Between the Lines: A Regal Ramble Into Timmy’s Past

Tim Kelly

Bow before me, all you lesser… people, for I am of royal lineage.

No, I mean it. Maybe not the bowing part, a simple bending of the knee and a respectful downward tilting of the head will suffice, for now. Seems only fitting, what with my coming into possession of irrefutable scientific evidence that I am related to an ancient High King of Ireland. 

His Highness desires more mead! And yon comely fire-haired lass? Bathe her and bring her to my tent!

Um, just kidding. No need to share that with The Mrs.

 What sorcery pealed back the pale parchments of time? The simple step of spitting into a test tube and sending the slimy sample off through the magic of mail.

Uh, shouldn’t I lord over a barony or have my own castle or something?

Endless first-class miles on Aer Lingus? Lower level tickets for the finals of the All-Ireland Hurling Championship? A week of free tea and scones at Bewley’s Café on Dublin’s Grafton Street?

Apparently not.

Although the connection is on my father’s side, this isn’t about a distant Kelly (O’Kelly is was until a British monarch… Oh, never mind). According to those anonymous lab coat-wearing folk at 23andme, a DNA find-your-roots company a la Ancestry, I share a common ancestor with Naill (pronounced kneel, not nail) of the Nine Hostages.

In the Irish tongue it’s Niall Noigiallach, who’s said to have been a King of Tara in the northwest of Ireland late in the 4th Century. According to lore, the name came from the hostages he held from the areas under his dominion. Over the centuries, anglicization converted the name to O’Neil.

Sure, the guy’s story may be more myth than history, but my 23andme report concludes that DNA shows Ol’ Niall and I do share a paternal-line forebearer. The graphic accompanying the report depicts a circle of blue with “TK” in the center with a horizontal line connected to a cool-looking three-pronged, trident-like golden crown afloat in a blue-edged circle of white.

In hindsight, it was a mistake to read the whole damn thing, rather than simply pulling up that image on me smartphone and flashing it around like an FBI badge. The narrative went on to say, not in so many words, that Niall was quite a lascivious leader and so my standing is far from unique.

“In the highly patriarchal society of medieval Ireland [a king’s] status allowed them to have outsized numbers of children and spread their paternal lineage each generation,” says my report. “In fact, researchers have estimated that between two and three million men with roots in northwest Ireland are paternal-line descendants of Niall.”

Up to three friggin’ million? (Insert really raunchy expletive here.)

It gets worse. I’m related to Niall, but can’t be counted among his oh-so-many descendants. Our common ancestor? Um, he lived 10,000-flippin-years ago!

So why all the interest in distant ancestors who likely fled poverty, persecution or what have you, quite literally leaving Europe in their wake and bearing hardships hard to fathom now, both in coming to and settling in North America?

The Kellys, my two parents, six siblings and meself, seemed bereft of Gaelic culture. No lore passed down the generations, no music, dance or any other ties of any kind to the Ould Sod. When I finally asked why, me Ma, Joan Brophy Kelly, said that when our ancestors came over, they shed all outward ties to the place that was, in essence proclaiming, “Forget the past, we’re Americans now.”

Ok, I get it. That made sense back then, but not so much now. It’s not enough, for me anyway, to know only that my grandparents and parents lived in Yonkers, moved to Levittown where I was born and from there ventured eastward.

Aware of my current interest in family history, recent and distant, this past Christmas son Ryan and daughter-in-law Lindsay favored me with a pre-paid 23and me kit. 

Some years back, I received the gift of an Ancestry pack, also with a spittle storage system, from sister Eileen and brother-in-law Gary. 

Gary was first to share his DNA with Ancestry many years prior, and infected with ancestry (lower case “a”) fever, started digging into both families’ pasts.

My two spit studies came to near-identical conclusions.  Not in the lease surprising since DNA don’t lie, well except in a TV crime drama where someone messes with a sample to elude justice.

According to Ancestry, 61 percent of my DNA comes from Ireland, 26 percent from Great Britain, 5 percent from Scandinavia (no wonder why I can’t flippin tan) and 4 percent from Eastern Europe. Five other categories, including the Iberian Peninsula and non-specific Western European, all came in at less than one percent.

Here’s the real shocker. I’m 1 percent Italian! How’d that happen? No, no, not complaining. But it’s probably not enough to get me into a Sons of Italy Lodge.

Bottom line? I’m a mutt, like the rest of youse. 

According to 23andme, yours truly is 88.1 percent British and Irish. (They don’t distinguish between the two.) That’s just 1.1 percentage points above Ancestry’s numbers, but I have to think that’s well within any margin of error.

Add to that 4.8 percent French and German and 1 percent Scandinavian. As you may know, many a randy Norsemen had an eye for a fetching Colleen. And after they were done raping and pillaging, they settled down, establishing ports and towns in what’s now Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick.

My DNA appears in 10 Irish counties, Dublin included, but it’s also found in Edinburgh, Scotland and London, England and a few other UK locations. 

Huh, may have to temper my timbre when next I belt out Irish rebel tunes. And it’s probably time to stop arguing with those who say, “Gee, I thought the bagpipes were just Scottish.”

Wait, did I say otherwise? Uh, sure, you’re right, 100 percent. Now will you kindly stop blocking the pub door? And, no, this is not a skirt, dammit. 

The one thing about 23andme is it’s heavy on the science, not only going into detail on our mutual African origins, which I knew, but how DNA is not shared equally within families, which I didn’t.

Three of me four grandparents are as Irish as Paddy’s, well, you know. My maternal grandmother is the one exception. I’ll go out on a limb and say Wilhelmina Freygang’s people did not bring sheep or potatoes to Eyre Square in Galway on market day. Call it a hunch.

Given the names involved, the fam always assumed we were ¾ Irish and ¼ German. So how could the science say I’m almost 90 percent British and Irish and less than 5 percent German and French? 

The French part I can understand since those wacky, devil-may-care Normans conquered both England and Ireland.

While my Scandinavian roots are one to five percent, depending on the study, sister Eileen is 3 percent Swedish. And while my DNA is 100 percent European, daughter Caitlin is 0.2 percent Sub-Saharan African. A bit of a surprise in that both me offspring are gingers (redheads to you older folk) with skin white as a Minnesota winter.

Out of five million or so 23&me customers, my DNA matches total only about 1,000. Strangely enough, Caitlin is one of only a coupla of Kellys in the mix. (Don’t think her brother has yet warmed up to tube spitting experience.) With Kelly second only to Murphy as Ireland’s most common surname, that is puzzling.

Caitlin aside, my DNA matches are all far, far distant relations, our shared DNS ranging from only 2.31 percent down to 0.20 percent. Sixth on the list is a quite friendly chap (given my UK roots I can say that now. Ditto “Blimey!” and “Bob’s your uncle!”) from up Toronto way. He’s a 1.14 percent match, a 3rd cousin. 

23andme says my Canadian cousin also has Brophys in his background, and we may share a set of great-great-grandparents from that line.

Beings cousins and all, I wonder if he’d spring for Toronto Maple Leafs tickets. Eh, probably not. If we were second cousins? Maybe. 

There you have it, my ancestry in a nutshell, I mean, a test tube.

One more thing, though. In the distant mists of pre-anglicization, my family name was O Ceallaigh, says Ancestry. Originally thought to mean “bright-headed,” a later translation has it as “frequenting churches.”

Hey, one out of two ain’t bad.


Tim Kelly is a former congressional press secretary and award-winning reporter, editor, columnist and photographer. He has lived on the North Fork for 30 years. For his mid-life crisis, he became a bagpiper.

East End Beacon

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