John Arnold: I have a yak farmer cousin in Outer Mongolia, says my DNA!

John Arnold is expecting a lot more Christmas cards from far-flung places, now that he's discovered he's got an extra 8,000 relatives
John Arnold: I have a yak farmer cousin in Outer Mongolia, says my DNA!

A Mongolian horseback rider. Picture: Stock, posed by a model.

ABOUT 30 years ago I was after ploughing the Chapel Field to plant barley there. The next step was to harrow the soil.

This is done by pulling a harrow, which has metals pins sticking out of it, repeatedly over the ploughing. In this way the soil is smoothened out and makes a grand fine seed-bed for the barley crop.

Anyhow, there I was above harrowing away in the far corner of the field — Denis Barry’s Chapel field is outside the ditch.

The harrow was an ancient item made by the Prendergast brothers in Watergrasshill back in the early 1960s I’d say. Whatever look I gave behind me, didn’t I see a hole in the surface of the field? I jumped off the tractor to have a look and saw a fine subsidence had taken place.

The surface was after falling in like a dish — the hole was about 12ft across. I got down on the ground and peered into the darkness below. Then it dawned on me — this was once the site of an ancient fort or lios which gave it’s name Pairc an Lios to the next field.

This ‘hole’ was in fact an underground chamber underneath where the outer rampart of the fort had been, maybe 1,000 years ago.

I told family and neighbours of my find and within hours we were down in the chamber, which was linked by a tunnel to another chamber. The ‘rooms ‘were simply hewn out of the subsoil down about 8ft under the surface, no sign of any stonework.

Well, we contacted an archaeologist — I think from UCC — to survey the scene. She spent half a day down there and came to the conclusion that it was probably an ancient food-store under the fort, maybe for grain or perhaps a cool place for milk or cheese.

Any thoughts of hidden treasure soon vanished! We found what we thought were ancient bone fragments and were informed that using a process called radiocarbon dating an accurate estimate could be made of their age — even if they were 5,000 years old. I think it turned out they were bones from a fox or a badger and were approximately 15 years old!

At the time I was stunned when ‘experts’ explained to me the process involved in this dating process. Even after thousands of years, samples could be analysed and a definite antiquity put on them — to the nearest couple of hundred years.

I always thought that radiocarbon dating was the ultimate in looking back and matching trees, bones and the like. Well, lads, a few years back, maybe seven or eight, I first heard about this thing called DNA. A friend told me that if you gave a saliva sample and sent it away in a bottle to somewhere out foreign, and if other people did the same, they could tell if you were related to them or not

‘Yeah right,’ says I ‘and pigs might fly’ I was more than sceptical and when I heard ‘twas a crowd in America were promoting this daft notion, I knew straight away that some cute Yank was out to make a quick buck or maybe a million.

MATCHES: John Arnold’s DNA test revealed he is 95% Irish — with a few surprises further afield in Jamaica and Outer Mongolia
MATCHES: John Arnold’s DNA test revealed he is 95% Irish — with a few surprises further afield in Jamaica and Outer Mongolia

From my experience, Americans are thrilled if they find they have ‘Irish roots’ so I thought this was just a scam to cash in on a lucrative tourism opportunity.

Then another friend tried rationally explaining the DNA concept to me. We discussed it ad nauseam but I was still a doubting Thomas. Anyway, he said he’d send me on details and scientific proof about the whole thing. By way of ‘a simple explanation’ he sent me the following via email;

“Deoxyribonucleic acid is a molecule composed of two polynucleotide chains that can coil around each other to form a double helix, carrying multiple genetic instructions for the development, functioning, growth and reproduction of all known organisms and many viruses. DNA and ribonucleic acid are two nucleic acids...”

Whew, as plain as mud, says I to meself!

My learned friend called a few nights later and I asked him to translate what he had sent me — which he did. He said our DNA is like an individual ‘marker’ that every single human being has from birth. In layman’s language, he said half of our DNA comes from the father’s side and half from the mother’s side. Our parents in turn have got their DNA from the generation before them and so on back along the family lines.

So I got half my DNA from my father and half of his came from my grandfather and half of my grandfather’s DNA came from his father — my great grandfather.

What is truly amazing though (I still shake my head at it!) is that a swab of saliva from inside the cheek contains one’s unique DNA and can be traced to others who have similar — not identical — DNA, anywhere in the world.

By analysing the different samples, experts have come up with a seemingly foolproof method of determining if two people are related or not. Believe it or not — and I didn’t for a long time — the tests have been verified and authenticated.

So, in the autumn of 2017, I was persuaded to undergo this famous test. In reality there was very little pain involved. Initially, alright I had to get a large swelling removed — from my wallet, around €120 I think. For that a ‘Home testing Kit’ was sent to me from the USA.

The instructions were easy to follow “ fast from midnight and then place a small swab within the mouth. Rotate it gently in a clockwise fashion against the cheek and then carefully place the swab in a bottle.

The bottle had a special tamper-proof seal and Bob’s Your Uncle, I sent it off to the lab.

To be honest I didn’t lose any sleep whilst awaiting my results. The first news I got back was my ‘Ethnicity’, where I was found to be 95% Irish, which came as a bit of a shock. My other 5% was mixture of Middle Eastern and Scandinavian — sure, like the Normans long ago, I am more Irish than the Irish themselves!

Next came a list of ‘my matches — these were people who had done a similar test to mine and ‘matched up’ as being related to me.

I can tell ye now, I got a bit of a land when they informed me I had 8,461 ‘matches’! My family knew I’d done the test but when I announced that we had more than 8,000 new cousins they were a bit underwhelmed!

Now, we love to have visitors call in normal times and we have an ‘open door policy’ for relations, cousins, in-laws, outlaws and outliers, but 8,000 of ’em?

The way it works is that they all have got results saying they are related to me and if they wish to contact me they can send an email and the reverse applies to me.

Initially, I made a mad burst and contacted a couple of dozen and straight away in some cases we were able to find each other on high branches of our respective family trees. Many come up as second or third cousins, maybe twice removed.

With a bit if research on both sides, it’s often possible to find the link, the common ancestor that’s related to both of us.

Now in all probability, nay certainty, I will never, ever be able to contact even 10% of the 8,000. Some are intriguing though. I’ve a 7th cousin, 4 times removed named Alongere Jactulmaniy in Jamaica, she’s in her 40s and speaks eight languages but hasn’t a word of English or Irish.

Another cousin, about a 6th cousin, once removed, is 75 year old Eduardo MacIstenberg, a yak farmer in Outer Mongolia.

Before the pandemic struck, I’d written to Ryanair but got no joy in my request for cheap flights to either Mongolia or Jamaica — I thought we’d go for a fortnight, maybe later in the year when the cows are dried off.

Like the radiocarbon dating of the recently deceased fox bones we found all those years ago, the DNA test and the results are fascinating. I’m expecting a lot more Christmas cards from far-flung places with strange-sounding names this year!

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