Concepts – DNA Recombination and Crossovers

What is a crossover anyway, and why do I, as a genetic genealogist, care?

A crossover on a chromosome is where the chromosome is cut and the DNA from two different ancestors is spliced together during meiosis as the DNA of the offspring is created when half of the DNA of the two parents combines.

Identifying crossover locations, and who the DNA that we received came from is the first step in identifying the ancestor further back in our tree that contributed that segment of DNA to us.

Crossovers are easier to see than conceptualize.

Viewing Crossovers

The crossover is the location on each chromosome where the orange and black DNA butt up against each other – like a splice or seam.

In this example, utilizing the Family Tree DNA chromosome browser, the DNA of a grandchild is compared to the DNA of a grandparent. The grandchild received exactly 50 percent of her father’s DNA, but only the average of 25% of the DNA of each of her 4 grandparents. Comparing this child’s DNA to one grandmother shows that she inherited about half of this grandmother’s DNA – the other half belonging to the spousal grandfather.

  • The orange segments above show the locations where the grandchild matches the grandmother.
  • The black sections (with the exception of the very tips of the chromosomes) show locations where the grandchild does not match the grandmother, so by definition, the grandchild must match the grandfather in those black locations (except chromosome tips).
  • The crossover location is the dividing line between the orange and black. Please note that the ends of chromosomes are notoriously difficult and inconsistent, so I tend to ignore what appear to be crossovers at the tips of chromosomes unless I can prove one way or the other. Of the 22 chromosomes, 16 have at least one black tip. In some cases, like chromosome 16, you can’t tell since the entire chromosome is black.
  • Ignore the grey areas – those regions are untested because they are SNP poor.

We know that the grandchild has her grandmother’s entire X chromosome, because the parent is a male who only inherited an X chromosome from his mother, so that’s all he had to give his daughter. The tips of the X chromosome are black, showing that the area is not matching the mother, so that region is unstable and not reported.

It’s also interesting to note that in 6 cases, other than the X chromosome, the entire chromosome is passed intact from grandparent to grandchild; chromosomes 4, 11, 16, 20, 21 and 22.

Twenty-six crossovers occurred between mother and son, at 5cM.  This was determined by comparing the DNA of mother to son in order to ascertain the actual beginning and end of the chromosome matching region, which tells me whether the black tips are or are not crossovers by comparing the grandchild’s DNA to the grandmother.

For more about this, you might want to read Concepts – Segment Survival – Three and Four Generation Phasing.

Before going on, let’s look at what a match between a parent and child looks like, and why.

Parent/Child Match

If you’re wondering why I showed a match between a grandchild and a grandparent, above, instead of showing a match between a child and a parent, the chromosome browser below provides the answer.

It’s a solid orange mass for each chromosome indicating that the child matches the parent at every location.

How can this be if the child only inherits half of the parent’s DNA?

Remember – the parent has two chromosomes that mix to give the child one chromosome.  When comparing the child to the parent, the child’s single chromosome inherited from the parent matches one of the parent’s two chromosomes at every address location – so it shows as a complete match to the parent even though the child is only matching one of the parent’s two of chromosome locations.  This isn’t a bug and it’s just how chromosome browsers work. In other words, the “other ” chromosome that your parents carry is the one you don’t match.

The diagram below shows the mother’s two copies of chromosome 1 she inherited from her father and mother and which section she gave to her child.

You can see that the mother’s father’s chromosome is blue in this illustration, and the mother’s mother’s chromosome is pink.  The crossover points in the child are between part B and C, and between part C and D.  You can clearly see that the child, when compared to the mother, does in fact match the mother in all locations, or parts, 3 blue and 1 pink, even though the source of the matching DNA is from two different parents.

This example shows the child compared to both parents, so you can see that the child does in fact match both parents on every single location.

This is exactly why two different matches may match us on the same location, but may not match each other because they are from different sides of our family – one from Mom’s side and one from Dad’s.

You can read more about this in the article, One Chromosome, Two Sides, No Zipper – ICW and the Matrix.

The only way to tell which “sides” or pieces of the parent’s DNA that the child inherited is to compare to other people who descend from the same line as one of the parents.  In essence, you can compare the child to the grandparents to identify the locations that the child received from each of the 4 grandparents – and by genetic subtraction, which segments were NOT inherited from each grandparent as well, if one grandparent happens to be missing.

In our Parental Chromosome pink and blue diagram illustration above, the child did NOT inherit the pink parts A, B and D, and did not inherit the blue part C – but did inherit something from the parent at every single location. They also didn’t inherit an equal amount of their grandparents pink and blue DNA. If they inherited the pink part, then they didn’t inherit the blue part, and vice versa for that particular location.

The parent to child chromosome browser view also shows us that the very tip ends of the chromosomes are not included in the matching reports – because we know that the child MUST match the parent on one of their two chromosomes, end to end. The download or chart view provides us with the exact locations.

This brings us to the question of whether crossovers occur equally between males and female children.  We already know that the X chromosome has a distinctive inheritance pattern – meaning that males only inherit an X from their mothers.  A father and son will NEVER match on the X chromosome.  You can read more about X chromosome inheritance patterns in the article, X Marks the Spot.

Crossovers Differ Between Males and Females

In the paper Genetic Analysis of Variation in Human Meiotic Recombination by Chowdhury, et al, we learn that males and females experience a different average number of crossovers.

The authors say the following:

The number of recombination events per meiosis varies extensively among individuals. This recombination phenotype differs between female and male, and also among individuals of each gender.

Notably, we found different sequence variants associated with female and male recombination phenotypes, suggesting that they are regulated by different genes.

Meiotic recombination is essential for the formation of human gametes and is a key process that generates genetic diversity. Given its importance, we would expect the number and location of exchanges to be tightly regulated. However, studies show significant gender and inter-individual variation in genome-wide recombination rates. The genetic basis for this variation is poorly understood.

The Chowdhury paper provides the following graphs. These graphs show the average number of recombinations, or crossovers, per meiosis for each of two different studies, the AGRE and the FHS study, discussed in the paper.

The bottom line of this paper, for genetic genealogists, is that males average about 27 crossovers per child and females average about 42, with the AGRE study families reporting 41.1 and the FHS study families reporting 42.8.

I have been collaborating with statistician, Philip Gammon, and he points out the following:

Male, 22 chromosomes plus the average of 27 crossovers = an average of 49 segments of his parent’s DNA that he will pass on to his children. Roughly half will be from each of his parents. Not exactly half. If there are an odd number of crossovers on a chromosome it will contain an even number of segments and half will be from each parent. But if there are an even number of crossovers (0, 2, 4, 6 etc.) there will be an odd number of segments on the chromosome, one more from one parent than the other.

The average size of segments will be approximately:

  • Males, 22 + 27 = 49 segments at an average size of 3400 / 49 = 69 cM
  • Females, 22 + 42 = 64 segments at an average size of 3400 / 64 = 53 cM

This means that cumulatively, over time, in a line of entirely females, versus a line of entirely males, you’re going to see bigger chunks of DNA preserved (and lost) in males versus females, because the DNA divides fewer times. Bigger chunks of DNA mean better matching more generations back in time. When males do have a match, it would be likely to be on a larger segment.

The article, First Cousin Match Simulations speaks to this as well.

Practically Speaking

What does this mean, practically speaking, to genetic genealogists?

Few lines actually descend from all males or all females. Most of our connections to distant ancestors are through mixtures of male and female ancestors, so this variation in crossover rates really doesn’t affect us much – at least not on the average.

It’s difficult to discern why we match some cousins and we don’t match others. In some cases, rather than random recombination being a factor, the actual crossover rate may be at play. However, since we only know who we do match, and not who tested and we don’t match, it’s difficult to even speculate as to how recombination affected or affects our matches. And truthfully, for the application of genetic genealogy, we really don’t care – we (generally) only care who we do match – unless we don’t match anyone (or a second cousin or closer) in a particular line, especially a relatively close line – and that’s a horse of an entirely different color.

To me, the burning question to be answered, which still has not been unraveled, is why a difference in recombination rates exists between males and females. What processes are in play here that we don’t understand? What else might this not-yet-understood phenomenon affect?

Until we figure those things out, I note whether or not my match occurred through primarily men or women, and simply add that information into the other data that I use to determine match quality and possible distance.  In other words, information that informs me as to how close and reasonable a match is likely to be includes the following information:

  • Total amount of shared DNA
  • Largest segment size
  • Number of matching segments
  • Number of SNPs in matching segment
  • Shared matches
  • X chromosome
  • mtDNA or Y DNA match
  • Trees – presence, absence, accuracy, depth and completeness
  • Primarily male or female individuals in path to common ancestor
  • Who else they match, particularly known close relatives
  • Does triangulation occur

It would be very interesting to see how the instances of matches to a certain specific cousin level – say 3rd cousins (for example), fare differently in terms of the average amount of shared DNA, the largest segment size and the number of segments in people descended from entirely female and entirely male lines. Blaine Bettinger, are you listening? This would be a wonderful study for the Shared cM Project which measures actual data.

Isn’t the science of genetics absolutely fascinating???!!!

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Helix Sale

Helix is a startup company (funded in part by the DNA testing juggernaut, Illumina) that is offering a marketplace approach to DNA testing.

This means you pay for the initial Exome sequencing through Helix, then you pay for apps from companies that develop applications, much like the app stores.

I will be reporting on my Neanderthal and Metabolism results soon, but Helix has launched a 2 day sale (ending November 9th) that is the best Exome pricing I’ve ever seen anyplace – and If you are interested, I don’t want you to miss the opportunity.

However, and this is a big however, you do NOT receive your raw data results, so you can’t download and use those results for genealogy or health outside of applications available for purchase through Helix affiliates.

If you are interested in testing for other types of information offered through Helix affiliate company applications, you may be interested in this sale.

Here’s how the Helix marketplace works:

You purchase an application and bundled into that price is both the Helix exome sequencing and the app itself.

On the Helix site, click on the various icons under the “shop” tab to see the regular and sale pricing.

At this point, the only three tests that I have confidence in are the Neanderthal and Metabolism apps by Insitome (a startup by Spencer Wells, former Director of the Genographic Project and Scientist in Residence), the Genographic Project app, and potentially the Health category apps, although I have not personally evaluated the Health apps.

In other cases, I’m downright skeptical of the value of some of these apps, but I’ll let you be the judge.

App categories, other than the ones I mentioned above, include:

  • Entertainment
  • Family
  • Fitness
  • Nutrition

Here’s are the sale prices for:

Disclosure

While I am a National Geographic Genographic affiliate researcher, there is no financial remuneration involved, nor is this a paid affiliate link.  This means I have no financial interest whatsoever, in any way, in these products and services – nor do I receive any commission if you purchase any of these products.

Murtough McDowell (<1700-1752), Return to Kingsmoss Road – 52 Ancestors #172

Some people will go to great lengths, or distances, to return to their homeland.

It must be in the blood, because I was drawn to Ireland like a moth to a flame.

When I discovered the location in Ireland where Murtough McDowell was likely from, and then subsequently asked to speak at Genetic Genealogy Ireland with a promise of a visit to where Murtough lived, that cinched the deal.

On the Tuesday following the conference, four genetic genealogists, who I’m now referring to as the Irish Rovers, set out from Dublin for Belfast on a journey of discovery.

Our group of Irish genetic genealogy rovers, shown here in front of Carrickfergus Castle. Left to right, Maurice Gleeson, Michelle Leonard, me and Martin McDowell. Did you notice that last name? We surely had fun on our adventure!

I want to take just a minute to introduce you to my three fellow adventurers. It’s always great fun to have encouragement when getting into trouble.😊  It was wonderful to be with 3 other people with the same interests, that speak the same language – sharing conversations, research ideas and a lot of laughter. We had a spectacular day, and you’re coming along – so meet your travel partners:

  • Maurine Gleeson is a physician, psychiatrist, part time actor and genetic genealogist, which means he can certify the entire carful of us as crazy! You can read his blog here and his wonderful YouTube Channel presentations here. I can’t stress enough how fortunate the genetic genealogy community is to enjoy the contributions of Maurice.
  • Michelle Leonard is a professional genealogist living in Glasgow, Scotland, specializing in both genealogy and genetic genealogy. You can view the facebook page for her business, Genes & Genealogy here.
  • Martin McDowell, to whom I’m forever grateful for his McDowell research, is the Education and Development Director for The North of Ireland Family History Society located on the outskirts of Belfast. Martin is available to perform genealogy and genetic genealogy research at martin.mcdowell3@talktalk.net.

In a future article about visiting Ireland, I’ll include a list of resources provided by these fine folks.

Ok, now that you know the players, let’s set out on our adventure. First, I need to introduce you to Murtough McDowell, the man who is responsible for this quest.

Murtough McDowell

We know very little about Murtough, yet, I’ve now stood where he did, or at least where he probably stood. I have trod the same land, looked at the same mountains that he would have seen standing on the farm in the boggy fields of Kingsmoss.

I first found Murtough, written as Murto, in Baltimore County Families, 1659-1759 by Robert W. Barnes on page 437, stating:

Morto McDowell was in Baltimore County by July 1722 when he surveyed 100 acres Pleasant Green on Sept 26, 1730, he and wife Eleanor conveyed 100 acres to Richard Gist in 1750 as Murto Mackdaniel. He owned 100 acres Bring Me Home, probably dead by 1752, leaving a son Michael McDowell.

I found the recorded deeds in Baltimore County which provide us with a little more information, although I have not been able to find the original patent to Murtough, or a sale to him.

Patapsco River Land

September 26, 1730, Murtough and Elinor McDowell, planter of Baltimore Co. Maryland sell to Richard Gist, merchant of same, for 1,764 pounds tobacco, 100 acres on the North side of Patapsco River, signed Murtough (x) McDowell witness William Hamilton, Thomas Linby.

This tells me that Murtough didn’t know how to write or sign his name.

This conveyance is the only record of Murtough’s wife, or her name. We can presume that she was the mother of his children, but that may not be true. We can also presume that she too was Scots-Irish and they were married in Ireland, but that might not be the case either.

The Patapsco River is shown above in green. We don’t know where on the Patapsco, but I’d bet, given that Gist is a merchant, that the land wasn’t far out of the settled portion of Baltimore at that time.

This area was still an undeveloped frontier in 1720.  The map below, dated 1719 shows Baltimore County bordering Pennsylvania, where Murtough would have landed in an area that would one day become the port of Baltimore. At that time, Baltimore didn’t yet exist, but an earlier “Baltimore Town” did.

By http://maps.bpl.org – A new map of Virginia, Mary-land and the improved parts of Pennsylvania & New Jersey, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27806510

The city of Baltimore wasn’t founded until 1729, and then not by that name, when the citizens petitioned the county to establish a town for the ease of exporting tobacco and facilitating trade. The first brick building in what resembled a town wasn’t constructed until 1739.

Baltimore wasn’t more than a small town, so the land where Murtough lived was assuredly a rural farm.  The first census taken in 1752 lists only 30 residents of “Baltimore Town,” with another 11,345 free whites in surrounding Baltimore County, 1,501 servants and convicts, 4,143 black and mulatto slaves and 204 free blacks and mullatos.

This drawing of the City of Baltimore in 1752 by John Moale is the first known.

Richard Gist laid out the city of Baltimore and was a burgess, so a sale to him does not suggest a family connection. He owned a lot of land and seemed to be somewhat of a land speculator – and the town of Baltimore was expanding.  The land is mentioned again, below:

289 – Sept. 4, 1749 Charles Carroll surgeon of Annapolis, Ann Arundel Co., MD to William and Jemima Seasbrook, planter, of Baltimore County deed in exchange of 100 acres patented by Murtough McDowell who sold and Richard Gist who devised and his son Christopher Gist, brother of Jemima Seabrook.

This would have been the Patapsco land.

I initially thought the land sale above to Gist was Pleasant Green, the land in the patent below, but based on later deeds and location, it appears that the land sold in 1749 to Seasbrook and Pleasant Green were two different tracts. The Patapsco River and Jones Falls do not intersect until very near the outlets of both – and the head of the North Branch of Jones Falls was quite distant from the fledging town of Baltimore at that time.

Pleasant Green

The 1722 survey for the 1724 Pleasant Green land tells us that this land was actually surveyed for Morto Mackdual, which is how McDowell is pronounced today in Ireland, on July 4, 1722, independence day but before independence occurred. The land was patended on May 20, 1724.

The survey itself tells us a little more.  We know that Murtough was in Baltimore County before May 24th of 1722. The land is named Pleasant Green and it’s located on the North side of Jones Falls – beginning on the west side of the north run on the north side of a pocoson (swamp) descending into the run descending into Jones Falls.

Could I find Jones Falls today? Indeed, I can. Jones Falls is a 17.9 mile long stream that is impounded to create Lake Roland before running through the City of Baltimore and emptying into Baltimore Inner Harbor.

The great news is that this description tells us enough that we can locate the land, at least approximately, today, because the survey tells us that Murtough’s land is located on the west side of the North Run on the north side of a swamp.  A 1768 deed says this land is the head of the north run of Jones Falls.

According to Wikipedia, the North Branch begins at about the intersection of Park Heights Avenue and Walnut Avenue in Worthington, about 10 miles north of the center of Baltimore. This distance does cause me to wonder if the North side of Jones Falls might then have been different than the North Branch today.  However, a later 1768 deed specifically says the head of the North Run of Jones Falls.

Now, with a satellite view.

I wonder if the little green lake, above, was the pocosson mentioned.  If so, it’s actually on another small branch.

And the beginning of Jones Falls Branch.

If the description is accurate and translates to today’s language as well, this should have been the land owned by Murtough.  Unfortunately, we can’t “drive down” Walnut Avenue, but we can drive by the pocasson on Park Heights Avenue.

Murtough’s residence in Baltimore County in 1722 would suggest that he was probably born before 1700. Murtough’s son, Michael, is clearly of age in 1752 when he sells his interest in his father’s estate from Halifax County, Virginia.

Bring Me Home

On September 19, 1752, presumably after Murtough’s death, Michael McDowell conveyed his share of 100 acres of Bring Me Home to Joseph Murrey and in September 1752, he gave power of attorney to John Hawkins to sell the aforesaid tract.

I had not been able to find any references to Bring Me Home, that is, until today, as I finished this article.  I decided to look one more time.  It’s a good thing that I did, for two reasons.  First, I found the land patent, with Murto’s name butchered.  Second, the grant is in Prince George County, not in Baltimore County.  Furthermore, the grant says that Murtough was “of Prince George County.”

Uh-oh.  I think I’d better go back to the library and look for a will for some spelling of Murtough McDowell in Prince George County instead of Baltimore County where I’ve been searching. All other deeds, including the sale of this land are recorded in Baltimore County, which is somewhat confusing.

Clearly the index and the actual name are different.  Martin, above, and Murtue below, probably spelled the way it sounded when Murtough pronounced his name.

Murtue acquired Bring Me Home in 1732, but it was surveyed on June 23, 1730. The 100 acres was in Prince George County “on the western shore of this province” at the head of a small branch which ?? into a run called the North Run.

Prince George County was formed in 1696 and formed the entire western portion of the state, but has been since subdivided.  I was unable to find a watercourse called North Run.

Adding to the confusion, the Maryland Archives Patent Index shows that Bring Me Home is now in Harford County, Maryland.

Harford County was formed 1774, so may well have been part of Prince George’s in the 1730s. I clearly have not attempted to run this deed forward to current in Prince George’s and subsequently Harford County, but if this can be done – it might tell us more specifically where Murtough’s land was located.  Given that Pleasant Green was his first patent, and he appeared to still own it at his death, I suspect that he actually lived at Pleasant Green.  He would also have selected the names of his land.  Perhaps Pleasant Green and Bring Me Home reminded him of Ireland.

Land Sales

340 – September 9, 1752 Michael McDowell of Halifax Co., VA to Joseph Murray Jr. of Baltimore Co., MD 100 acres. Signed Michael McDowell – witnesses Richard Hooker, Thomas Hooker.

Sept .19, 1752 – Michael McDowell of Halifax Co., VA power of attorney to John Hawkins. Signed Michael McDowell wit Richard Hooker and Thomas Hooker.

The last mention of Michael McDowell is in September of 1768 when Dr. William and Mary Lyon of Baltimore sell to Charles Motherby 100 acres and 15 acres head of the North Run of Jones Falls purchased on September 19, 1752 from Michael McDowell, planter, of Halifax County, Virginia.

However, this 1768 transaction is confusing, because the September 1752 deed which we have is for Bring Me Home, not for Pleasant Green.

It appears that Murtough owned three tracts of land, although I don’t find any record of a patent for the land sold to Gist.

Land Location Survey Patent Sell Buyer
North side Patapsco – 100 acres 1730 Richard Gist
Pleasant Green – 100 acres – North Run Jones Falls July 4, 1722 May 20, 1724 September 19, 1752 by Michael McDowell of Halifax Co., VA William and Mary Lyon
Bring Me Home – 100 acres – Prince George County June 23, 1730

July 31, 1731

Feb. 2, 1732 Sept. 19, 1752 by Michael McDowell or Halifax Co., VA POA John Hawkins, sale to Joseph Murrey

The only other mention of Murtough in the documents for Baltimore County is a reference to “153:93 Debt book for 1750 also in Calvery papers,” which I was unable to find. There is also a reference to Murto McDuall 280 which I suspect may be the page number in the Calvery papers.

Michael is the only known child of Murtough, although clearly, he probably wasn’t the only child.

It’s Murtough’s DNA, through his descendant, that led us back to Ireland, and in particular to Kingsmoss Road.

Murtough’s DNA

Murtough’s grandson, also named Michael, served in the Revolutionary War and died an old man in Claiborne County, Tennessee in 1840. It had been a long way from Ireland to Tennessee – two generations, three wars and 120 years.

The Scots who became Irish and then Scots-Irish in America had spent generations fighting, so warfare was nothing new.

Michael Jr., Murtough’s grandson, born about 1747, never knew his grandfather, but I’d wager that he heard stories of Ireland. We don’t know if Michael’s father, Michael, was born in Ireland or the colonies.

Unfortunately, we really don’t know why Murtough left Ireland about 1720. I wonder if Michael knew. Perhaps the history of that region in Ireland will shed light on the question.

Michael Jr.’s great-great-grandson, Lewis, some 164 years after Michael’s 1840 death would take a Y DNA test that would connect Michael and Murtough back to a McDowell family in Ireland. Michael’s great-great-grandson matched another McDowell man whose McDowell grandfather was born in Kingsmoss, County Antrim, about 12 miles northwest of Belfast, in what is today Northern Ireland.

Given that we’ve lost our Murtough McDowell line in paper records, it was time to do the genealogy of Lewis’s match to see if we can connect.

Lewis’s Match

Fortunately, Lewis’s match’s father was born in Ireland, at Kingsmoss in either 1907 or 1908. The family and church records disagree by a year, but the date and parents are the same.

Lewis’s match was able to give us his parent’s and grandparent’s information, but for the rest, I engaged the services of Martin McDowell, a very nice gentleman, who, ironically, lives very close to Kingsmoss Road today, although his ancestors were in Antrim in the late 1700s. However, his Y DNA proves that his mcDowell line and the Kingsmoss line are not one and the same. I just knew we had to be related, somehow, and needless to say, I was disappointed

Martin was able to document the matches’ line back through two James, the oldest of which was a laborer with no further details. The oldest James would have had to have been born before 1835.

The son, James (Jr.), was born about 1855 in County Antrim and was a railroadman, living in Ballyrobert in 1876 when he was married in the May Street Presbyterian Church in Belfast, built in 1829, long after Murtough left. They lived in Kingsmoss from about 1890. James Jr. died in Carnmoney in 1935 and his wife, Sarah, died at Kingsmoss in 1909.

James Jr.’s siblings were born in Ballycraigy, Ballyhenry and Kingsbog, another name for Kingsmoss. These people were baptized or married in Carnmoney Presbyterian Church and St. Anne’s Church in Belfast, which had not yet been built when Murtough lived in Ireland.

Many of James Jr.’s siblings are buried in the Mallusk Cemetery, but we have no recorded burials prior to that time. It’s likely that earlier burials took place at either Carnmoney or Mallusk.

James Jr.’s son, Samuel James was born in Ballycraigy in 1877, married in the Carnmoney Presbyterian Church in 1897 and lived in Kingsmoss, his children all being born there between 1898 and 1909.

His son, Samuel is the father of the tester who matches Lewis McDowell.

Unfortunately, with the records destruction in Ireland, Martin wasn’t able to go back further. He checked the church records in surrounding areas as well as civil registrations, which began in 1864, wills and other documents – all to no avail.

Martin did find that an Andrew McDowell lived in Carnmoney in the late 1700s, but was unable to connect him forward or backward

in time.

Even though we don’t know exactly where Murtough was from, we can map the various locations mentioned in the records, shown on the map below which covers about 2 miles by 2 miles. This entire driving route is only 13 miles.

Let’s visit some of these locations and see what we can fin!

Carnmoney

Carnmoney, from the ancient Irish word Carn Monaidh, meaning “cairn on the bog,” is the closest Protestant church to Kingsmoss and was established as a meeting house in 1622 at the site of a holy well, St. Brigit’s, still visible at the rear of the contemporary church. You can see a photo of the well in this article.

An earlier Carnmoney Presbyterian Church, one of the oldest Presbyterian churches in Ireland, dates from 1657 but has since been replaced by a new church. The old church was reported to have been built on the foundation of an original church dating from the time of St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland.

The original church was built near Carnmoney Hill, where local rumors of an ancient cemetery on the hillside persist and where Celtic festivals and fairs were once held on the summit.

The old church was located in the center of the current graveyard, where newer graves clearly delineate the former location of the church.

You can read more about the old church and the history of the region when it was established in this article, from which we discover the following information about the  church as it was in Murtough’s time:

The inside of the church was as plain and bare as the outside. There were six square pews on the south side with the “three decker,” and seven on the north side. The pulpit had no canopy, nor was there any stove, so that on a cold Sunday the few attenders often adjourned to the surrounding glebe where prayers were said around the drawing-room fire. The windows were wide and slightly pointed, with plain wooden sash frames, the east one being similar, with the communion table below it. A pathway led to the church door from the old road on the north side. The existing road along the south side is more modern. The only fragment of the old church that I know of is the circular stone window-casing from the tower, which is now built over a well on the glebe avenue.

This was probably the church where Murtough attended, the pews where he sat and the doorway in the tower where he entered. His feet probably helped to wear the entry stone smooth, over time, and Murtough’s prayers were offered from inside this humble church, surrounded by the graves of his ancestors. Did they speak to him, encouraging him to migrated, as they once had?  To dream, to take what he had and board a ship for a journey to the new colonies where he would have the opportunity to own land? Was Murtough married here in this church? Did he bury his parents in the cemetery before he left, someplace close to his grandparents perhaps? Did Murtough bury children here, or a wife perhaps?

The old road mentioned is the Old Irish Highway running from Carrick to Antrim, now the O’Neill Road. Parts of the old road are reportedly still visible in places running alongside the O’Neill road, now B513, visible below.

From Carnmoney Hill, still covered woodlands, one can clearly see Belfast, and on a clear day, the western coast of Scotland is within view.

I wonder if the Scots who resettled here climbed the hill from time to time to view their ancient homeland and longingly reflect on those left behind.

Come along on a lovely walk on Carnmoney Hill in this YouTube video.

Protestants and Catholics

We do know one other piece of important information and that is that the McDowell family is protestant, not Catholic. As Louis’s match said, that’s very important in Northern Ireland. The records bear this out – meaning both the importance of religion in Ireland, then and now, and that fact that the McDowell family was Protestant.

This confirmation would suggest strongly, along with the surname and the Irish location, that the McDowell family was one of the Protestant families seated in Ireland from Scotland during the Ulster Plantation era wherein the English confiscated the Irish lands and redistributed them to English nobles known as “undertakers” in parcels of about 3000 acres each. These undertakers were then obligated to “seat” at least 20 Protestant English-speaking families (48 adult males) on their land.

County Antrim was one of two unofficially seated counties where Presbyterian lowland Scots began settling in 1606. In 1607 Sir Randall MacDonnell settled 300 Presbyterian Scots families on his land in Antrim.

By 1622, there were 4000 adult Scottish males living in County Antrim and County Down. The poster below, found at the North of Ireland Family History Society includes the McDowell surname.

However, the displaced Irish were not happy having their land confiscated and being  evicted, and Civil War was on the horizon.

After 1630, Scottish migration to Ireland waned for a decade. In the 1630s, Presbyterians in Scotland staged a rebellion against Charles I for trying to impose Anglicanism. The same was attempted in Ireland, where most Scots colonists were Presbyterian and a large number returned to Scotland as a result.

Civil war raged until after 1650 when the area was once again brought under English control. At that point, Scottish immigration from the southwest of Scotland to Ireland resumed, along with some immigrants from the Border Reiver region of Scotland along the English border.

Another wave of Scottish immigration to Ulster took place in the 1690s, when tens of thousands of Scots fled a famine (1696–1698) in the border region of Scotland. It was at this point that Scottish Presbyterians became the majority community in the province. Whereas in the 1660s, they made up some 20% of Ulster’s population (though 60% of its British population) by 1720 they were an absolute majority in Ulster.

Despite the fact that Scottish Presbyterians strongly supported the Williamites in the Williamite war in Ireland in the 1690s, they were excluded from power in the postwar settlement by the Anglican Protestant Ascendancy. During the 18th century, rising Scots resentment over religious, political and economic issues fueled their emigration to the American colonies, beginning in 1717 and continuing up to the 1770s.

The early date would fit nicely with the immigration of Murtough McDowell to Baltimore County and this political unrest may have been his motivation.

Scots-Irish from Ulster and Scotland, along with British from the border region comprised the most numerous group of immigrants from Great Britain and Ireland to the colonies in the years before the American Revolution. An estimated 150,000 left northern Ireland. They settled first mostly in Pennsylvania and western Virginia and  from there moving southwest into the backcountry of upland territories in the South and the Appalachian Mountains.  

Belfast

I couldn’t wait to visit Murtough’s homeland. My friend, Maurice Gleeson was kind enough to arrange this trip as well as drive. Martin McDowell accompanied us, as did Michelle Leonard who discovered that her ancestor lived down the road a few miles, in Templepatrick along the Old Irish Highway. Are we perchance related too?

We had a brilliant day, as the Irish would say, even though the weather was a bit drizzly. First stop – a visit to the cat gardens at Belfast Castle, built in 1862. Yes, cat gardens!

If it was before, it’s no secret now that I’m a cat lover! So you’ll just have to excuse this distraction.  SQUIRREL…no, wait…CAT!!!

Murtough would never have seen this castle, of course, because wasn’t built for another 140 years after he left, but the view over the bay from the castle grounds would have been stunning then as now.

Michelle and I had a great time searching for all of the cats in the garden, and I suspect we missed a few.

There are actually two cats in the above photo, one sitting in the yard and one directly behind in the rock wall – a memorial to a beloved cat gone on to the great catnip field in the sky.

We found one last cat from inside the castle, looking down at the back garden from the wedding venue.  The bride descends the spiral staircase into the piazza, but the cat sleeping between the hedges directly in front of the stairs never wakes up. Being a cat, if it did wake up, it would look at the bride disdainfully for interrupting it’s nap.

What a fun diversion on the way to find Murtough! Next, we’re on to Carrickfergus Castle where we had lunch in the restaurant across the quay from the castle.

Carrickfergus castle would have been known by Murtough, as the old Irish Highway went from here to Antrim, right past where the McDowell family lived.

Carrickfergus castle is massive and guards the entrance to Belfast, originally surrounded on three sides by water.

Carrickfergus Castle is about 900 years old. I wonder if Murtough was ever inside this castle? It’s hard to imagine that Murtough went from a place with a building like this to a frontier with Indians still inhabiting the region and no stone buildings at all.

The side of the castle, shown above, behind me, is much longer than the width.

A building depicted to show what life was like in medieval Belfast. Whatever you do, don’t walk under the windows!

We visited yet a third castle, briefly, later in the day – or maybe I should say we visited behind a castle.

Behind Castle Upton in Templepatrick, we visited the Templeton graveyard and  mausoleum that would have been a dynamite set for a Halloween movie.

It’s down a one lane, lonely, dark, winding road. Why, they would never find a body here!

There is also no place to turn around – you’re trapped at the end, so we parked and walked. We should have told ghost stories on the way.

Michelle’s ancestors are probably buried here.

I love these ancient vines and moss covered walls.

At the end of the walled tunnel of trees, we find the cemetery gate.

The entrance to the cemetery is gated, but virtually no one visits. I kept half-expecting Dracula to jump out and chase us!

If you slip down this long dark tunneled road behind this ancient castle and murder someone back here in ye olde graveyard, and burn the body, don’t even think about putting the hot ashes in here!!! OK?

Now that we’re done with Halloween’s fright night in this beautiful old walled cemetery, on to Kingsmoss. Yes, finally!

Visiting Kingsmoss

In the records, this location wasn’t called Kingsmoss Road, just Kingsmoss as a location. Today, it’s Kingsmoss Road.

Kingsmoss Road isn’t very long, which means that if the Murtough McDowell family originated here, we know within a mile or so where they lived.

Kingsmoss Road is less than a mile in length.

Unless our common ancestor is further back in time and therefore migrated to a different part of Ireland, or remained in Scotland, Murtough was likely from someplace in this region where his family would have been “seated.”

Martin indicated that back in the 1970s, the houses on this road today didn’t exist. Instead, the original old cottages were still in place. In Ireland, you can’t build a new house anyplace you want – even if you own the land. You are required to build on an old foundation. The only exception is if you build a house on your property for a relative, like a child – and they must live there for at least some amount of time before it can be sold.

This means that the houses then were likely in the same locations as the ones today, minus a few that have simply been torn down. This house was built on the curve in the road.

This old wall at Sallybush Road where it intersects with Kingsmoss Road may have existed in the time that Murtough would have lived here.

This bridge may have existed in some format then as well. Of course, there’s a cluster of houses by the bridge, because a stream means fresh water.

We drove down the road until we found what looked to be an original farmhouse, although clearly not as old as the homes from the early 1700s. Martin indicated that farm homes at that time were probably mud huts.

Regardless of the house, the view of the mountains wouldn’t have changed.

This is clearly a rural farming area, even today, although some people do now commute the dozen miles to Belfast.  In the past, Belfast was too far to go for a job.

We saw a few fences and gates constructed from old wagon or cart wheels.

Still a working farm today. Martin said the original farms would have been quite small – smaller than those today.

This oh-so-cute goat thought we were bringing food, at least that’s what we thought he was saying!

The Orange Hall

Moving up the road less than a mile to Ballyrobert, we discovered the Orange Hall. In fact, we saw several Orange Halls in this region.

The Orange Order is a Protestant fraternal organization found primarily in Northern Ireland and the Scottish lowlands.

The Orange Institution commemorates the civil and religious privileges conferred on Protestants by William of Orange, the Dutch prince who became King of England, Scotland, and Ireland in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In particular, the Institution remembers the victories of William III and his forces in Ireland in the early 1690s, especially the Battle of the Boyne, an event in Ireland that Murtough or his parents surely remembered. The battle occurred about 80 miles south of the Kingsmoss area.

In 1689 during the Williamite War in Ireland, County Antrim was a centre of Protestant resistance against the rule of the Catholic James II. During the developing crisis James’ garrison at Carrickfergus successfully repulsed an attempt by local Protestants to storm it. So, perhaps Murtough or his parents did know Carrickfergus Castle, but not quite in the way I might have thought.

County Antrim is heavily Protestant and it’s here that the 1798 Irish Rebellion was at its strongest with orangemen recruited from the yeomanry.

Mallusk Cemetery

We know that several McDowell family members are buried in the Mallusk Cemetery, but we don’t know the age of the cemetery. The church built in the 14th or 15th century fell into disuse when King Henry dissolved the monasteries and no longer remains. Certainly there would be burials from this timeframe, because the land around the church would have been consecrated, and the cemetery has probably been in use one way or another ever since.

If Murtough’s parents and ancestors did indeed live in this region, it’s very likely that some could be buried in the many unmarked graves.

The cemetery isn’t far from the Kingsmoss area. The entire mapped area is about two and a half miles by two and a half miles.

The day was ending as we visited.

The older section is towards the rear.

Many areas have small fences, probably designating family plots, but few of the old graves have stones. At that time, everyone knew who was buried where, so stones were unnecessary – as well as expensive.

The ground is very uneven, probably indicating unmarked graves, along with the roots of trees grown thick over the years.

The stones that do exist are arranged in a haphazzard way.

Probably a stone for an unmarked grave – like so many in Appalachia.

The crows supervised our visit.

Did I just visit the graves of my ancestors?

The Garden Center

We took the opportunity to stop at a garden center on Ballyrobert Road which has reeds and a spiral pathway sculpted into a field. I couldn’t resist after discovering this phenomenon using Google maps, because I have a labyrinth in my own yard at home.

Visitors can pay to walk the gardens during the summer. The garden center was closed, but a kind-hearted soul let us take a peek.

You can’t tell in the photo above, but we are standing at the entrance to the spiral, the reeds in front of us forming the dark area on the aerial view.

However, on this particular day, we discovered why this area is also called Kingsbog – because it is – literally.

Water squishes up from the ground wherever you walk. Can you see it, reflecting, above? We had not had heavy rains. This is just the nature of the land here. The people “seated” here certainly didn’t receive prime farmland. It’s like the water table is above the ground, or even with the ground, rising and retreating at will just at ground level.

A beautiful grove of trees on a slightly higher area.

Before Ireland

Before the McDowells settled in Ireland, they lived in Scotland and were a Scottish clan.

The name Macdowall is from the district of Galloway, shown on the map below, which itself was named after the Galli or Gaelic settlers of the seventh and eighth centuries.

Galloway is quite close to Ireland, about 20 miles by water and is the area that could be seen from Cornmoney Hill.

The surname Macdowall and its variations are Anglicised forms of the Gaelic Mac Dubhghaill, meaning “son of Dubhghall”. The Gaelic personal name Dubhghall means “dark stranger”.

Today, the Irish pronounce the same like “McDuel,” except with an Irish brogue thrown in.

We know that our McDowell line does not match another McDowell line. Both may have originated in the same place and belonged to the same clan, but the male progenitors are not the same person.

The history of the McDowell Clan indicates that the lesser status McDowells were among those recruited by the English for the Irish plantations, and many moved.

Irony

There is somehow a great irony that we know so little about Murtough’s life, but his DNA, passed to his descendants, was the light that guided us home.

I’m sure that when Murtough departed Ireland, probably right behind Carrickfergus Castle in Belfast Lough, for Baltimore County, he never dreamed that eight generations and almost 300 years later, his descendant would fly in a big silver bird back to Ireland in less than a day – a crossing that would have taken him weeks, to stand here, on the boggy land that he left, with the cold Irish bog water squishing up between her toes.

We have come full circle and found our way home through an unmarked labyrinth of time, thanks to Murtough’s DNA. Our Holy Grail.

Murtough, go raibh maith agat as na mbronntanas. (Thank you for the gift, in Gaelic.)

My labyrinth.

Native American DNA Resources

Spokane and Flathead men circa 1904

I receive lots of questions every day about testing for Native American DNA, ethnicity, heritage and people who want to find their tribe.

I’ve answered many questions in articles, and I’ve assembled those articles into this handy-dandy one-stop reference about Native American DNA testing.

Where to Start?

If you are searching for your Native American heritage or your tribe, first, read these two articles:

Father’s and Mother’s Direct Lines

Y DNA is inherited by men from their direct paternal line, and mitochondrial DNA is inherited by both genders from their mother’s direct matrilineal line. You can read a short article about how this works, here.

If you’re interested in checking a comprehensive list to see if your mitochondrial DNA haplogroup is Native American, I maintain this page of all known Native American haplogroups:

Information about Native American Y DNA, subsets of haplogroup Q and C:

How Much Native Do You Have?

Estimating how much of your Native ancestor’s DNA you carry today:

Projects – Joining Forces to Work Together

Native American DNA Projects you can join at Family Tree DNA:

Regardless of which other projects you choose to join, I recommend joining the American Indian project by clicking on the Project button on the upper left hand side of your personal page.

News and How To

Some articles are more newsy or include how-to information:

Utilizing Haplogroup Origins and Ancestral Origins at Family Tree DNA:

I’ve written about several individual Native haplogroups and research results. You can see all of articles pertaining to Native American heritage by entering the word “Native” into the search box on the upper right hand corner of my blog at www.dna-explained.com.

Ancient Native Remains

Which Tests?

Family Tree DNA is the only vendor offering comprehensive Y and mitochondrial DNA testing, meaning beyond basic haplogroup identification. However, there are several levels to select from. Several vendors offer autosomal testing, which includes ethnicity estimates.

These articles compare the various types of tests and the vendors offering the tests:

Additional Resources

My blog, Native Heritage Project is fully searchable:

The Native American Ancestry Explorer group for Native American or minority DNA discussion is on Facebook:

For other DNA related questions, please check the Help page, here.

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When reviewing products, in most cases, I pay the same price and order in the same way as any other consumer. If not, I state very clearly in the article any special consideration received. In other words, you are reading my opinions as a long-time consumer and consultant in the genetic genealogy field.

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Thank you for your readership, your ongoing support and for purchasing through the affiliate link if you are interested in making a purchase at Family Tree DNA.

Cynthia Wells – A Light Gone Too Soon

It sounds trite to say that I’m sorry she’s gone, but I am.

Cynthia is one of those people that everyone, and I do mean everyone, liked.  She lit up the room everyplace she went, improved everything she touched and encouraged everyone, always.

And now, she has passed from this earth.

Cynthia was a long time dedicated genetic genealogist, and an even longer time genealogist. She joined the genetic genealogy community in the olden days, more than a dozen years ago and managed the Wells and Lay projects at Family Tree DNA.

She attended the conference for project administrators sponsored by Family Tree DNA every fall in Houston, and I was looking forward to seeing her next week.

Sadly, that’s not to be.

In short, those of us in the trenches together over the years have formed a family, of sorts.

I first met Cynthia perhaps a dozen years ago when we sat by each other at lunch at one of the early conferences and began discussing Indian traders in the south. She sent me an unpublished resource, along with a book, and refused any reimbursement at all. That’s the kind of person she was.

Cynthia worked as a volunteer for the LDS Church and spoke at several genealogy conferences and meetings, often attending at her own expense, bringing the message and joy of genetic genealogy to many.

A day or so before her passing, Cynthia returned from a trip to the Middle East, in particular, the Holy Land, to celebrate her husband’s retirement and the beginning of the next chapter of their life together. She was anxiously planning a two-year mission trip with her husband when she passed away.

What a heartbreaking situation her husband faces. My heart aches for him, her children and grandchildren.

Fortunately, Cynthia’s legacy is not lost.

You can read more about her passion in her speaker profile for Genetic Genealogy Ireland here.

You can listen to her lovely southern drawl as she gives her presentation about Reconstructing Irish-Caribbean Ancestry here.

You can read Cynthia’s obituary here.

If you are a member of the ISOGG Facebook group, you can read the remembrances of her friends along with photos of the places she traveled on behalf of genetic genealogy, truly a lovely tribute, here.

Cynthia’s unexpected and untimely passing reminds us all about how tenuous and fragile life is – and why we should say and do what needs to be said and done while we can. Cherish those we love and value every minute. We really don’t know when it might be our last.

Rest in Peace Cynthia – you truly have made the world a better place and improved the lives of those who were graced enough to walk a few steps with you along the way.

The Sacred Boyne Valley – Knowth, New Grange and Tara – 52 Ancestors #171

These ancient sacred sites represent so much of Ireland’s distant past. Of course, if you have Irish heritage, Ireland’s ancient past is also your own. We’re beyond fortunate to have these sites, in any state of preservation today. The fact that they are open to the public is absolutely amazing!

What a glorious day.

First, I want to mention that these people were my ancestors, as proven by the work of Trinity College, in Dublin, and thanks to my McNiel cousin whose Y DNA we tested as a descendant of the Reverend George McNiel. The Y DNA from this McNiel line matches the signature attributed to Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland, crowned at Tara. You can read more about Niall of the Nine Hostages genetic signature here, here and here, and how males can test at Family Tree DNA to see if you, or one of your male ancestral lines, descends from this noble lineage.

I wrote about Niall in the article about Rev. McNiel, but there is absolutely nothing like standing on that very site yourself, nearly alone, in the late afternoon, with the sun setting in the misty distance. Niall was with me, as he is with all of his descendants. I could feel his presence and that of those long gone, on that high hill, overlooking Ireland in all directions, surveying his domain.

Before I go on, if you have Irish genealogy, then it’s very likely that this is your history too, that Niall of the Nine Hostages or his relatives are your ancestors as well.  You may carry his blood in your veins, and possibly also in your DNA. After all, 3,500 years equates to about 875 generations. That’s 875 opportunities for a descendant to marry into your line – and chances are very good that they did, probably many times. So this isn’t just my ancestral journey, it’s yours too.

Make yourself a cup of coffee or maybe some fine Irish tea, complete with milk of course, in honor of being Irish, and come along on this great adventure of discovery!

Back to the Past

This, my third full day in Ireland is spent once again with Brian, my trusty personal tour guide, and what a wonderful day it has been.

I knew that this day wasn’t just about the history and mystery of Ireland, but about my own ancestral past – my personal connection to this lush green country.

The places we would drive and walk, my ancestors did too, for hundreds and thousands of years.

Their blood watered this soil. Their ashes remain a part of Ireland.

Morning Fog

The morning began with fog. Brian said this was somewhat unusual in this part of the country, but it created a bit of a dreamlike mystical aura to set the stage.

These historic sites are only about an hour or so out of Dublin, without traffic, but they literally inhabit another world. The added dimension of fog creates a sense of timelessness and transports us back to the time that Niall of the Nine Hostages lived.

The roads quickly shrank from those of a modern city to country roads without center lines because they are too small for two lanes simultaneously. However, traffic is still two-way and everyone is simply expected to be courteous and drive with some semblance of sanity. And they do – everyone – everyday – without the angry blaring of horns. Very, very different from the US. Paradigm shift.

Brian and I discovered this beautiful thatched roof house and adjoining barn in the morning fog, as the sun began peeking through.

Thatched roof houses still exist and are in relatively common use today in the countryside. They aren’t simply part of the past in Ireland. This thatched roof farmhouse in Ireland stands right alongside the road, where nearly all of the old buildings are located, and the barn, covered with vines, stands right in front of the house, separated by only a few inches, smack dab up against the wall which physically comprises the edge of the road. The road used to be the old cart path and before that, probably a footpath, trod by the very first settlers in this valley.

Roads and farms here are bordered with walls. In fact, walls are so common you don’t “see them” anymore. They serve multiple purposes, not the least of which is to keep livestock off of the roads.

Where rock walls don’t exist, hedges do the job as well.

The hedges are so dense that farmers install gates.

New Grange wasn’t far distant, winding down the road. I held my breath on some of those curves, driving on the “wrong side” of the road, but Brian knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going.

A spider spun her web on the sign at the entrance of the historical park at Knowth and New Grange.

Even the gate is beautiful, graced with ornamentation inspired by the carved stones at both sites.

We don’t know exactly why these Neolithic people constructed these mounds. It’s likely that they initially bore a spiritual significance and we do know that later, a group or groups of people lived on the mounds.

The megalithic tomb tradition began 6000 years ago in Brittany, France, 500 years or so before the first tombs established in Ireland.

It’s easy to speculate that the culture came with the people from continental Europe, and that may well be accurate. Professor Dan Bradley, in his presentation this week at Genetic Genealogy Ireland, speaking about ancient DNA and burials, said very clearly that the Ireland of prehistoric times is not, genetically speaking, the Ireland of today. When comparing the DNA of the earliest burials against modern populations, the ancient results map to the far north, an area Dr. Bradley jokingly called Valhalla, land of the mythical Norse “Heaven.” A second ancient burial maps to an area near Portugal. The only burials that map to the Irish of today occurred much later, after the Neolithic, after the Celtic influence and after the Viking invasions.

These mounds were created hundreds to thousands of years before people actually lived on the mounds as residents. Some dead are interred in the mounds, but not enough for the mounds to be a cemetery for the entire community, as we conceive of cemeteries today. But clearly, everyone died and the bodies had to be disposed of in some fashion.

By the time the tombs began to be catalogued and preserved, people had been “visiting” them for 260 years, so virtually everything above ground, meaning both artifacts and bones, had been disturbed, and who knows how much is missing.

Of course, water played a crucial role in the lives of our ancestors. These sacred sites were all established near the River Boyne, crossed by this contemporary bridge today along the walk from the Visitor Center to the bus that takes visitors to the Knowth and New Grange sites.

The River Boyne, giver of life, connects the sacred sites of Knowth, Dowth, New Grange and Tara.

The carved stones at these prehistoric sites are believed to have been transported from distances far away by barge, then log rolled uphill to the sites where they were installed. Of course, the bridge in the photo is modern, established for tourists to tread the ancestral path.

Whoever these ancient settlers were in the Boyne River Valley, they would probably have selected these sites for their elevation and would have looked over the valley and seen much the same scene as today, except that the hillsides would have originally been forested.

Knowth

Knowth is pronounced something like “note” by the locals, in an Irish brogue.

Most of the mounds, which are likely passage graves and sacred ceremonial sites, have not been excavated at Knowth, this first stop on our journey.

Some of these photos leave me breathless and speechless, and I feel they would be better served without narrative, but I need to let you know what you’re viewing. This is exactly what our ancestors would have seen on a similar misty foggy morning thousands of years ago, standing exactly where I was standing.

At one time, people lived on top of these mounds, farmsteads probably, and the first person to rise in the morning would have had this same view before the activities of the day began. Perhaps a goat bleated in the distance and a dog accompanied our early riser.

This mound has been excavated. The soil eventually covered these carved rocks after the site was abandoned, so the excavation exposed the rocks and the site was reinforced so that the stones remain within view.

The view of the countryside down the path between the mounds (left) and other sites (right).

More beautiful spider webs on the historical signage. The local people tell us that the problem with thatched roofs is that they attract spiders who love to nest there. Then again, spiders eat lots of other insects.

Beautiful carved stones. The carvings were created by picking or pecking at the stones with a hammer and chisel, or their Neolithic equivalent. All of the kurbstones, as they are known, are carved, although the carving is difficult to see on some today and nearly impossible in some light situations.

These stones are massive, weighing tons and about waist high on an adult.

Some stones are curved, as the mounds are round.

Many mounds, which served as homes, butted up against each other.

Some passageways functioned as entrances, some as souterrains, underground storage pits for food. Crawling would have been the only way in and out for most of these.

Some tunnels probably functioned as both. Claustrophobic? You wouldn’t want to be the person sent to retrieve whatever was kept there.

As I continued my walk around this mound, I noticed this rock which was very unusual and different from the rest. This rock has carving both on top and on the sides. Most don’t although the archaeological reports indicate that some stones are carved in areas that are not able to be seen, like on the bottoms and backs. The wheel-like carving on top of this stone may have been astrological in nature, perhaps a calendar of sorts.

This area in front of the two sided carved rock (above) is believed to be some type of sacred area. The white stones are original, and are not native to this region. I believe the guide said they were quartz and transported, one by one, from a site in the Wicklow mountains 90 km to the south. The black stones are granite and come from about as far away to the North, gathered and carried one by one up the hill from the River Boyne where they would have been transported by boat. Clearly, these stones were important and it’s thought perhaps that the white stones were ceremonial and may have represented the light and warmth of the sun.

This is one if my favorite stones. I have always had an affinity for spirals. The spiral is the oldest carving, with the undulating carving added later.

The guide said that the archaeologists can recognize the work of individual carvers.

The rock second from left is another absolutely amazing stone. This one, if you’ll notice, has a similar carving to the rock with the carving on top. Both resemble a wheel. These two images are surely somehow connected to each other as well as connected to whatever their religion was. No one would spend this much time and effort otherwise.

The stewards of this site have reconstructed an example of what they believe wooden henges would have been like just beside the mound.

Standing stones, and another entrance.

The most remarkable finding discovered in the archaeological excavations was a beautiful carved flint mace head. I saw the actual artifact the following day in the National Museum, but the position of the mace head in the case made it very difficult to photograph.

You can see additional photos here and here, along with the carved bowl from the passage tomb in New Grange.

These passage mounds at Knowth are not open inside to the public, but the one at New Grange is. That’s where we’re headed next.

Think of Knowth and New Grange as a neighborhood of sorts, not adjacent exactly, but within sight from the tops of the hills and dating from approximately the same timeframe.

New Grange

New Grange is a separate site from Knowth, today, but clearly the original inhabitants were part of the same culture and probably the same family grouping too. After all, the number of original settlers or inhabitants was probably small.

All of these sacred sites are located on hilltops, which could be a factor of both religion as well as defensive protection.

This was the entrance to New Grange in the late 1800s. The area had been largely overgrown. I couldn’t help but notice how clear the carvings were only 118 years ago as compared to today.

Standing stones mark the entrance to the tomb.

Because it is off season here (October), complicated by the weather (Hurricane Ophelia), with few tourists, I was able to get generally unobstructed photos, with few or no people.

This is the entrance to the New Grange passage tomb.  Above the entrance, the light enters through the “lightbox” above the top of the lintel stone at dawn on Winter Solstice, assuming no clouds or fog. The stone in front of that passage entrance is the most elaborately carved stone at the site sporting beautiful spirals. Notice that the stones above the lightbox are mostly the light quartz stones. Were they “guiding” the light on the solstice?

Just pretend this shivering park employee is one of the ancient holy priests!

Yes, it was COLD. But then it would have been cold on December 21st each year when the people who lived here celebrated the beginning of the cyclical warming of the earth – when mother earth begins to rejuvenate and come alive once again.

As we entered the small chamber, we walked through an increasingly smaller passageway until we reached the center some 40 feet inside, in the middle of the mound.  The chamber in the center holds about 25 people, so long as they are good friends and don’t mind being close.

Unfortunately, after this site was discovered in 1799, it was open to the curious for decades, until it became protected. By the time the first scientists documented the site, the human remains of at least 5 people had been scattered on the floor, so we don’t know how or exactly where in this mound they were interred. We do know that they were cremated, although some later burials, believed to be Celtic, found on this site but in another location, were buried, not cremated.

For those who are thinking about the next question, I’ll just answer it.

I asked if DNA extraction had been attempted, and the guide sidestepped the question twice, saying lots of information was as yet unpublished after for than 40 years of excavation. I visited the ancient DNA labs at Trinity College and UCD on the Monday following the conference, and was told there that yes, DNA has been extracted and is awaiting publication. However, they have not been successful, at least not yet, extracting DNA from cremains.

Professor (and geneticist) Dan Bradley who runs the ancient DNA lab at Trinity said that they have access to all skeletal remains in at the National Museum. I took that to mean there may be many publications in the future that will help us further understand the history of the Irish people.

Photos were not allowed inside the passage tomb, but here’s a great video on YouTube that shows approximately what the ancients would have seen at the Winter Solstice when the shaft of light entered the New Grange tomb.

The precision necessary 5200 years ago to engineer and construct this mound to achieve the Winter Solstice’s rising sunlight striking the back wall of the mound is absolutely mind-boggling to comprehend – especially given that the shaft enters above the opening, but strikes the wall at ground level – meaning that an incline in elevation is involved as well.

Amazingly enough, no water has ever penetrated the chamber in the center this mound, an incredible testimony to the original architects. Keep in mind this mound was built before the pyramids of Giza and that these builders had no cement or any substances except dirt and rock. This mound was watertight due to the angle of the stacked stones and layers of gravel and dirt on top of the mound.

From Knowth.com:

This chamber is roofed by a corbelled vault, which has remained intact and watertight without any conservation or repair. The cairn (stone mound) that covers the chamber is estimated to weigh 200,000 tons and is retained at its base by 97 massive kerbstones.

You can see photos of the vaulted ceiling, along with other artworks of New Grange, here. I must admit, I was just a tad nervous inside that chamber. Still, I wouldn’t have missed this opportunity for anything.

Knowth and New Grange have a few standing stones, but nothing like Stonehenge. However, like Stonehenge, the massive stones were all transported from quite some distance, as measured in many miles, not feet or yards, requiring massive manpower and coordination which implies a complex social structure. Both locations were somehow connected to the solstices as well, with other circles and locations marking the equinoxes. Whoever these people were, they were experienced skywatchers and expert architects.

Ok, indulge me with a selfie as I’m standing beside one of the standing stones. I didn’t come this far, survive a blood clot and a hurricane not to get a photo! Thank goodness for cell phones. It was quite windy on the top of this hill.

The outside of the New Grange passage mound is (re)constructed of the same white (quartz) and black (granite) rocks as were found outside surrounding the mound at Knowth. These are fist sized stones at this site, slightly smaller, and the black are interspersed with the white in the wall built above the carved stones.

This photo shows New Grange around 1900 after the overgrowth had been cleared away. These walls, shown before reconstruction, were in amazingly good condition, considering their age.

Walking around the mound, I noticed this beautiful stone building and of course, the sheep in the background. Sheep are everyplace in both Ireland and Scotland. The wall behind the structure has beautiful vines growing up and along the top. The wall is old but not ancient.

This is probably one of the most famous of the New Grange stones, and the one reproduced in the gates.

A lintel stone is found above this carved stone, and the sun is peeking over the mound. I can’t help but wonder how this stone is different and the significance of the lintel. What did this mean to the builders?

This looks to be a drainage area which is probably part of the reason this tomb has stayed dry for 5000+ years.

The top of the passageway mound.

The function of the free-standing rocks on the site is unknown.  None of the stones are native to the area.

Of course, this site is mowed today, but originally, goats, sheep or other domesticated animals would have been their lawnmowers. There may have originally been so many people that little vegetation grew, but today, these daisies have escaped the mower. They speak to me of the women who were obviously present.

Small standing stones.

The entrance to New Grange today, showing the wall, the stones and a few people in profile. I couldn’t help but think that this scene probably wasn’t too different from what our ancestors saw some 5000 years ago, in this exact same location. People walking between the stones to the entrance. Perhaps at that time, festivities and a procession would have surrounded the anxiously awaited solstice morning – or maybe the site was sacred – reserved only for the holy people who would report to the rest if the sun’s light once again struck the back wall in the chamber.

Did these people think that the solstice sun connected them with their ancestors, or perhaps that the solstice sun was a sign from the ancestors? A promise once again of the warming of the earth? Was this passageway also the passageway between worlds?

New Grange from a distance. The entrance to the passage tomb is to the right, by the standing stones.

I’m so grateful that this area remained undeveloped.

Rescue

And because my adventures in life never seem to be complete without rescuing something – a Goldcrest, the smallest bird in Ireland, flew into the window of the tourist center, which is actually a small building away from the mound. Poor thing. Another man, a young farmer from Virginia, and I rescued the bird and I explained to the employee what to do for the stunned bird.

For those who don’t know, I spent years as a volunteer (licensed) wildlife rehabilitator. For a stunned bird, with no obvious injuries, you simply put it into a dark place, like a grocery bag or box, and let it rest for an hour or so. Generally, they will recover enough to leave, or die, or will need treatment for injuries. The employee promised to do so, which was all I could do for the bird in that time and place. I hope it survived. Based on my experience, it stood a pretty good chance.

Interpretive Center

The visitor center for both Knowth and New Grange includes an interpretive center with a nice movie, restrooms, a snack bar and gift shop.

I’m not generally crazy about gift shops, but they do support the site and this one had some really unique offerings.

I loved this green man journal, but it was heavy! I needed something lighter, so I bought a scarf with the images of the stone carvings which I may use in a quilt.

In the interpretive center, I thought this display was simply beautiful. I would like to have those fabrics! Just saying!

This lovely artwork was created by students.

You really get to know someone after several days in a car together. Brian bought me three lovely gifts as he waited in the cafeteria area while I was traipsing around the sacred sites. Amazingly, exactly what I wanted – books – and a CD to watch when I get back home. Brian is not your typical tour guide. He purchased something else for a former client during our 4-day adventure, as well. I’ll be writing about Brian separately, so be sure to stay tuned.

Now, it’s off to Tara, about 45 minutes away, by car.

The Road to Tara

On the road to Tara, Brian knew of a wonderful quaint cottage type of farm. This farm is different than the rest, but every bit as interesting.

This person seems to like to collect old farm equipment. There are pumps and tractors and other things scattered about the place, creating a very unique ambience.

An older, thatched roof type of cottage adjoins a newer addition.

I particularly like the fact that they utilize the top of their rock wall as a planter.

Next, Brian and I stopped at the local pub for lunch. I’ve been subsisting on soup and bread since I arrived, by choice, as both are wonderful. Their vegetable soup here is much more creamy than ours and the vegetables in the soup are more or less pureed. However, in this case, those mushrooms with garlic dip just won the day.

Love these tables in this pub.

Brian asked me if I would be interested in stopping at a quaint little cottage type shop? He didn’t really need to ask. As if I needed convincing, he mentioned that the shop offered a lot of hand made items, and maybe she had quilt fabric too.

Unlike most older farmhouses, which are located within feet of the road, this house was down a long lane.

Look at that old tree which has probably stood sentinel for hundreds of years and seen many generations come and go.

I didn’t know quite what to expect.

This beautiful old home is packed to the gills with woven works and other items hand made by local artisans.

The owner, Mison Fullam, demonstrated weaving. I’ve always been fascinated by weaving, but quilters brains and weaver’s brains don’t work the same way – although both are fascinated by each other’s work.

There isn’t a sign, but the shop is Boyne Valley Wools and Mison told us the story of the Leck family homestead. This house belonged to her husband’s family for generations.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and today was one of those days.

I walked up to an incredible piece of artwork, a limited edition print by Colette Gough (collettegough@hotmail.com), picked it up, and knew I had to have it. Thank goodness it was affordable. I would share, but it’s copyrighted.

I turned the print over, looking for the price, and noticed what was written on the back.

“Found on Bettystown beach by school children, the Tara brooch is believed to have belonged to the High King of Ireland as it is so ornate and also the elongated pin. It is now housed at the National Museum.”

The Tara Brooch. I had never heard of it before, but it was utterly stunning and perfect in every way, and the print looks like it belongs in the Book of Kells. Better yet, it seems to be associated with my ancestors. Something tangible that was actually theirs? Opinions vary – but regardless, both the art and the brooch are incredible.

I took the photo above, of the brooch itself, the next day after stumbling into it by accident at the National Museum. However, the sign below that I spotted when exiting the museum shows the colors much more vividly.

I can’t even begin to explain how utterly stunning this brooch is, nor how much I’d love to have a replica, maybe as a hair barrette?

Brian decided to wait outside and made a discovery of his own.

I walked outside of the shop and noticed that Brian was giving me the thumbs up sign. Curious, I walked over to see what he was looking at, and aside from sheep, an old cemetery was located behind the wall.

You know, I think this genealogy bug is infecting Brian too!

Private family cemeteries are rather unusual in Ireland, as most of the Irish are Catholic and Catholics are buried in consecrated land, in churchyards. This part of Ireland was (and is) heavily Catholic, with the Protestant faction being focused in Northern Ireland in the Ulster Plantation area.

Mison graciously invited us into the cemetery and gave us a tour.

The cemetery is in poor repair, although the family is working to remedy that situation. The sheep have actually helped immensely. It was previously overgrown with briers, and now you can at least walk relatively unobstructed.

This old tree reminds me of a Druid tree. What stories it must have. You can see some cut wood in the background. Hurricane Ophelia last week was not kind to the trees.

One person wrote their entire family history of this stone. Why can’t my relatives do this?

And of course, there has to be a mystery. In this case, a large crypt of a Finnegan man that the family has absolutely no idea why is buried here.

It was time to depart, but not before we noticed the bridge over…nothing, apparently.

On down the road, we noticed another wonderful stone house, with a miller’s stone, an antique car and geese. Those dogs are the friendliest watchdogs ever. One crawled through the fence to be petted. Don’t tell my grandpuppies I was cheating with another dog.

I guess those geese didn’t lay enough eggs today.

Remember the thatched roof house in the early morning fog? We passed it again, and I realized that the thatching was truly unique.

Can you see the pattern? Notice the woven bird on the top right of the crest of the roof.

Tara isn’t far down the road, another of the megalithic mound neighborhood built along the Boyne River, about 45 minutes by car from New Grange.

Thankfully, the site of Tara itself is somewhat protected, but beneath Tara a few shops celebrate the mystical origins of Tara itself.

The Tara gatekeepers, perhaps?

Tara

Before we get there, I have to warn you. Brian explained that Tara is not one of the most exciting sites for tourists. Many have expectations that Tara is much like New Grange, but it isn’t. For the most part, Tara is unexcavated and still in its original condition. The part that has been excavated has been returned to a natural state, so there are no passage graves that you can enter, interpretive center, walkways or anything like that.

In essence, it’s a very large field, albeit a very special field.

The 100-acre site is now government owned, and free, but also virtually unprotected with no government employee presence. That means it’s visually not as striking with little WOW factor, comparatively speaking. Therefore, many visitors are disappointed.

Brian was afraid I might be disappointed as well, but I attempted to convey to him the extent of my insanity as a genealogist.

Brian’s probably saying to himself, “Oy, no wonder her husband didn’t come with her!”

Well, Brian will have a few stories to add to his repertoire after this week too. I wonder if as I write this, on another continent, if Brian is regaling this week’s tourists with stories about the crazy Tara lady😊

This map created about 1900 by William Wakeman shows the layout of the site, including Rath-Laoghaire at the bottom which is the Niall of the Nine Hostages mound.

Beyond the mound, in the center of the barrows, stands the stone known as the Lia Fail, literally “stone of Ireland” in Gaelic, also known as the “stone of destiny,” where the High Irish Kings were crowned. It has previously been vandalized and is now cemented in place.

The stone is reportedly imbued with magical powers of various descriptions and is said to roar with joy when the rightful king puts his feet on the stone.

By Alison Cassidy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50403087

This aerial photo shows the gift shop area in the bottom left, the church, and behind the church to the right, the mound of Niall of the Nine Hostages which is the oldest known structure of this type in Ireland.

Tara, like other sacred sites, is located on a vista, high above the surrounding countryside.

Unlike other sites, there are no visitor walkways or paths, except for those worn into the soil by the feet of visitors who enter through a gate and simply walk across a field and up a hill, past the church dedicated to St. Patrick.

It was very common for the early Christian churches to “adopt” Pagan sites in an effort to draw the pagan people into the church.

If that didn’t work, they hoped to disrupt their pagan sites and rituals.

A statue of St. Patrick holding a shamrock stands guard near the church today, as well, looking only slightly out of place.

Passing the church and statue, the vista of the open field greets visitors as they emerge from the treed area surrounding the church. The rolling hills, which aren’t hills at all but ancient earthworks, begin. The sides of the barrows are steep and the grass is long and slippery even without mist or rain. No mowing occurs here.

The first sacred site encountered is the mound of Niall of the Nine Hostages. In early times, rival kings, or those who wished to be king, would send one of their sons, preferably their first-born who was in line to be heir and therefore more “valuable” than the rest, to be a hostage. Hostage in this sense means that the son lived with the actual king instead of his parents in order to discourage the rival kings or king-wannabes from attacking the king, knowing their son lived there and would likely be killed.

Niall took hostages from all 9 of his (potential) rivals from the various provinces of Ireland, or Ireland and Scotland, depending on the source .

The inside of this passage mound does have spiral carved rocks at the entrance, but it’s not open to the public and would not be tall enough to enter upright.

I was able to obtain a photo by slipping the camera inside the grate. When excavated in the 1950s, this passage was full of human remains, nearly to the ceiling, with burials occurring contiguously for more than 1500 years.

The items above are a few of the things excavated in the tomb.

Leaving the mound and turning towards the field, you can see the stone of destiny standing in the distance, at left, on the horizon.

Tara is a massive site, and would have been crowded with people when a new king was crowned.

I followed the path, cut into the grassy plain by the pilgrims’ feet that came, and went, before me, in modern times.

The silence and remoteness today belies the hubbub of those ancient feast and festival days. If you listen carefully, you can hear their voices in the wind.

In the center of the plateau on top of the hill, among mounds and barrows, undulating like Neolithic snakes across the land, we climb to the highest point and the stone of destiny where the kings of Ireland were crowned.

I tried, but the stone didn’t speak for me.

Looking outward from the stone, you can see the valley in the distance as the sun drifts toward the horizon.

In the photo above, the Tara fairy tree is directly under the sun.

What’s a fairy tree?

Fairy trees, generally Hawthorne’s, represent a location for pilgrims to leave items or relics representing prayers in sacred places, often for healing.

Some of these are heartbreaking – in particular, things like prayers written on baby bibs tied to the tree.

Tara is large and it took quite a while to thoughtfully walk the entire area. It’s also very hilly, with steep barrows surrounding the higher areas. At one time, these barrow rings, would have offered protection.

Circling back, we see the Niall of the Nine Hostages mound again. On the horizon, you can see this mound from almost anyplace on the site, which means this mound has inadvertently become the gatekeeper. The church which does have a steeple is obscured in the trees when viewed from Tara and is located between this mound and the road. Thankfully the trees obscure almost everything modern.

As I turn to say goodbye to Tara, knowing I will never return to this land of my ancestors in my lifetime, I’m struck by the soft mysticism that connects this landscape with my bloodline, with my family DNA, with those who trod this land so long ago, pioneers on this timeless landscape. I am here because of these people. They are part of me. My history.

No Brian, I wasn’t disappointed. My heart sang. I leave part of my soul here on the hill of Tara.

I began the day in the mist and the fog, and I end it the same timeless way, with the sun descending over the Niall of the Nine Hostages mound – feeling the spirits of my ancestors speaking across more than 5500 years, on an emerald green grassy plateau in Ireland, far distant from modern life, yet inextricably connected through the silvery spider web of time.