Monday, 13 January 2020

Peter McWilliam - Speaker Profile

Peter McWilliam
Presentation: A Tale of Triangulated Segments - DNA and early records connect families from Clones and North America

Membership: Clogher Historical Society, Creggan Historical Society and Irish Genealogical Research Society

Biographical Details: I grew up in Monaghan town but now live in Dublin. I received a Ph.D. in Genetics from Trinity College, Dublin in 1980 and subsequently worked in research in Munich, TCD and RCSI. In retirement I combine my former profession and my interest in local history with a particular interest in the application of DNA testing to genealogy.

How did you get into genealogy?

My initial involvement was probably sparked by the death of my father in 1989. My entire family moved from Monaghan to Dublin in 1970 when I was 18. Genealogy provided me with a way to keep connected with my childhood roots.

My great uncle, Rev John McWilliam was born in Monaghan in 1885 though he lived out his life as a Presbyterian minister in Scotland. He was an avid genealogist and in his later years wrote out his findings for the benefit of the family so one quarter of my genealogy was well covered.

I regret that I didn’t question my father more before his death so I made sure that I didn’t make the same mistake with my mother and she helped me work up my maternal lines.

Almost all my ancestry, certainly back to 1800 and probably even 1700, is from south Ulster (and predominantly Ulster Scots). Because of the spatial coherence of this genealogy, I have become increasingly interested in the local history of the region. In turn this has led me to work on a major source for 18th Century history – Memorials in the Registry of Deeds – and I have become a (minor) member of the Registry of Deeds Indexing project.

I am currently exploring the limits of autosomal testing back into the 18th century.

What about your involvement in Genetic Genealogy?

For some time I resisted the temptation to take a DNA test; with my professional background I knew I would get sucked in. I finally took my first test with Family Tree in 2013 though I subsequently took tests with Ancestry, 23andme and downloaded my raw DNA data to My Heritage and of course to Gedmatch.

Initially I got no relevant or useful matches though I did organise tests for a number of cousins to help define some ancestral lines. However I now have matches for most of my ancestral lines spread over the various testing companies.

I have always been aware of the 18th and 19th Century Ulster Scots migrations to North America. In fact an ancestor, Matthew Russell was master of the ships Newry and Robert sailing from Newry to New York and Philadelphia between 1763 and 1775 and advertising for Passengers, Redemptioners and Servants. However the penny hadn’t really dropped and I never really associated it with my own family since we had stayed in situ. It was only when I realised that most of my Family Tree matches (and subsequently Ancestry) came from America and many from southern states like the Carolinas’ that I really understood that these matches must have come from emigrant siblings of ancestors.

This has sparked an interest in the migration process – an interest intensified by the collaboration with Jeff Blakely described in this presentation.

So what will you be talking about?

Irish genealogy becomes increasingly difficult in the period between 1800 and 1830; in this collaborative project a combination of Clones, American and family records are used to identify a DNA test panel to address some genealogical puzzles in this time period.

Surviving records from this parish are explored to assess the possibilities for genealogical research in the 18th century.

Resources: Family Web site -

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