ancestry, like an errant relative who blew off my hometown in favour of a totally different place, like Fiji or Tonga or somewhere British like Dublin, and married a local. More on that to come.
However, it is worth noting that most of us do not have a great sense of where we have come from. It is astonishing how quickly people are forgotten within their own families, unless you have an aristocratic background or a particularly famous relative. Here’s hoping that Jeff Goldblum’s relatives will treasure him as he deserves for generations to come; also Einstein’s, maybe. I don’t know much beyond my grandparents, having only sketchy, unofficial information about their parents, and pretty much nothing about the people preceding them. It isn’t even because of anything shameful (what if they were Protestants?) – it is simply the effect of time and previous generations who didn’t speak about emotions, family or the past.
So much of what we think of as “Irishness” is either presumed, linked to longevity or culturally instantiated. Being born in a stable does not make one a horse, but most of us have emotional ties to our sense of national identity without a fixed definition of what “being Irish” actually refers to. Many people hold that just being born in Ireland is not quite enough for Irishness – some think being born elsewhere but growing up or spending years here is enough to call oneself Irish.
Whether we like it or not, we are fussy about Irishness. The simplest test for this is having a friendly, enthusiastic American bellow “I’m Irish” at you through the sort of cosmetically manufactured orthodontic marvel that one would simply never find in, say, Mayo. Something in you rattles. You ask if they have ever been to Ireland. The answer is often no, and you raise your eyes witheringly to (Catholic) heaven.
With that in mind, I am sad to report that there apparently is no non-Irish ancestor in my past, apart from one confused French or German person in the 18th century, and the less said about that the better. Who even knows if they bred with my ancestors consensually? I am genetically “pure” (read: boring) enough, were I inclined, to set up not just a Celtic ethnostate but probably a Limerick one. Thankfully, I am disinclined – fond as I am of Limerick, its native fare leaves something to be desired. Packet and tripe? Please, no.
The ancestry kit got me thinking about my origins, and just how arbitrary one’s group identity is, or at least, how outside of one’s control. So many people contributed to the creation of all us, even that guy from those Cillit Bang ads. It really put into context my utterly Limerick grandmother invasively greeting every new person with “Now, who are your people?” She was convinced there was always some connection. She wasn’t wrong.