Who’s Your (Irish) Daddy?

On St. Patrick's Day, Henry Louis Gates Jr. reflects on an unknown Irish ancestor.

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Getty Images

There were a lot of white people living in Allegany County in 1850, some 21,633. A ton of Irishmen moved into the Cumberland area in the 1830s and 1840s to work on the railroad, and in the mining, glass and steel industries, and in the 1850s to work on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. (In 1850, in Allegany County, there were only 724 slaves, and 412 “free colored.”) Like finding a needle in a haystack, right?

Well, it turns out that the men sharing that Ui Neill haplotype tended to have certain surnames. If we use those surnames, we narrow the number of possibilities in Allegany and Hampshire counties to 178 men born between 1800 and 1830 bearing 22 surnames.

What’s so exciting about this? Well, it turns out that the men in the Gates family line have a particular mutation, a slight variation, in our Ui Neill haplotype. And we inherited that slight mutation, a spelling variant in that DNA signature, through one of those 178 guys. If the father of Jane’s children, my Irish great-great grandfather, has any other male descendants walking around on the planet, he will have exactly the same y-DNA signature, with this particular variant, as my father, brother and I do.

And so, we are advertising for any male descendant of one of these 178 men to contact us and take the DNA test. With a (wee) bit of luck, one of the millions of unsolved genealogical mysteries facing African Americans today can be solved.

Malcolm Little took the last name of “X” because he said it signified our lost last names, names buried deep within the African continent. For me, St. Patrick’s Day, one of the most joyous holidays up here in Boston, is the day I spend contemplating another “X” than the one Malcolm identified: the name of my white great-great grandfather, the man who fathered one black woman’s five children, the man who connects me (and millions of other black men) to a lost Irish heritage just as surely as other ancestors on my family tree connect me to Africa. Did he rape her? Did she love him? Could such a relationship ever be defined as love? Did she see him following slavery? Did he give her the $1,400 to purchase a home in a white neighborhood in 1870, just five years after slavery ended? What was that all about? Until I can answer these questions, I’ll remain on the sidelines at the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root.

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