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Posted by on Nov 3, 2010

Digital DNA: Gallagher, Quinns, Donegal, and Digital Connections

This post has nothing to do with the ethnography and much more to do with how digital culture allows for connections previously impossible, how it occasionally rewards the message in a bottle approach, the scream from the rooftops. I will stop with the poetics.

I have been blogging for the last six years or so on a variety of sites, but settled into my present location five years ago or so. In this span, I have posted thousands of items and have received decent enough responses. For the most part, as with most writing, it generally goes out into the ether and is never heard from again. From time to time, this message in a bottle is returned and it is incredibly rewarding, this digital connection.

I posted early this year (and from which I liberally borrowing now) about a DNA project I had contributed to the The Genographic Projectat the National Geographic. It was a project designed to “chart new knowledge about the migratory history of the human species by using sophisticated laboratory and computer analysis of DNA contributed by hundreds of thousands of people from around the world.”

It is a five year project and all participants (at least in certain developed nations with the economical means) were expected to purchase a kit to test their DNA. Basically, you swab the inside of your mouth, seal a tube, and mail it in. Easy as that.

This past year, I stumbled across a website dedicated to Gallaghers the world over and saw an entry for the Gallagher Geneaology Project and was intrigued if only to know that Gallaghers were capable of organizing anything (if my immediate family was any evidence). This way led on to way and I realized that the test I had submitted to National Geographic could perform double duty for the Gallagher Geneaology Project as well.

Long story short, I submitted my test to this project. It was accepted and put against the database of thousands of other Gallaghers who also submitted to the project. My results were further cross-checked against the entire database to see if I had exact matches outside my family name. The results were fascinating as all 98 of the exact matches (12 point-not absolutely definitive, but close) did not share my family name.

Just yesterday, I received a response to this message in a bottle in the form of a comment to this post.

“Michael – and did you happen to match up with any Quinn’s in Donegal? In particular, in the area around Ballintra, Greaghs, Laghy (among a few more.) I’m related to a lot of Gallaghers in that area, and definitely every Quinn who lives there now, and in the past!”

I am now in touch with this person and we are going back and forth about Gallagher family history, a subject I always longed to know more about, but had very little in the way of recorded family history to draw from. I felt a connection, a spark, a digital tie that manifested strong emotional reactions in me. In short, I was situated and connected.

Yet, this is an example of digital culture mapping to the physical one; shining a light into physical areas I would never uncover on my own. I am constantly reminded that digital culture is a (post?) human enterprise, about connections made. Further, this is a DNA mapping, a person connecting with another based on sequences of proteins, not unlike the binary code of nature.

In case you are bored, below is a chart from the Gallagher Clan site showing the breakdown on Gallagher households in Irish countries from 1848-1864 (post famine). Donegal it is, then. Endlessly fascinating and made possible by a digital network.

13
31
21
6
22
44
56
2
109
1900
25
41
17
215
41
9
21
3
8
262
31
4
29
17
627
47
13
28
84
254
4
228
11
48
10
12
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6 Comments

  1. Hey…

    My mum’s maiden name is Gallagher; my great grandparents on her side were Irish…I am going to show her this & see what she can remember!

    • I knew there was some awesome in you, Marie and there is the proof! Please do ask your mother about this; love to hear about connections, names, lineage, that sort of thing. My family (well, me) was particularly starved for information as these ties had been completely severed by lack of family oral histories being passed down (grandparents passed away when I was really young and rarely talked about it). So this type of thing is a real boon and just amazing to see geographical distribution of the people I have an exact marker match with. Very few of them are actually in Ireland; most in Australia, NZ, S Africa, even Brazil. Now if there aren’t stories to tell there, I am just not that creative!

  2. Fascinating – like the real and the virtual connecting simulaneously with the past, present and future.
    Using DNA sounds more reliable than just drawing on offical records which are written in archaic script sometimes.
    Now thinking about the downsides to a database of DNA …are there human rights issues one should be worried about?

    • Hello there, Sue. Well put: the real and the virtual connecting simultaneously with the past, present, and future. Very apt description. It is hard to articulate, but that epiphany/sense of connection I had when I saw the list of people with my genealogical match filled me with such (and this is for lack of a better term) excitement, a real sense of connection. Now what does that translate to in terms of association? Well, the genes are only half of the equation; conditions, environment are just as important (if not more), but for some reason I was pleased that there were a few other “me”s floating around the world. Like having a sense of connection to someone you have never met. Fairly heady stuff (for me, but I tend to be sentimental about these things).

      I had taken a stab with official records awhile back and came up empty; I just didn’t have enough information about my great grandfather (he was the one that came over to the US) to know what or how to search. Ellis Island (the port of entry for most immigrants to the US) in New York Harbor has an online database of all the records of people coming in, along with the ship’s manifest, age, etc. You need to register, but it is kind of brilliant. http://www.ellisisland.org/search/passSearch.asp.

      As for human rights issues, yes indeed there are many implications to this. I was willing to take the risk personally as the reward vs. risk was high (for me), but others would have to make that decision for themselves. These tests are very limited in their scope, but reasonably could be used for other purposes (nefarious ones, perhaps). There is a strict policy here, but I imagine it could be broken. Amazing what can be tested for (see if you descended from Jefferson, African American ancestry, even predilection towards snoring).

  3. Well I asked my mum & she is looking into this. We also have very little information – not many siblings & too many sketchy memories! It’s amazingly inevitable & brilliant that the Internet should become a place for collecting and organising memories into a coherent history. I like it.

  4. You know Marie, this whole thread of you and I going back forth on geneology and names actually fits quite well in our discussion this week about post-human and all that. Especially about the Cartesian mind-body dualism thing. It was my DNA code (and name; physical bits of my identity) that led me to identify community (and certainly you as well).

    The physical mediated by the technology creating community and connections. I also like your mention or organizing memory; absolutely true. Essentially the Internet is our collective social history.

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