Friday, September 28, 2012

Who am I?

I have a couple of ancestry-related items on my bucket list.

I’d like to do one of those cheek-swab DNA things at some point, mostly to find out whether my Irish father – with his black hair, tan-ability, and west of Ireland grandmother – may have had a bit of African blood in there somewhere. I’m about as white as you can get: blondish hair, blue eyes, fair skin that goes up in flames when exposed to the sun… What fun to find out there’s something else going on beyond what the mirror tells me.

I’d like to visit Ballymascanlon. This is where my east of Ireland grandmother’s parents hailed from. I understand from my cousin Barbara that it’s a blink-you’re-gone kind of place, but I’d like to blink through at some point, if only to see the native turf of  my grandmother’s mantra: If Ireland were so great, we wouldn’t have all had to come over here.

I’d like to visit Neue Banat. My mother was born in a pokey farm town in the German diaspora. When her parents were born there, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When my mother was born there, after World War I, it was part of Romania. The town is now called Panatul-Nou, and I suspect it’s no longer a pokey farm town, but probably a bleak whatever with decaying Soviet-era cinder block apartment complexes. Still, while I have little desire to go to Romania – almost all of my mother’s relatives, along with ethnic Germans whose families had, for centuries, lived outside of what eventually became Germany were DP’d back to Germany after World War II – I wouldn’t mind seeing where my mother was born.

I’d like to jump into my ancestry on both sides. Which I hope to do when I retire.

I have no expectations that I’ll unearth anything earth-shattering.

Sure, I have a great-grandmother named Joyce, but I don’t think I’ll find out that James Joyce is my fourteenth cousin once removed. Himself, after all, was a Cork Joyce. “We’re” Mayo Joyces.

On the German side of the house, I’m a Wolf. I don’t think there are many famous wolves to go dancing with. But maybe there are some big, bad wolves out there that we’re kin to. (I sure hope I don’t discover that Hitler is my fourteenth cousin once removed.)

Since my family hasn’t been in The States all that long – since the 1870’s on my father’s side, since the 1920’s on my mother’s – I doubt I’ll find that I’m related to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

But you never know what you’ll find out, even if it doesn’t tie you to the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

A couple of years ago, I found a website that had information on my grandparents’ emigration – their names, birthdates, date the left Neue Banat, the relatives in Chicago who sponsored them, and the name of the young cousin who came with them. Alas, this was a 3 a.m., can’t sleep, let’s roam around the web find, and I didn’t keep the link. I know it was to a site that was a labor of love of some fellow with an interest in Schwaben Deutsche.

And the other day, again in the sleepless wee hours, I found that, when my Great Uncle Fred Hanratty was killed in the line of duty, my Great Aunt Alice got a $700 death benefit from his union. (Fred worked on the Worcester trolleys.)

So I’ve long had in the back of my mind that I’d do some munging around on Whenever I get around to it.

Thus I was interested in a Business Week article  on Ancestry, which, despite it’s ads on TV – the bald guy who found out that all his predecessors were barbers, the woman who discovered that she lived around the corner from where her great-granny had once lived – I never realized was such a big business. It’s even a public company (NASDAQ).

Some of what Ancestry does, through a subsidiary, is dig up interesting celebrity ancestral connections that are presumably more market-worthy/titillating than those of the ‘Great-Great-Great Uncle Louis owned an accordion shop’ variety.

President Obama, for instance, is apparently connected to Brad Pitt, Warren Buffett, Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, and Rush Limbaugh. 

Oh, yes, and Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame is related to Vlad the Impaler.

As I mentioned, Ancestry is pretty big business, with a near monopoly choke-hold on the amateur family tree market.

Both the number of customer subscriptions and the size of its research archives have more than doubled since 2009, and will net a projected $480 million in 2012, according to Bloomberg News, which means it will be up 189 percent over the last five years.

If you don’t want to shell out for Ancestry, you can make your way to an LDS reading room, where they let you search their files for free. Mormons believe in posthumous baptism, so their faithful often troll the archives to save their ancestors after the fact. They got in trouble a while back for attempting to save victims of the Holocaust, but I believe they backed off that ill-advised initiative. Personally, I’d be a bit nervous that plunking down in an LDS reading room might set you up for a dose of proselytizing, but I used to work with a woman who, when doing her family tree – this was pre-Internet – did go out to Salt Lake City to use the archives at the mother ship and was treated very well. This woman’s antecedents were all from Ireland, and I went with her once to a library at Boston College that was a pretty good resource on Irish immigration. So that would be another place to do some free searching.

But is the big kahuna:

It owns five of the top 10 genealogy sites on the Net, including,, and, a Silicon Valley startup acquired last April for $100 million.

Ancestry has two million subscribers, who pay on a sliding scale to access all sorts of records. And they try to hook you:

By sending “hints” about possible new family connections to its users, easily develops into an addiction.

Hmmmm. My mother was born in Romania. Maybe I’m related to Vlad the Impaler. And Robert Pattinson.

I’m thinking of signing up just to see what kind of hints they drop. If they say Roy or Ginger Rogers, I’ll feel a bit disappointed, of course, as neither Roy nor Ginger was born a Rogers.

Speaking of born a Rogers, one of the reasons I’d be interested in doing the ancestry dig is to find out whether our Rogers was an Anglicized version of something more Irish sounding. In which case I may go native and change my name “back.” Or whether one of Oliver Cromwell’s boys paused mid-rampage to marry an Irish colleen and settle down Beyond the Pale in Roscommon. In which case maybe we’re related to The Queen.

Anyway, genealogy is the second most searched online topic, porn maintaining the number one position that helped push the bandwidth bounds to begin with. I suspect the balance will shift as the genealogy-searching demographic – white women 55 and older – continues to grow at its projected clip.

Gee, white women over 55. And I thought I was special…

Speaking of special:

Practically all people of European descent share at least one common ancestor on their family trees sometime within the last 550 years.

So maybe I am related to Roy and Ginger.

Can’t wait until the records go really far back, and cheek swabs are truly perfected. Then we’ll all find out that we’re monkey’s uncles. That’ll be fun! (I’m related to J. Fred Muggs on my father’s side, and Cheetah on my mother’s. Ungawa!)

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