Sunday, 4 October 2015

The Maine Irish Heritage Centre - Speaker Profiles

A chat with the Team from the Maine Irish Heritage Centre

Deborah Sullivan Gellerson is a Board Member of the Maine Irish Heritage Center, a genealogist from Portland, Maine, an Irish citizen via her mom, and an organizer and volunteer for many local organizations.

Margaret Feeney LaCombe is a genealogist who has been researching her own family roots and the Irish of Maine for over 15 years, and started the Center’s DNA project along with Maureen Coyne Norris, and created and maintains the Center’s genealogy database with help from the Center’s other genealogists like Deb Gellerson, author Matthew Barker, Krista Heatley Ozyazgan, Maureen Coyne Norris and Patricia McBride Flood.

Maurice: So what will you be talking about?

MIHC: The Maine Gaeltacht Autosomal DNA Project. Our presentation will give an overview of the Maine Irish Heritage Center and explain how to run a successful autosomal DNA project (as opposed to a Y-DNA project) using the DNA project at the Center as an example.

The MIHC has been using Family Finder tests to successfully reconnect broken family links due to immigration, and actively tests people in Ireland as well as in the United States but this model can work for any population.

Maurice: Personally, I think your project is really important for a variety of reasons. It will be the first autosomal DNA project ever to be presented at Genetic Genealogy Ireland; it focuses on the West of Ireland which is an area that has never been properly addressed at the conference; and your project may encourage others to set up similar projects, not just in Ireland but anywhere in the world - yours may be the template that everyone else hopes to emulate! But let's start at the beginning. Can you say a little bit about the MIHC

MIHC: The Maine Irish Heritage Center (MIHC) is a non profit heritage center in Portland, Maine. Housed in the former St Dominic's Roman Catholic Church which was built by the Irish for the community’s Catholics.

Maurice: And what is the Maine Gaeltacht Project all about? what are its aims and objectives? 

MIHC: The project is about connecting the diaspora with the native Irish still living in Ireland, with a focus on County Galway, and, more specifically, in Connemara. It hopes to help people discover common heritage that has been lost due to time and emigration. Portland, Maine had high immigration from County Galway, especially from the Connemara region.

Maurice: How did it all start? 

MIHC: Very simply really. We had a robust genealogy program and added DNA testing.

Maurice: What data do you collect? Y-DNA? atDNA? mtDNA? documentary data? 

MIHC: We are primarily an autosomal DNA focused project, but we encourage YDNA and mtDNA testing too. But the core of the project is the MIHC genealogy database which contains about 130,000 individuals. We request our project members to submit a brief pedigree upon joining our study. The purpose of collecting pedigrees is to see if we can connect them to other families already in the database. Also, in the event they are not accessible, we can compare data with people who inquire about matching.

Maurice: How does the project actually work? 

MIHC: We have so much fun with this project. We started off with a very large genealogy database of Portland Irish families. Then we started autosomal DNA testing. We also encourage people to test their YDNA. Trust plays a very important part. Building trust is important because most project members are people we know in our community. We also personalize the service we offer - we sit with them to show prospects what the testing involves, what results look like. We assist with testing (swabbing) and help go over results when they come in. We offer workshops about using DNA for genealogy as well as teach them how to get around on their accounts, set up accounts, use various features of the accounts. We also can help with DNA transfers from other companies.

Maurice: How do you recruit project members? are people targeted? via Facebook, for example? 

MIHC: Most of our testers are walk-ins at the MIHC who have heard about the project and wish to join. But we also do recruitment of targeted testees in Connemara and the U.S., particularly people who live in or have ancestry from specific townlands or islands, and people of certain surnames that have a long history of being in a specific area. We have also established collaborations with people and heritage centers, such as in Carna and Spiddal. We haven’t "recruited” on social networking sites but we do tell people of Galway heritage they are welcome to join our project. We have tested people everywhere - in their homes, in nursing homes, and even out in the fields!

Maurice: How do you analyse and interpret the data? 

MIHC: We find that we don’t require an advanced level of genetic genealogy skill to maintain our project. This is because we have the genealogy database and a team of researchers who know the history of the people and areas of interest very well. With the genealogy database, it’s been fairly easy to figure out closer genetic relationships (most within 3-4 generations, but some have been as far out as 5-6 generations). 

We can sometimes even infer where someone’s people lived (townland) based on the frequency of ancestral surnames among their matches. For instance, it is easy to tell Maureen’s people are from in or near Carna versus Margaret’s maternal people who are from Spiddal based on the ancestral surnames of those whom they match. 

We corroborate some matches found using autosomal DNA, by testing Y-DNA and mtDNA. 

If testers want deeper genetic analysis, we encourage them to read blogs, watch learning videos, and reach out to the ‘experts.’ 

Maurice: How do you encourage collaboration and net-working? 

MIHC: Many of our project members are local to Portland Maine or local to Connemara, such as Carna, so a couple of things are already going on. People see each other at these centers, and meet us and each other in social gatherings we host when we go to Ireland, and they can compare and discuss things in person. The can also collaborate by phone, email, Skype, or social networking sites. 

The addition of the myGroups feature to the FTDNA Group Projects has been great. In this way members, who choose to, can have online collaboration within the project. It’s like a social networking side of the DNA testing. Our myGroups activity feed is set to “group members only” as we want all our project members to feel comfortable posting and sharing information.

There’s also a Galway Genealogy Facebook group, so some testers belong to that group and the project is mentioned - they can exchange information that way too.

Maurice: How do you go about collecting further documentary data? 

MIHC: We only require basic pedigrees. We get that information added to the database and then cross check/verify accuracy with available records, such as on Ancestry, FamilySearch or with records in Ireland. Most times, we already have ample documentation already in our database for the Connemara folks, and we have Irish testees with super local and family history knowledge and who will visit neighbors to gather more information.

Maurice: What are the particular challenges and obstacles to the project? 

MIHC: Getting people to submit their pedigrees! One way we are overcoming this is requiring a brief pedigree with a join request. Getting people to interact with each other instead of coming to us is also a challenge. No one knows his or her ancestry better than the person themself!

Maurice: What particular successes have you had?

MIHC: We’ve had many successes and will highlight a few in our presentation. We have also solved a few NPE* mysteries.

Maurice: What new possibilities has this project opened up for you? for the local communities? 

MIHC: We realized almost immediately the potential this project had because of the resources that we already had in place, and that have subsequently come together to make it so successful. We believe we are a model for communities in Ireland and their diaspora communities to work together. We are reconnecting broken links between families in Ireland and their immigrant cousins in America.
Maurice: What are the next steps? what are your hopes and plans for the future? 

MIHC: Getting more Y testers. Continue to keep doing what we are doing. Fine tuning. And more testing by townland, to create a DNA profile for each townland.

Maurice: Well thanks for talking to us. Good luck with the project and I hope you enjoy your visit to Ireland.

MIHC: I'm sure we will!

Maurice Gleeson
4th Oct 2015

* NPE, Non-Paternity Event (e.g. adoption, illegitimacy, etc)

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