‘World stage potential’ of Ballycarry family history DNA project

Anne Johnston and Martin McDowell, North of Ireland Family History Society, with David Hume (centre), Ballycarry Community Association.
Anne Johnston and Martin McDowell, North of Ireland Family History Society, with David Hume (centre), Ballycarry Community Association.

Ballycarry’s pioneering use of DNA testing to explore family links to the village is attracting interest from around the world.

Last month the North of Ireland Family History Society, in association with the Ballycarry Community Association, held a launch event in the village and with initial results of the first tests proving extremely encouraging, the net is now being cast wider.

Martin McDowell, from the Family History Society, explained: “To use DNA testing in an exciting new way to explore the connections between people who are the descendants of those who lived in Ballycarry in the past to identify if the families living side-by-side were indeed related to each other.

“This will allow individuals living today to identify that they are related to each other (and others who have taken tests) and to build up a picture of relationships in the past that will explain their connections. In many instances these connections go back beyond paper records and effectively ‘recreate’ a family tree where one no longer exists.

“DNA is inherited from both parents and so we all have little bits of DNA that we inherited from most of our ancestors going back into the 1700s. When we find people sharing the same segments of DNA that indicates that they are related and the amount they share indicates how close that relationship is.”

Ballycarry has been chosen because it has a number of families who have lived in the district for many generations and because of its historic connections.

“James Orr (the Bard of Ballycarry), William Nelson (who was hanged for his part in the 1798 rebellion) and WW1 General James Stuart Steele are some of the well known people from the village. It is their families and those who lived around them who we are trying to trace.

“We are now looking further afield to find people in the wider community with a Ballycarry ancestor. We are offering free DNA tests to anyone who can establish their connections to people who lived in the Ballycarry area (Parish of Templecorran) in the 1800s. Doing this will help us to explore links between the testers and other people around the world who have already taken a DNA test.

“The DNA is a simple cheek swab and our members will meet up with volunteers to conduct the test if they are chosen to participate.”

By testing people with ancestors from a specific area it is anticipated that many connections will be identified and confirmed as the tests give meaningful information going back generations (usually around the mid 1700s).

Members of the North of Ireland Family History Society have been constructing family trees based on available sources such as the 1901 and 1911 census, Griffiths Valuation and birth, marriage and death records.

Martin added: “We will also gather known information on the family history of our DNA volunteers and compare it to the database of information which is being compiled by the Family History Society. In this way we will ensure that the only people tested will be people who we have reason to believe are directly descended from the Templecorran area in the 1800s.

“Volunteers will have access to their account which contains their list of matches and their ethnicity estimate. The list of matches will usually contain the names of over 5,000 people who share DNA with the tester. Volunteers within the North of Ireland Family History Society will help to build family trees for all volunteers and will manage their DNA accounts to ensure that everything works as it should and that maximum benefit is gained.”

The results from each test will be compared and a report will be compiled with initial findings presented in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall next February.

“This exciting project will allow individuals around the world to identify that they have ancestors from Ballycarry. As far as we know it is the first project in the world to use DNA in this way and has the potential to put Ballycarry on the world stage.

“We hope to recreate family connections that no longer exist either in the paper records or in people’s memories. This will have benefits for tourism, increase community cohesiveness and continue to benefit generations to come as information is identified and retained.

“As people with Ballycarry ancestors are likely to have other ancestors from further afield such as Larne, Carrickfergus, Raloo and Islandmagee, this project will also help people identify connections within this wider area by building up the DNA database.

“People around the world have already been getting in touch to participate in our project as well. They have been purchasing their own DNA tests as so as they can get involved in exploring the lives of their ancestors. We have already got people with Ballycarry connections tested in England, Australia, the United States and New Zealand but only locals are being offered free tests.”

Tests have been funded through personal donations and by funding from both US-based company Family Tree DNA and the North of Ireland Family History Society, which has a local branch in Larne. Now in its 40th anniversary year, the organisation has been promoting and encouraging DNA testing for a number of years. It has an education programme and has built up expertise in the field of research. Its volunteers continue to deliver a series of talks on DNA around the province and have been asked to provide these in other countries as well.

If you want to get involved, contact ballycarrydna@nifhs.org or come along and talk to one of the members at the Larne branch of the North of Ireland Family History Society, which meets on the third Monday of each month in Larne Bowling & Lawn Tennis Club at 7.30pm. Information on the branch can be found here: https://www.nifhs.org/branches/larne/