Baltimore based actor traces his DNA ancestry

Bill Hughes at Tavanaghmore
Bill Hughes at Tavanaghmore (Photo by Ann Hughes)

A Baltimore based actor has written about his experience of tracing his Irish ancestry.

Bill Hughes, who is also an author and photo journalist, knew that his mother came from Co Mayo, and that his family on his American born father’s side came from the same village as his mother – Tavanaghmore.

This gave him a great starting point for his journey, which saw him trace his ancestry from the Wild West of Ireland, to Great Britain to the Legendary Celts of Europe.

Here he tells his story in his own words.

Ogham, the mysterious language of the trees The Origins of the Ogham alphabet are still a mystery for many historians, but it is primarily thought to be an early form of the Irish written Language. Bealtaine Fire

My mother, Nora Thornton, was born in the village of Tavanaghmore, County Mayo, in the Wild West of Ireland, back around the turn of the last century. My father, Richard Patrick Hughes, Sr, was Baltimore-born, around the same time frame as my mother. His parents also hailed from Tavanaghmore.

When you look at this you have to say: Nothing could be more Irish. For about twenty years from the early 70s to the early 90s, I made regular trips to County Mayo to visit my mother’s birthplace, my dad’s relatives, and their surviving family members.

Bill Hughes at Tavanaghmore (Photo by Ann Hughes)

In fact, one of the trips was with my mother herself back in the early 70s. At that time her brother Mickey and sister Anne were still living. Mickey was holding up the fort in Tavanaghmore, the old family homestead. Anne was in the next village over – about a mile or so away – Stonepark.

One day Uncle Mickey took me to one of his local watering holes. It was a dark and dingy place with sweat coming off the ceiling. I thought I was in a James Joyce novel. Even though I had a hard time understanding my uncle, he was great company.

Tavanaghmore sits on a hill overlooking Loch Conn and the quaint village of Pontoon. In the distance, the northwest, you can see Mt. Nephin. It rises to 2646 feet. Uncle Mickey would insist – he fought in the Civil War in Ireland, 1921-22, on the Republican side – that his mountain was “higher” than Nephin’s. Well, we’ll let that one pass for the moment.

Tavanaghmore is only a few miles from the town of Foxford. It used to be home to a famous woolen mill. Foxford was also where the “First Admiral” of the Argentinian Navy, William Brown, aka Guillermo Brown, was born, in 1777.

I’m not sure in the 1970s exactly how many families called Tavanaghmore home. Just guessing, I would say no more than twenty. Lately, the real estate boom took over in County Mayo, so there has been a bit of a build-up near Loch Conn.

In any event, my impression was just about everyone in the village was somehow, someway related to each other. At least, it seemed that way to me. (Confession: I was drinking back then! Draft lager was my alcoholic beverage of choice.)

Let me put it another way, I believe without taking a scientific poll, that I was “related” to everyone living then in Tavanaghmore by some degree or other. “Kissing cousins” you could call us.

An idea was floated to check out the DNA Ancestry site and to see what it had to say about my Irish family tree. What came up next for me, however, was this: Why do I want to do that? I already know where I am from. And, I have tons of lovely Irish cousins to prove it.

But, here’s the bigger issue. DNA Ancestry goes back much much farther in time using its technical data and sophisticated analysis, along with historical migratory trends. How far back? Try traveling back to the days of the legendary Celts!

Just when I was ready to say “yes,” this scary thought popped into my head. Suppose I go the DNA route and find out that I’m related to (double gasp) that silly “Geraldo” or somebody worse? Okay, I’m just kidding on that one, but you can see where I’m going with this. Who will I find in my family line?

Alright – I recently got my courage up and for a modest fee sent a sample of my DNA to “AncestryDNA”. After about a six weeks’ wait, the results came back and here they are: “I’m 77 percent from Ireland, 21 percent from Great Britain and 2 percent from other regions.”

Ancestry’s model put my family, and its Tavanaghmore roots, right in the middle of “genetic community” that they call “Connacht Irish.” Sounds right on to me.

Ancestry DNA said its “ethnicity estimates” show where my ancestors came from “hundreds of thousands years ago.” Their origin profile shows my people coming out of mainland Europe, France (formerly known as Gaul in the days of the Caesar), and Belgium (also once dominated by Celtic tribes), and heading north into the British Isles.

The Bridge over the Moy River, at Foxford, Mayo Photo by Bill Hughes

All of this conforms to a book that I consider to be an authority on this subject: “The Celtic World: An Illustrated History of the Celtic Race, Their Culture, Customs and Legends,” by Barry Cunliffe. The Irish were Celts. The author, (I’m cutting to the chase here), suggests that some of the European Celts began migrating from (France) Gaul, and Belgian, too, to the British Isles as early as “second century B.C.”

Keep in mind the Anglo/Saxon settlement in England came much later around the 6th Century, AD. The Normans didn’t conquer England until the 11th Century. So, the British Celts’ presence pre-dates both of those later dominating tribes. In fact, it is widely believed the Celts gave London its name: Londinon.

In any event, after conquering Gaul, Caesar moved on to Britain (Britannia) around 55 B.C. This campaign, along with his conquest of Gaul, made Caesar’s reputation. Long after his death, the Celtic tribes were finally defeated by the Romans, around A.D. 84. The Irish Celts had also begun settling in Ireland around the first century B.C. Today, Ireland’s population is about 8.4 million.

So, much of the above would strongly support the “21 percent Great Britain” found in my chart. The Celts were there very early on and many of them had stayed there throughout the centuries.

One of the puzzles left in my search for the deep state origins of my ethnic identity, is this one: Is there a “Geraldo” in that unknown “two percent” in my model? Stay tuned!

Thanks to Bill for taking the time to tell us his story.

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