I GOT a chance last week to have my DNA tested and thought ‘why not?’ Maybe I could establish once and for all the amount of blue blood coursing through my veins. This peasant status has done nothing at all for my morale. Everyone on the island of Ireland, apparently, can now claim a genetic link to Niall of the Nine Hostages - which would make you wonder about the value we put on freedom - but apart from the fact that I couldn’t open my mouth during Seachtain Na Gaeilge, why should I be an exception?
We’re all democrats and we’re all republicans now, but at heart, we’re still aristocrats, pretenders to the high-kingship, and every bit as territorial as Brian Boru. We’d all like to establish our credentials, if you don’t mind. Nevertheless, I funked the challenge thrown out by the Silvermines Historical Society to have my DNA tested courtesy of genetic expert Dr Maurice Gleeson, who is a member of the society. With my luck, I could share the same DNA as Jack the Ripper, or the greatest Irish traitor of all time, Diarmuid McMorough, and the last thing I’d want is for anyone to know. Best leave well enough alone, I thought.
I could, of course, have bought the kit - which was on special offer to members - and done the test at home myself and nobody would have been the wiser, but I didn’t even turn up at the meeting fearing that I wouldn’t even be able to say no to having a scraping taken from inside my cheek. But isn’t it amazing what a local historical society can throw up?
According to Dr Gleeson, American tourists are expected to descend on the country in droves this year, spurred by the strengthening dollar. They’re still looking for their roots and while we have a whole plethora of services available to help them trace their genealogy and their ethnic origins, they usually come up against a brick wall when they have to peer too far into the past. We’re going to have to stop telling them that all our records were lost in the destruction of the Four Courts in 1922 and offer them something positive instead, like DNA testing. There are jobs in them thar’ genes, Enda, if you’re looking for another boost to the economy.
Of course, I still don’t know how it works. It’s a complete mystery to me how they can match anyone’s DNA to that of a common ancestor who never had a swab taken from inside his right cheek. But there you are.
The historical society has, however, thrown up something of even greater interest to me than a possible DNA match with ancestral glory. For many years I have been an avid fan of the much vaunted American short story writer, Flannery O’Connor, who died at a relatively young age in the 1960’s. Based in Georgia, in what was the old South, she wrote about a world very far removed from the vanished glories of ‘Gone with the Wind’. There are certainly no aristocrats among her wonderfully earthy and idiosyncratic characters. She could have been writing about the world in which I grew up.
I particularly loved her riposte to a miffed southern belle who wrote to her following one of her publications saying: “Your book, I’m sorry to say, has left a bad taste in my mouth.”
“But you weren’t supposed to eat it,” Flannery wrote back
With a name like O’Connor, she had to be of Irish extraction, but it would never have dawned on me that she had a connection, however, tenuous, with my native parish. It now transpires, however, that she was given the name ‘Flannery’ in honour of a man whose people came from the Silvermines, and who lived in the parish himself for a short time after his father’s business had failed in the nearby town of Nenagh.
John Flannery was just 16 years old when he and his father immigrated to America, while his mother remained at home in her parent’s house in Silvermines with the remainder of the family. The father set out for home and died en route, but the son prospered and went on to become a much decorated officer in the Confederate army. He made his fortune in cotton and banking and in later life made donations to the churches in both Nenagh and Silvermines. His daughter Kate, who inherited his fortune, was a cousin and benefactress of the O’Connor’s and the future writer was named in his honour.
The story has been researched by Birdhill native, Dr David Gleeson, who is Professor of American History at the University of Northumbria, and the Historical Society hopes to include the story in a forthcoming journal to be published at the end of the year.
For me, it has a fascinating resonance, like finding a connection which you would never have imagined with a writer you greatly admired.