Through DNA research: Finding one’s true surname & originMarch 20th, 2012 by Garaidh Eóghan Ó Briain
I’m one of the few who became interested in genealogy when a child. I would sit beside my great-grandmother and ask her to tell me stories about her parents and her grandparents. Her answer wasn’t encouraging, “I really don’t have much to tell, my parents and family never talked about themselves very much.”
Years later while in the military during the Vietnam War, I spent one weekend writing down the various stories I had heard in my youth, and didn’t think about it much till after I left the military in 1976.
Upon returning home to Boulder, Colorado, I was looking out my bedroom window one afternoon which looked over a portion of the city, at which time my grandmother Vivian Alcorn (traced the Alcorn lineage to 1788 to Glenveagh, Donegal, Ireland) passed the room and entered saying, “You look depressed. What’s wrong?” I told her that of the 60,000 men and women who died in Vietnam, I’m sure some of them would have liked to live, and it’s a shame that I can’t trade places with one of them.” At her suggestion she encourage that I do my genealogy, which has put me on a 30 plus year love affair which has turned into a passion for family history and Gaelic culture.
Rebirth Through Genealogy
After years of research and having nothing but brick walls left, I decided to put things together and publish my findings. I have to admit that in the beginning was the hope that I could link into nobility, but all I was finding was a bunch of dirt farmers and miners. One evening with all my charts spread out I noticed a pattern emerging. Perhaps there wasn’t any noble blood, but there were noble spirits. Thirteen fore-fathers had served in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), and I was the twenty-sixth in the lineage to have served in an American war. Plus another sixteen had served as ministers. One minister was thrown into prison for treason against the British Crown in 1773 his crime was being a “dissenting minister” in Virginia.
On 19 September 1993, I suffered a massive brain-stem stroke, the kind that usually happens in two kinds of accidents: 1) a head on auto crash at 90 miles an hour, or 2) a pro football lineman on an NFL football team, who buts head with another player. Neither had happened to me. While in the ICU for the first four days and dying, I remember a voice in my head saying, “In you flows the blood of a warrior. You are a descendent of the great High-King Brian Boru. Fight, Fight!” Over the next month in the hospital I had come up with a plan to re-form the O’Brien Clan of Ireland. There was no clan society in existence. It was time to establish one.
Why O’Brien? My parents were divorced when I was eighteen months old. I met my father for the first time when I was ten, and in that meeting I was informed that the surname had once been O’Bryan (whatever spelling). That my 3rd great-grandfather was John O’Bryan, who with his wife Mary, left Ireland and came to Canada about 1830 for religious freedom being devout Catholics. John and Mary’s son, William, ran away from home at around age fifteen, because his parents wanted him to become a priest, yet William had other ideas, and when he left home dropped the “O’” of O’Bryan, and added a “t.” Such is the story of how the surname was changed. I remember being in the hospital bed, angry. I would like to meet Grandpa William and punch him in the nose, for when he dropped the “O’” the family lost its Gaelic birthright. My birthright, my family’s identity!
For some folks that identity isn’t wanted. I was walking in a mall parking lot and overheard a young teenage girl ahead of me say to her mother, “I hate our name, Mackinnon! The mac says to everyone what my origin is.” I wanted to stop her and say, “Never be ashamed of your surname! Do you not know that the Mackinnons were the hereditary physicians to a clan chief in the Highland’s of Scotland?” I envied her because her surname did cry unto the world, “I’m a Scot!” My surname didn’t. Was I O’Brien, a Bryan, or a Bryant? I’d do almost anything to know.
Finally the winds began to stir, and an acquaintance of mine, Patrick O’Shea, traveled in the summer of 1996 to the Emerald Isle, where he met Sir Conor O’Brien, The O’Brien, Chief of the Clan O’Brien. Patrick told him that I was working on creating a clan society, and Sir Conor gave him his business card and told him to pass it on to me, which he did.
A few months later in January of 1997, PBS (Pubic Broadcast Station) in conjunction with KBYU, aired the first program titled ANCESTORS (my Straughan/Strachan family history was program six). ANCESTORS, was a ten part series, that became the most subscribed PBS program in PBS history. A large genealogical conference was held at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the fall of 2002, where a group from BYU (Brigham Young University) was soliciting blood donations to build a DNA database. I was use to getting needle pricks so I volunteered. In the following years I read with interest the new avenues being created with genealogy and DNA research. Even read the book Seven Daughters of Eve, by Oxford professor Alan Sykes, which I found fascinating. Often, I wished to try the DNA surname projects but couldn’t afford the cost.
Then in 1997 & 1998 I met with Sir Conor O’Brien. He extended his patronage and support to the project; joining the executive board was one Kevin J. O’Brien of Buffalo, New York. Kevin and I spent hours on the phone and emails building the “O’Brien Clan of North America.”
I was envious of Kevin’s heritage, for he could trace his O’Brien heritage back into County Clare, Ireland, to about 1760, and still had family he was in communication with who live near Killarnan. His family came from just down the road from the now ruined Leamaneh Castle, famous as the home of the infamous Maire Rue O’Brien.
At the turn of the century in 2000, I got a phone call from a Mr. Mike O’Brien who lived in California. He didn’t like the webpage of the O’Brien’s, for it wasn’t updated as much as he would like, so he created his own group. Not wanting to have two clan societies, Kevin and my-self shut down the O’Brien Clan of North America, and went our separate ways.
Yet over the years I have wondered if I really was of the blood of King Brian Boru. There was the family tradition, Federal census records, and William’s death certificate, all stated that William Bryant’s parents were from Ireland, and that his native tongue was Irish. But branches of the Anglo Bryan’s and Bryant’s went to Ireland too. So what is my surname origin? Which ethnic blood flowed in my veins?
The first weekend of May in 2007, Kevin O’Brien called several times, but I was away at the North-West Sectional Olympic Fencing Tournament in charge of the armoury. When I returned home I was told that a Kevin O’Brien had called, several times. On Monday night, Kevin called and informed me that he was often at the O’Brien Clan internet site and was one of the first six to sign up for the DNA surname project conducted by Family Tree. Currently there were 89 in the project, he said. Of those 89, only one file matched closely to the O’Brien baseline that was being used and that DNA belonged to Kevin! Who then informed me that a week ago he was looking up O’Brien matches at the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy site and came across my pedigree, for he recognized the ancestral names from an article I had written for the late O’Brien Clan journal titled Lamh Laidir. This was news to me. One of the conditions in volunteering for the DNA project years earlier was that one would not receive any data about the outcome. The fact that my pedigree showed up was of no concern to me, my name and all those still living named on the chart were protected. Kevin instructed me to type in the surname of Bryant, when the DNA markers were displayed he had me change a few of the marker numbers, and switch the search from surname to “search by match (%).” What now was displayed on the computer monitor would blow me away. Of the 37 DNA markers being displayed, Kevin’s chart and my chart matched 37 out of 37! The first O’Brien file was that of his cousin who still lived in Ireland, the other O’Brien file was Kevin’s. He then said, “I remember you wondering if you really were an O’Brien, well you are cousin!” Trisha Tolley of Sorenson informed me that within eight to ten generations (1600-1720) Kevin and I descended from the same ancestor.
Kevin continued to search the DNA databases and in 2009 another O’Brien match was found. The O’Brien Clan database has grown to over 150 participants, and Anne O’Brien matched Kevin and me 100% at 37 markers. Anne’s father, Frank O’Brien, had immigrated to America in the early 1960s, and was from Cusheen, some ten miles east of Ennis. Here she has traced her lineage back to 1800. She has gone a step further and had her DNA done to 67 markers which helps narrow down relationships. Kevin also has recently extended his markers to 67, and he and Anne have only one marker different, indicating that they are very closely related. To further this story, should be Dennis O’Brien of Australia, who at 37 markers is only two markers off of Kevin, Garry and Anne. Indicating that further back at about 1480-1540, they share a common ancestor. Dennis’ family is from north-east section of Limerick.
|Another O’Brien has been added to the Killarnan extended lines. Bernard O’Brien of New Zealand is one marker off of 37. His family’s origin in Ireland is a couple miles west of Killarnan. And another Australian, Pete O’Brien, his ancestors were a couple miles east of Killarnan. And John O’Brien of Florida, his ancestors came from eastern Clare and he is one marker off of 37. It appears that Kevin, Anne, Garry, Bernard, Pete, John, and Dennis are from the same O’Brien branch, proved through DNA. What would be interesting is to see if the O’Brien lineage of American CNN reporter/anchor Soledad O’Brien connects into this line too. Soledad’s O’Brien line is said to come live within a mile of Killarnan.||
Kevin’s research has shown that his O’Brien family, were not native to Killarnan, that they came from the east before 1760, probably during the Cromwell transplants. Garry has the theory that the four lines descend from the Mac-I-Brien Arra branch of the O’Brien’s of Dromoland when the families split during the O’Brien inter-clan war that ended in the battle of Dysart O Day in 1318. Having no one with proof of descent from the Mac-I-Brien Arra to use as a baseline for DNA markers, this remains only a theory. (See this website for a recent discovery in DNA research markers identifying the descendants of the Dál gCais Tribe of Thomond; and the author’s [Dennis Wright] email at firstname.lastname@example.org).
The only problem with this story is that the DNA markers have done their job in providing data where the paper trail fails. So what is the problem? This wets the appetite to know more and the data doesn’t exist for more information to find additional connections.
What is important is discovering the right birthright. The real surname! Guess that voice of long ago was right; I do have the blood of a warrior, and I am a “son” of King Brian Boru.
P.S. – However, my good wife won’t let me change the surname back!