Katie Byrne: 'Ancestry tests force us to question our age-old family legends'

The brilliant Who Do You Think You Are? is back on TV screens, and the stories are as engrossing as ever.

Jack Whitehall discovered that his philandering great-great-grandfather died from syphilis. Daniel Radcliffe was moved to tears as he read his great-grandfather’s suicide note. Naomie Harris wondered if her “whole life had been a lie” when she found out that one of her white ancestors was involved in the slave trade.

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Once again, the popular BBC show has taught us that every family has their own narrative – their own sense of identity that they forge from stories passed down through the generations. The trouble, of course, is that these stories aren’t always true.

Ancestral research is going through a period of unprecedented growth, especially now that we’re all just one vial of saliva away from finding out who we are and where we come from. For less than €100, you can discover the “story of you”, as one of the leading DNA ancestry testing kits puts it. But what happens when it doesn’t add up with the story you’ve always told yourself? What happens when cold, hard data dismantles the warm and fuzzy story of your family’s heritage?

We’ve all heard about people discovering misattributed paternity and unknown siblings through at-home ancestry testing kits. There’s no hiding place for family secrets now that genealogy has entered the transparency age.

And there’s no place for family lore and legend, either.

Kate Winslet also appeared in this latest series of Who Do You Think You Are?. There was always a “rumour” of Scandinavian ancestry on her mother’s side, she explained, and she was thrilled when she discovered that the story handed down through the generations was true.

We can relate to Winslet’s delight because, like her, we all have a family narrative that is partly woven with lore and legend. Maybe it’s a supposed tie to the Spanish Armada or the Vikings. Maybe it’s a claim to royalty or a tenuous link to a historical figure. Or maybe it’s just a vague notion that we hail from “good stock” – whatever that means.

Either way, we know how it feels to have a story that represents our family history, and we know how we’d feel if that story turned out to be untrue.

Before the genealogy boom, family history was a largely oral tradition. We heard about our ancestry through stories – and stories, let’s not forget, are dramatised with each retelling.

The passage of time, and the Chinese whispers of each generation, can turn even the most ordinary folk into extraordinary figures. Occasional musicians become concert pianists. Mediocre writers become literary geniuses. Combat soldiers become war heroes. Who do you think you are, indeed?

There was a time when we accepted these stories at face value. Granted, we might have had our suspicions, but when crafting the patchwork quilt of family heritage, there was a general agreement that we shouldn’t let the truth get in the way of a good yarn. Nowadays, however, we have technology that separates fact from fiction. Thanks to the rise of DNA ancestry testing and the democratisation of genealogy research, we can investigate the family lore that has been handed down through the generations.

Or at least, that’s how the story goes. Sure, the days of family legends getting passed on like treasured heirlooms are over but we shouldn’t underestimate our deep-seated need for story – even when faced with reams of data.

We can glean profound insights about our ancestry and ethnicity from genetic genealogy tests, but if we’re honest, what we really want is a story, and a good one at that.

This occurred to me when a friend sent his saliva off to a lab and discovered that he was 0.1pc Ashkenazi Jew. His DNA data also revealed that he was 90-odd per cent Irish, but that was of little interest to him. He wanted a good story to tell in the pub – and he’s been dining out on his negligible claim to Jewish identity ever since.

Another friend discovered that she had a genetic muscle composition that’s “common in elite power athletes”. We haven’t heard the end of that one either.

Presented with detailed DNA maps, they both clung to the information that pleased them, and blithely ignored the rest, which, come to think of it, is exactly how we’ve forged family identity since time immemorial.

Genetic ancestry testing can help us trace our roots in a way that we’ve never been able to before. But when it comes to constructing our family narrative, we’ll always be suckers for a good story.

* Roddy Doyle is away.

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