Deb Sullivan Gellerson could barely contain herself when she arrived at the quaint country house nestled in the lush, green Maam Valley, in the heart of County Galway, Ireland.
In her hands she clutched DNA evidence that proved the occupant, Kevin Coyne, a retired postmaster who still cut peat for a living, was her third cousin.
Gellerson, who lives in Gray, had met Coyne on previous trips to the land of her ancestors, and he had joked that they probably were related. But since then, Coyne had been “swabbed” as part of the Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project. Standing on his doorstep in May 2014, Gellerson was certain. They are cousins within the Joyce family, her mother’s paternal line.
Coyne welcomed Gellerson into his kitchen. She pulled their shared genealogy and DNA test results from a big yellow envelope and spread the paperwork on the table. In that moment, they became family for sure.
“He was very pleased, but he expected it,” Gellerson recalled. “For me, it just verified so much. You work so hard to find out anything you can about where your people come from. Some people are satisfied if they can’t find out exactly, but I want solid proof.”
Gellerson and Coyne are two of more than 142,000 people listed in the Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project, an ever-expanding archive of names, dates and DNA results connecting people around the globe, both long dead and still living, who have roots in Ireland and Maine.
Started in 2011, the DNA project is sponsored by the Maine Irish Heritage Center in Portland and overseen by several volunteers, including Gellerson. Collectively, they have spent thousands of hours and their own dollars developing what is essentially a massive family tree of Irish immigrants who came to Maine in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Famine of 1845-1852.
Thousands of names are being added to the project each month, fueled by growing interest in genealogy research, a pastime that has become remarkably easier because of the Internet and more popular thanks to TV shows such as “Finding Your Roots” on PBS and “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TLC. So far, the project has integrated the documented family trees and DNA test results of 535 project members.
The Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project – “Gaeltacht” is the Gaelic word for Irish-speaking region – is so large and comprehensive that it has gained international recognition in the exploding field of genetic genealogy.
Gellerson and other genealogists at the Maine Irish Heritage Center were featured presenters at Genetic Genealogy Ireland 2015, a three-day lecture series held in Dublin last October as part of the annual Back To Our Past genealogy conference.
They were invited to speak by a conference organizer, Dr. Maurice Gleeson, a London-based psychiatrist who works as a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry, but whose personal passion is genetic genealogy. Gleeson is effusive in his praise for the Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project.
“It’s the most advanced DNA project of its kind in existence,” Gleeson said in a phone interview. “It’s almost a template for other DNA projects. They have married traditional genealogy with genetic genealogy. What they have done could be replicated anywhere.”
DNA TEST KITS, TRIPS TO IRELAND
It’s no wonder the Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project is booming in a state where 18 percent of the population claims Irish ancestry, far outstripping the national rate of 10.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census. The only states with larger percentages are Massachusetts (21.2 percent) and New Hampshire (20.5 percent).
The project was created by Margaret Feeney LaCombe, a lead genealogist at the Maine Irish Heritage Center, as an expansion of painstaking work she had done in researching her own family tree.
“I had amassed thousands of records, sitting at microfilm machines for months and writing down hundreds of Feeneys, Foleys, McDonoughs, Connollys, Mulkerns and Costellos in my family tree,” said LaCombe, 65, of Peaks Island. “You know if you keep digging, everybody’s related.”
LaCombe delved into genetic genealogy by testing her mother’s DNA in the late 1990s and has since tested an uncle, three brothers and four cousins.
“My mother was in her 80s when the DNA kits started coming out, so I wanted to get her DNA before it was too late,” said LaCombe, whose Feeney ancestors hail from Lettermore Island, off the coast of County Galway.
The Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project is especially unusual because it includes the family trees and DNA test results from people still living in Ireland, particularly in the Connemara region of County Galway, where many Irish Mainers have roots.
LaCombe, the project administrator, and Maureen Coyne Norris, founding board chairwoman of the center, have each traveled to Ireland several times and tested dozens of people from different families using DNA test kits purchased with their own money. They each brought 20 test kits per trip, figuring people would be more inclined to be tested if it was free. They’ve even gone to nursing homes, swabbing the inner cheeks of elderly residents with surnames that would help to expand the project’s database.
“They’re so appreciative that we want to know about their history. I’ve only ever had one person say no,” said Norris, 68, who’s also an ambassador to the Emigration and Diaspora Centre in Carna, County Galway.
At $99 per test kit, each woman has spent more than $10,000 gathering DNA from people in County Galway, not counting their time and travel costs.
Norris doesn’t mind the expense. Genealogy helped her come to terms with a chaotic upbringing in Portland, where her grandmother, Mary McDonough Coyne, was a notorious bootlegger during Prohibition. Norris has become a strong advocate for the DNA project because she believes others can benefit from learning more about their roots.
“It makes my heart sing,” Norris said. “It brings me the most joy of anything I could be doing. I’m always selling it because I love it.”
IRELAND LACKS PUBLIC DOCUMENTS
DNA can be a big help in tracking down ancestors in Ireland, where public records range from spotty to nonexistent.
FindMyPast.com and Ancestry.com put 10 million Irish Catholic parish records online this month in a searchable form. Still, many birth, marriage and death records are illegible, and some parishes didn’t keep records to avoid persecution by the English, said Gleeson, the London-based genetic genealogist.
“We still have the same problem with going back further than the early to mid-1800s on most Irish ancestral lines,” Gleeson said.
Digging up Irish roots is further complicated by the fact that in 1922, during the Irish Civil War, the country’s public records office in Dublin was destroyed by fire, wiping out census records from 1821, 1831, 1841, 1851 and more.
“We lost 800 years of Irish history in a matter of seconds,” Gleeson said.
To join the Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project, members must submit genetic information through the Family Tree DNA website. Project members primarily use the website’s Family Finder autosomal DNA test, which can confirm parent-child, sibling and cousin relationships through genetic matches excluding the X or Y sex chromosomes.
“The autosomal test reaches as far out as fifth cousins and as far back as five generations,” said Krista Heatley Ozyazgan, co-administrator of the Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project.
People who’ve already been tested through Ancestry.com, 23andMe.com or National Geographic’s Genographic Project can transfer their results to FamilyTreeDNA.com.
Male project participants also can test their YDNA to delineate their paternal line, and female participants can test their mtDNA to document their maternal line. All participants must submit a family pedigree delineating at least three to five generations when they join the project.
RECONNECTING DISTANT FAMILIES
Since Deb Sullivan Gellerson began researching her family tree in the late 1990s, she has become one of the top volunteer genealogists at the Maine Irish Heritage Center.
While she has traced her Irish, French, English and Scottish roots in depth, she’s been especially driven to learn about her grandfather, Martin Joyce, hoping to fill a void that her mother, Ruth Joyce Sullivan, felt until the day she died in 1995 at age 73.
Martin Joyce left his daughter Ruth to be raised by family members in Portland and moved to New York City after her mother died in childbirth in 1923. She was just 20 months old. In the years that followed, Joyce occasionally sent loving letters to Ruth, but she rarely saw him and barely knew him when he died in 1935 at age 41.
So it was a sort of homecoming when Gellerson went to Ireland in 2014 and visited the stone farmhouse where her grandfather was born in Tiernakill, Ireland, in the heart of what’s called Joyce Country. And when she broke the news to Kevin Coyne that DNA testing proved they are third cousins, it felt like a family reunion.
“I did it as a tribute to my mom,” said Gellerson, 58. “She always had a yearning to know her father’s family.”
Like Gellerson, Coyne’s mother was a Joyce, and it’s possible that one of his grandparents and one of her great-grandparents were siblings. It turns out that Coyne is related to several members of the Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project, including Margaret Feeney LaCombe and Maureen Coyne Norris.
But a lack of public records has prevented Gellerson from documenting her exact relationship to her Irish cousin. Until that happens, she won’t be satisfied.
“Now that I’ve proven he’s connected to me, my goal is to make the connection on paper,” Gellerson said. “It’s been a fun ride and I’m not done yet.”