Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Finding Grace - update since the Clan Rally

The O'Malley Clan Rally 2022 took place over the weekend of June 24th to 26th and it was such a joy to be able to meet with people face to face after 2 years of virtual gatherings. A good time was had by all - it was a great opportunity to meet old friends, and make new ones.

As part of the rich calendar of events, I gave an update on the Finding Grace project in Westport Town Hall. This was recorded and can be viewed on YouTube here and below.

The goal of the Finding Grace project is to identify the Y-DNA signature of the great great grandfather of Grace O'Malley, the Pirate Queen (1530-1603). Only men have a Y-chromosome, so Grace herself would not have possessed any Y-DNA or passed it on to her descendants. However, her father (Owen) would have had Y-DNA, which he would have received from his father (Cormac), who got it from his father (Owen), who got it from his father (Dermot). Grace O'Malley was born about 1530, and allowing 30 years per generation, her great great grandfather, Dermot, would have been born about 1400 AD, so we refer to him as Dermot 1400.

Using extensive genealogies available from various sources (e.g. Burke's Landed Gentry, the Genealogical Office in Dublin), we have identified 13 reported descendants of this Dermot 1400, who sit on 3 major lines of descent (Lines 1, 2 and 3 in the diagram below). Line 1 represents the O'Malley's of Ross House and Achill, Line 2 is the Kilmilkin O'Malley's, and Line 3 is the O'Malley's of Ballyburke.

The 3 lines of descent from Dermot (born about 1400 AD)
(click to enlarge)

We initially tested these reported descendants with the Y-DNA-37 test. This assessed 37 STR markers on the Y-chromosome and was a useful first step in trying to establish if the test-taker was likely to belong to Group 3a within the O'Malley DNA Project. Group 3a is the largest group within the project and is the most likely to represent the descendants of the O'Malley Clan of Mayo. However, there are eight "Group 3" groups (ranging from 3a to 3g), all with similar DNA signatures, and it is not always easy to say which of these eight groups a test-taker belongs to based purely on the results of their Y-DNA-37 test. This question can really only be answered definitively by doing the Big Y test.

So, after the initial Y-DNA-37 testing, the next step was to upgrade people to the Big Y. This assesses over 800 STR markers and over 200,000 SNP markers and allows the test-taker to be placed on a very specific branch of the Tree of Mankind (a.k.a. Y-Haplotree). And this revealed our first surprise - Line 2 does not belong to Group 3a. 

In fact, Line 2 belongs to Group 3g. The two groups (3g and 3a) are indeed "related" in that they share a common ancestor, but this ancestor would have lived about 1700 years ago, well before the introduction of the O'Malley surname (about 1000 AD). Further analysis revealed that the O'Malley surname has been associated with Group 3g for at least 300 years and probably more like 450 years. Prior to this, there may have been a surname switch from Burks / Burke / Bourke, and there may have been an additional surname switch prior to that. But the Take Home Message was that the Group 3g O'Malley's were a well established lineage that probably goes back to the time of Grace O'Malley herself.

The next Big Y results came back for Line 1 and these identified a new branch underneath the pre-existing FT86146 branch. This new branch was characterised by the SNP marker FTA85293, and also sitting on this branch were the O'Malley's of Michigan. The results for Line 3 arrived the week before the Clan Rally, just in time for a further reconfiguring of the "genetic family tree". These last-minute results revealed not only that Lines 1 and 3 were closely related, but created an entirely new branch for them in the Mayo O'Malley portion of the Tree of Mankind. This new branch falls just underneath FTA85293 and is characterised by the newly-discovered SNP marker FTC67000, and only Line 1 and Line 3 members sit on this branch.

This tells us that the people on Line 1 and Line 3 are more closely related to each other than they are to any other branch within Group 3a. They definitely share a common ancestor with each other, and this ancestor was born after the common ancestor they share with the rest of the group. The question is: is their common ancestor Dermot 1400, the great great grandfather of Grace O'Malley, as described in the extensive genealogies? or is it someone else?

There is always the possibility that the extensive genealogies are incorrect, and we cannot automatically assume that the common ancestor is Dermot 1400. We need additional data before we can arrive at this conclusion. And in this regard there are several lines of enquiry that we can undertake.

Firstly, we can look at the age estimate for the newly identified FTC67000 branch and see if it fits with what is reported in the extensive genealogies. If Line 1 and Line 3 members share Dermot 1400 as a common ancestor, then the FTC67000 branch on which they sit should have an age estimate that is close to 1400 AD.

The recently-introduced "Discover More" feature on the FTDNA website uses a new age estimating technology that provides us with better age estimates for the various branches of the Tree of Mankind. Using this new feature, we can now assign updated age estimates for each of the branches associated with Group 3a. The age estimates are referred to as TMRCA estimates, where TMRCA stands for "Time to Most Recent Common Ancestor". The TMRCA estimate for the new FTC67000 branch reveals that it falls somewhere within a 95% range (Confidence Interval) of 1366 to 1826 with a central estimate of 1643 AD.

TMRCA estimate (with 95% Confidence Intervals) for FTC6700
(Note: CE refers to Common Era and is equivalent to AD, Anno Domini)

So this tells us that the TMRCA estimate for the new FTC67000 branch is "not inconsistent" with a common ancestor born about 1400 AD. The proposed date falls within the 95% range (albeit at the extreme lower end) and this makes it possible that Dermot 1400 was the common ancestor of Line 1 and Line 3. The interesting point to note is that the central estimate differs from the 1400 date by almost 250 years, and this is perhaps unexpected. It could even suggest that the common ancestor between Line 1 and Line 3 was born some time after Dermot 1400. This is a possibility that we need to bear in mind moving forward. And if it is ever proved to be the case, then this would point to the extensive genealogies being incorrect.

The branch immediately above the Line 1 & 3 O'Malley's (the FTA85293 branch, which incorporates the Michigan O'Malley's) has a TMRCA estimate of 1473 AD (95% CI 1187-1678), and the branch above that (the FT86146 branch) has a TMRCA estimate of 1373 AD (95% CI 1167-1535).

However, these TMRCA estimates will continue to evolve over time as more people do the Big Y test and more data accumulates that can be applied to these age calculations. And as this evolution occurs, we may see the 95% range shift, and the central estimate for the new FTC67000 branch may move closer to 1400 ... or may move away from it. Two additional sets of Big Y results are expected within the next 8 weeks and these may alter these TMRCA estimates (which FTDNA update on a weekly basis). This will be an interesting one to watch! 

The second line of enquiry is to attempt the validation of the extensive genealogies by generating proof arguments for each generation in the line of ascent from each test-taker in Line 1 and Line 3 back to their reported common ancestor, Dermot 1400. This means moving step-by-step up each O'Malley pedigree and proving that each person in the direct male line is the son of the father above him. This exercise will be relatively easy for the generations born in the 1900s and 1800s as there are relatively good records available. But once we hit the 1700s and 1600s, the available information will be relatively sparse and proving a connection between reported father and reported son may be a lot more challenging.

This work is already underway and will take many months to complete, but an update on the current status will be shared at the next public lecture on Finding Grace, which will take place in Westport House on Saturday August 13th. Further details are currently available on the Clan website here.

The adventure continues ...

Maurice Gleeson
Aug 2022

Sunday, 26 June 2022

Recruitment Update 2022

The last 12 months has been a great year for the project - the best yet in fact. We have had the most new recruits (63) and the highest number of Big Y tests (17).

Total membership stands at 273 members with 136 who have done the Y-DNA test. Of these, 50 participants have done the Big Y test.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

The Big Y test is proving particularly useful for the Finding Grace project and is helping us to define the more downstream branches (i.e. nearer to the present day) among Group 3a members.

If you wish to contribute to the Finding Grace project, please make a donation to the General Fund. All donations are welcome (no matter how small) and you can do so by clicking on the blue Donate button below.
Thank you!
Maurice Gleeson
June 2022

Friday, 6 May 2022

Finding Grace - the aims of the project and how to contribute

What's it about?

In 2030, we will be celebrating the 500th birthday of Grace O’Malley, “the Pirate Queen” (1530-1603). Grace is one of the most important figures in Irish history and a source of great national pride. Her many exploits are both legendary and inspirational, with successive generations of people worldwide becoming enthralled with her life and her legacy. She was a fearless soldier, and a shrewd politician, the protective matriarch of her family and her tribe. It is no wonder she has rightly become a national hero and a feminist icon.

Brighter Futures presents “Grace O’Malley, Our Pirate Queen” at St Patrick’s Day Parade, 2017.
CC BY-SA 2.0) From

As part of commemorations and celebrations surrounding this 500 year anniversary, plans are afoot to identify as many of Grace’s descendants and close relatives as possible ... using DNA. Grace was married twice and there are many known descendants of her two husbands – Bourke’s & O’Flaherty’s. But less well known are the descendants of Grace’s immediate male O’Malley forbears.

And that is the starting point for the Finding Grace project. We aim to establish the Y-DNA signature of Grace's immediate male forbears and by doing so, we will provide a way for people to discover if they have a direct genetic connection to Grace O'Malley ... via the O'Malley side of her family.

Using a variety of documentary sources (including validated pedigrees from the Office of the Chief Herald), we have built out Grace’s family tree and have currently identified living descendants of ...
a) her reported brother Melaghlin (5 people) ... Line 1 (green)
b) her reported uncle Dermot, born c.1490 (6 people) ... Line 2 (blue)
c) her reported great great uncle Donal c.1430 (2 people) ... Line 3 (purple)

These 3 lines of descent are summarised in the diagram below.

Direct male lines of descent from Grace's great great grandfather (click to enlarge)
- 13 descendants have been identified so far

All 13 descendants are on a direct male line of descent from Grace’s great great grandfather Dermot 1400. The theory is that all 13 men will have received their Y-DNA (virtually unchanged) from Dermot 1400 … that is, unless there has been some sort of a DNA switch along the way that has resulted in a break in transmission. And if there has been, DNA will reveal it. It may also indicate if some genealogies are false, and if the wrong descendants have been assigned to the wrong ancestor.

In the best case scenario, people on all three lines would match each other fairly closely, indicating that they all sit on the same general branch of the Tree of Mankind. However subtle differences would allow us to distinguish the three lines from each other, perhaps by the presence of three distinctive SNP markers, one for each branch. In this case, anyone who subsequently tested positive for one of the specific SNP markers could be reliably identified as a direct descendant of Line 1, 2 or 3 respectively.

And furthermore, anyone who can link themselves to that particular line (either through genealogical records or any kind of DNA, not just Y-DNA) would also be able to claim to be a direct descendant of that particular line. In this way, any descendants of Grace O’Malley’s immediate male forbears could be identified:
  • People who link to Donal's line (Line 3) will be 3rd cousins of Grace, about 10-12 times removed.
  • People who link to Dermot's line (Line 2) will be 1st cousins to Grace, about 12-14 times removed.
  • And people who link to Melaghlin's line (Line 1) will have Grace as their aunt ... but with about 10-12 "great"s in front of “aunt”.

How can I help?

We are currently applying for various funding schemes but there are several ways that you can help the project.

If you are a male O'Malley, do the Y-DNA test and join the project. If you are not a male O'Malley, find one and get them to test. We recommend to do the Y-DNA-37 test initially. You can order it from the following link but please contact me for a $40 discount code (my email is below) ...

If you know someone who is on one of the direct male lines of descent described above, then please let us know. We would like to offer them a free Y-DNA test. In particular we need more recruits for Line 3.

Another way you could help would be to contribute to the General Fund. We will need to spend $400 within the next 3-4 weeks so it would be great if we could raise that amount before then. If you wish to contribute to the Finding Grace project, please make a donation to the General Fund. All donations are welcome (no matter how small) and you can do so by clicking on the blue Donate button below.

Maurice Gleeson
May 2022
Email: mauricegleeson AT

The Kilmilkin O'Malley's (Group 3g) are more than 500 years old [revision: >300 years old]

Some additional Big Y results have just been posted for the newly formed Group 3g (the Kilmilkin O'Malley's) and they tell us a very interesting story.

Four of the 5 people in this group have now done the Big Y test. In my previous post, I described how the first three of these (kits IN102000, 778791, 961903) tested positive for for the SNP marker FTC36168, and two of these three shared an additional SNP marker further downstream (FTC27440). 

The 5 members of Group 3g - note the newly-defined "terminal SNPs" in green text (second-last column)

These results allowed us to say with confidence that the MRCA (Most Recent Common Ancestor) for these three initial test-takers (namely Sean na Firinne 1740) carried the SNP marker FTC36168, and subsequently passed it down to all 3 of his descendants. Similarly, we concluded that the MRCA for participants 778791 & 961903, namely Tomás 1808, carried the SNP marker FTC27440. These "triangulation points"are indicated by the green triangles numbered 8 and 9 respectively in the diagram below.

The Kilmilkin O'Malley's (Group 3g) showing their lines of ascent
to Sean na Firinne O'Malley 1740, their MRCA (Most Recent Common Ancestor)

The latest results are for member 590126 and, like many people in the O'Malley DNA Project, his
O'Malley line hits a Brick Wall in the early 1800s.

But the next point is really important. His results place him on a branch adjacent to the first three test-takers discussed above. You can see where they all sit in relation to each other on the Tree of Mankind in the diagram below (from the Big Y Block Tree). The latest Big Y test-taker sits on the branch characterised by the SNP marker FT280617 and which includes 2 other SNP markers, including FT113717 which is deemed to be his current "terminal SNP".

This placement has important implications because it allows us to estimate how long ago the common ancestor of all four Big Y test-takers lived. Their common ancestor would have sat on the branch above them all, characterised by the lead SNP BY152739 (he would have carried all 5 SNPs in the "SNP Block" associated with this branch and would have passed them all on to his descendants, including all four of the Big Y Test-takers in Group 3g).

Group 3g on the Tree of Mankind - "Your Branch" indicates where the latest Big Y tester sits. The first 3 test-takers sit on the adjacent two branches to his right. 

But judging by the number of SNPs below this point (about 9 - see column to the left) we can get a crude idea of when this overarching common ancestor lived. Allowing an average of 80 years per SNP, gives us a time estimate of 9 x 80 = 720 years. If we subtract this from the presumed average year of birth of the test-takers (say 1950), then this gives us a very crude date of (1950-720=) 1230 AD. We should add a broad range around this estimate as it is based on very crude calculations, so let's say +/-300 years. This gives us a date range of 930-1530 AD. [see revised age estimates discussed in the update at the end of this article]

But even allowing for the youngest limit of this very wide range (1530), this means that the O’Malley surname has been associated with this particular DNA signature for at least 500 years (more or less). This serves to illustrate how the Big Y results of people who have Brick Walls around the 1800 timepoint, can be very useful to the interpretation of the data we are currently collecting for the Finding Grace project. These latest results indicate that Group 3g is in fact a very ancient branch of the O'Malley's.

Also, because the latest test-taker does not sit on the same branch as the other 3 Big Y test-takers in the group, we can conclude that he does not descend from Sean na Firinne O’Malley 1740, the reported ancestor of the other three, but rather, from a distant ancestor of Sean na Firinne, probably someone who lived prior to 1500 AD and possibly closer to 1200AD. 

Another view of Group 3g on the Tree of Mankind (click to enlarge)
See DCG cladogram at

A final important point to note is that there are a number of people called Burks who sit on the same branch as the latest test-taker. I had initially thought that the Group 3g O'Malley's may have carried the Burks surname before carrying the O'Malley surname. But because the DNA signature for these Burks and O'Malley men is definitely Gaelic (i.e. they all fall below M222 which is associated with north/west Ireland and Scotland) rather than an Anglo-Norman DNA signature, this would further suggest that there would have been a prior switch to the Burks surname. And because we know the Anglo-Norman Bourke's came into Ireland after 1200 AD, the switch would have occurred some time after that. So the sequence of surname switches I envisioned would have been something like: Gaelic surname c.1000 AD > switch to Burks (after 1200 AD) > switch to O'Malley surname (before 1740).

But with these latest results, an alternative hypothesis (and possibly more plausible) is that the O'Malley name came first and there was a surname switch to Burks somewhere along the line i.e. Gaelic surname c.1000 > switch to O'Malley surname > switch to Burks (after 1200 AD). 

But what was the "Gaelic surname" that was the first to be associated with Group 3g's DNA signature? Surnames on adjacent branches include: Dougherty (x3), Kerrigan (x1), Conway (x1), O'Neill (x1). Could it have been one of these?

This will require some further investigation in due course.

Maurice Gleeson
May 2022
Update August 2022:

The new "Discover More" feature on the FTDNA website uses a new age estimating technology that provides us with better age estimates for the various branches of the Tree of Mankind. Using this new feature, we can now assign updated age estimates for each of the branches associated with Group 3g. The age estimates are referred to as TMRCA estimates, where TMRCA stands for "Time to Most Recent Common Ancestor".

Since the original article above, there have been some slight refinements to this portion of the Tree of Mankind and the revised diagram is included below. Dates for the relevant branches are as follows (given as a central estimate and a range):

FT116143 ... 950 years ago (+/-300 years) ... see more details here
BY152739 ... 450 years ago (+/-200 years) ... see more details here
FT280617 ... 450 years ago (+/-200 years) ... see more details here
FTC36168 ... 350 years ago (+/-200 years) ... see more details here
FTC27440 ... 150 years ago (+/-200 years) ... see more details here

And from these age estimates we can surmise the following:
  • the common ancestor for everyone under FT116143 lived about 1100 AD
  • the common ancestor for everyone under BY152739 lived about 1600 AD
  • the common ancestor for everyone under FT280617 lived about 1600 AD
  • the common ancestor for everyone under FTC36168 lived about 1700 AD
  • the common ancestor for everyone under FTC27440 lived about 1800 AD

Thus, the common ancestor for the O'Malley's of Group 3g would have carried the SNP marker BY152739 and the revised age estimate for this is about 1600 AD. More specific TMRCA estimates, together with a 95% Confidence Interval, can be found by clicking on the Scientific Details tab. And this reveals that the more specific central estimate for this SNP marker is 1562 AD, with a 95% Confidence Interval of 1368 AD to 1707 AD.

In effect, this means that the O'Malley surname has been associated with this particular SNP marker for at least 300 years, and more like 450 years, but it could even be as much as 650 years.

These TMRCA estimates will continue to evolve over time as more people do the Big Y test and more data accumulates that can be applied to these age calculations.

Maurice Gleeson
Aug 2022

Tuesday, 26 April 2022

Some early results for Finding Grace

In a previous article, I outlined how we have currently identified 13 people who reportedly descend from Grace O'Malley's great great grandfather Dermot (born about 1400 AD). Several of these people did a preliminary Y-DNA-37 test and several others (already within the project) upgraded to the Big Y test. Some early results are beginning to trickle in and already these shed some new light on the various genetic groups within the O'Malley DNA project and where Grace O'Malley's male forbears might sit.

There are 3 main lines that reportedly descend from Grace's great great grandfather (hereinafter referred to as Dermot 1400). These are ...

  • Line 1 - descendants of Melaghlin (born c.1545), a reported brother of Grace, and therefore great great grandson of Dermot 1400. Several families are associated with this line including the O'Malley's of Belclare (e.g. Sir Owen O'Malley), Hawthorn Lodge, Ross House, and Achill.
  • Line 2 - descendants of Dermot (born c.1490), a reported uncle of Grace, and therefore great grandson of Dermot 1400. This line includes the Kilmilkin O'Malley's.
  • Line 3 - descendants of Donal (born c.1430), Grace's great great uncle and son of Dermot 1400. Families associated with this line include the O'Malley baronets (e.g. Sir Samuel O'Malley) and the O'Malley's of Ballyburke, and Eden Park.
Below is a summary of the family tree for Lines 1, 2 and 3 and the new DNA signatures identified for the descendants tested so far. Line 1 is probably associated with the overarching SNP for Group 3a (BY35730) whilst Line 2 is characterised by the SNP FTC36168, at least up as far as Sean na Firinne 1740. This is explained further below.

Grace's Y-DNA "family tree" showing early Big Y results - click to enlarge.
Test-takers are highlighted in light green at the bottom of each line.
Bold colour fills highlight the branch test-takers likely belong to ... 
green (likely BY35730); blue (definite FTC36168)
A high quality pdf is available for download here.

Each of these genealogies needs to be verified and evidence is being gathered to attempt to tackle this task. Thankfully this is a well trodden path and there are many avid O'Malley researchers who have left us with the fruits of their labour. However, at least one line appears to have died out or "daughtered out" (i.e. no living male descendants on the direct male line), namely Line 4 - that of Charles O'Malley of Cloonane, reportedly a descendant of Grace's supposed brother Teige (see previous article here). In addition, it is quite possible that there were other descendant lines for which there is no surviving documentary evidence (e.g. Line 5 - the descendants of Grace's brother, Donal na Pioba). Descendants of these lines may show up in the Big Y results.

Now to the new DNA results ... 

Participant 976196

This descendant of Line 1 (the Melaghlin line) sits on row 39 of the Results Page. His Y-DNA-37 results place him firmly in the middle of Group 3a, close to the group's modal haplotype (i.e. "average" genetic signature). This is the largest group in the project and is presumed to represent descendants of the originator of the O'Malley surname about 1000 years ago, based on ...

  1. the weight of numbers (currently 39 people)
  2. TMRCA estimates suggest that this group's DNA signature has been associated with the O'Malley name for approximately 1000 years (which roughly corresponds with when surnames were introduced in Ireland)
  3. the fact that this group sits below the M222 branch on the Tree of Mankind. M222 is associated with Niall of the Nine Hostages, who is recorded as a brother of Brian / Brion, the ancestor of the O'Malley's (see previous article here).

Participant 977436 

This project member (on row 57 - see diagram below) is one of the Kilmilkin O'Malley's (from Line 2 - the Dermot 1490 line) and his Y37 results place him as a close Y37 match to the other Kilmilkin O'Malley's within the project. He also shares the Unique STR Pattern (pink & purple columns) in the last 6 rows of Group 3a on the Results Page - this has been discussed previously here.

Y-STR results extracted from the project's Results Page
(click to enlarge)

Now we come to the new Big Y tests. And these produced some interesting data that changes the groupings, alters the configuration of the O'Malley genetic tree, and raises some interesting possibilities about the Y-DNA signature of Grace O'Malley's male forbears.

Participant 438148

Firstly, member 438148 (row 62 above) tests positive for the SNP marker BY205502 and this places him in the same subgroup as the participant immediately below him (723727, row 63), who belongs to Group 3a1. Therefore I have moved 438148 into Group 3a1. I have also moved member 577761 (row 61 above) into Group 3a1 as he is a Genetic Distance of 0/37 to 438148, indicating a very close relationship. 

This is a somewhat surprising result, given that these latter two participants share almost all the elements of the Unique STR Pattern of the members in rows 57 to 60. Another point to note is that, even though member 438148 & 723727 both share the same terminal SNP, they have a Genetic Distance of 6/37 which means they are not closely related, so much so that they don't even appear on each others' match list. This reminds us how difficult it is to accurately assign group membership for all the Group 3 subgroups based solely on STR data and how important Big Y data is for accurate grouping of participants.

Participants IN102000, 778791, 961903

Secondly, 3 of the six test-takers in the Kilmilkin O'Malley group test positive for the SNP marker FTC36168, and two of them share this SNP and an additional SNP further downstream (FTC27440). This has resulted in the formation of a new group, namely Group 3g, and it is likely that the other Kilmilkin O'Malley's currently undergoing testing will also fall into this group. Consequently, all of them have moved into the new Group 3g. Interestingly, the Unique STR Pattern did not predict a subgroup of 3a but rather an entirely new group altogether. 

However, these new results allow us to say with confidence that the MRCA (Most Recent Common Ancestor) for these test-takers, namely Sean na Firinne 1740, carried the SNP marker FTC36168, and subsequently passed it down to all 3 of his descendants whose Big Y results recently came back from the lab. Similarly, we can surmise that the MRCA for participants 778791 & 961903, namely Tomás 1808, carried the SNP marker FTC27440. These "triangulation points"are indicated by the green triangles numbered 8 and 9 respectively in the first diagram above.

Next Steps

To summarise:

Line 1 - a single participant matches others within Group 3a, who are the largest group among the Mayo O'Malley's and are presumed to represent the descendants of the progenitor of the O'Malley surname. Results from an additional 4 test-takers on this line (barring any surprise results) will hopefully define the Y-DNA signature of ancestors at triangulation points 10, 13, 12 and (most importantly) 2 in the first diagram above. The latter would allow us to characterise the signature of Teige O'Malley 1665.

Line 2 (the Kilmilkin O'Malley's) have a very different DNA signature to Group 3a and form their own group, the new Group 3g. Their results delineate the Y-DNA signature of Sean na Firinne O'Malley 1740.

Line 3 - results are not available as yet but Y37 results from one participant should be available in 4 weeks. And what will they tell us? Well, there are some interesting possibilities:

  1. if they match Line 1  then this suggests that Grace's male ancestors carried the same DNA signature as the main group, Group 3a.
  2. if they match those in Line 2  then this suggests that Grace O'Malley's male forbears carried a different DNA signature to the main group, namely that of Group 3g.
  3. if they match neither line, then that really throws a spanner in the works (a monkey wrench for those of you in the US). In this situation, a triangulation on Grace's male forbears will not be possible and we won't be able to figure out their DNA signature.
We may know the answer when we get the Y37 results in 4 weeks, or we may have to wait for Big Y results in 8-12 weeks. It could very well be that the male forbears of Grace O'Malley had a different DNA signature to the main group of O'Malley descendants today (i.e. Group 3a). This would not be surprising given the many opportunities for potential Surname or DNA Switches that presented themselves during medieval times (see this previous article here).

The rearrangements to the groups have altered the row numbers that people sit on below row 32 on the Results Page.  They have also resulted in a reconfiguration of the diagram in the recently posted article that shows how all the O'Malley's are related. A revised diagram can be seen in an updated section at the end of the previous article and can be downloaded via this link here.

In subsequent blog posts, we will take a closer look at Groups 3a1 and 3g and see what else the Big Y data can tell us about them.

Maurice Gleeson
April 2022

Sunday, 24 April 2022

Same Name, Different DNA - some medieval explanations

Why are there so many different genetic signatures associated with the O'Malley surname? There are a multitude of reasons for why this may be so, and I discuss many of them in an earlier article here

However, in this article I want to focus on those causes that date back to the time of the Irish clans, prior to the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. And this takes us back in time to the Pirate Queen, Grace O'Malley herself. Grace lived just prior to the demise of the Old Gaelic social system, a system that had been guided for centuries by a comprehensive legal system known as Brehon Law. (1) It recognised divorce, (some) equal rights for women, and defined offences and punishments in meticulous detail. The end of this system was signalled by a Proclamation of James I in 1603, which brought the Irish people under the "protection" of the English Crown. Grace O'Malley died the same year.

Brehon Law operated in Ireland from Celtic times to the early 1600s, a period of over 2000 years.
Brehons were arbitrators rather than judges, and the post was open to women and men.

The Creation of Surnames

Brehon Law was well-established in Ireland by the time surnames were introduced (roughly 1000 years ago on average for the O surnames, and 850 years ago on average for the Mac surnames). Most Irish surnames arose from an ancestor's forename (e.g. descendants of Chief Conor became O'Connor). Some forenames were very common (like Conor) and thus the same surname arose in several different places, over several hundred years, but from completely different origins. And hence the progenitors had completely different Y-DNA signatures, and were not closely related to each other. This is why six separate O'Connor clans/septs are recorded in Woulfe's surname dictionary (2) and 34 distinct genetic subgroups have been identified in the O'Connor DNA Project (so far). Thus, one explanation for different genetic groups being associated with the same surname is that many surnames had multiple origins, each of them distinct from the others, and each with their own unique Y-DNA signature.

In 1916, T J Westropp, the famous antiquarian, described the Limerick O'Malley's as one of several "petty tribes ... rather families than septs". (3) And indeed, there may have been several of these "families" within the Limerick area as we now have 6 subgroups under L226, all with recorded (or likely) Limerick origins. A similar picture may emerge for the Mayo O'Malley's, particularly with the advent of new Big Y data associated with the Finding Grace project.

The Translation of Surnames

Another explanation for different Y-DNA signatures being associated with the same surname is the anglicisation of surnames, a process aimed at forcing the Irish to conform to English culture that saw surnames being translated from the Irish language form into an approximate English language form. (4) This long-term process was a key part of the English colonisation of Ireland and picked up speed during the lifetime of Grace O'Malley (1530-1603) with the passage of new laws under Henry VIII (1537) that essentially labelled the use of the Irish language as a sign of opposition to the English Crown. (5) Serious problems arose during the process of translation. Some surnames in Irish with completely separate origins were anglicised to the same English version. Thus A and B both became anglicised to X.  And so genetically we find that there are X's with an A genetic signature and X's with a B genetic signature - two genetically distinct groups with "the same" surname (or variants thereof). 

Conversely, anglicization also helps explain why there are so many variants of the O’Malley surname. There are several examples on the public Results Page of people who have the same Y-DNA but different surname variants (Malley, O'Malley, Maley, Melia, Malia, O'Meally, etc).

The Switching of Surnames

There were several important aspects of the Old Gaelic social system that could explain why different genetic signatures became associated with the O'Malley surname.

Some people switched their surname to that of the chief as a sign of their loyalty of fealty. (6) Grace O'Malley herself may have commanded such respect even though she was never formally a clan chief. In her biography of Grace, (7) Anne Chambers describes how Grace became “a matriarch, not merely of her own followers and extended family, but of neighbouring clansmen, whose chieftains had either died in the numerous conflicts of the period, or who had abandoned their obligations to protect their dependent followers.” Some of these refugees may have adopted the O'Malley surname as a mark of respect, gratitude and loyalty to Grace.

Strangers could be given the honour of being adopted into a clan (a form of citizenship) in recognition of their contribution to the clan community. (8) Some of these may also have had the O'Malley surname bestowed upon them.

Some marriages resulted in the husband adopting the surname of the wife, especially if she was of higher social standing than he was. An apt example of this is the case of Oliver Cromwell, who should really have been called Oliver Williams. However, in 1497, his great great grandfather (Morgan Williams) had married Katherine Cromwell, sister of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII. Morgan and Katherine’s three sons took the surname Cromwell in honour of their famous maternal uncle. Thus, Oliver Cromwell carried the Cromwell surname but Williams Y-DNA. Some family members later reverted to the surname Williams in order to distance themselves from their contentious cousin, thus executing a double-surname switch. (9) After the death of her second husband (Richard Bourke) in 1583, Grace O'Malley herself used her maiden name (Grany Ni Mailly) in her exchanges with Queen Elizabeth I who addressed her as such in her replies. (10)

Marriage, Sex ... and possibly Infidelity?

Under Brehon Law, marriage and sexual relations were approached very differently compared to today (and very very differently compared to the Victorian attitudes of 100-200 years ago). Ireland under Brehon Law was a much more sexually permissive society than one might imagine. It might be tempting to think that medieval society was like The Swinging Sixties, but better regulated and with everyone "on board", but promiscuity was frowned upon (at least female promiscuity), and was among the types of behaviour most frequently censured in women. (11) Furthermore, the introduction of inheritance by primogeniture (i.e. to the eldest son) led to a gradual change in sexual permissiveness in the 1600s, particularly for the landed classes. (12)

Most marriages were secular marriages based on the ancient customs - few people were married in church (13). Divorce was easy (for both men and women) and it was usual for the upper classes to have a string of different spouses. (13) This created an environment where the same surname could become associated with different types of Y-DNA.

Marriages usually started out as trial marriages for "a year and a day". (8) If at the end of the period, the couple were happy to continue as husband and wife, then they got legally married. But if they did not feel they could live together, they separated. Grace O'Malley famously did this with her second husband, shouting "Richard Bourke, I dismiss you" from the ramparts of his castle where she had installed herself and her followers, and locked him out. He can't have been very pleased to have lost a wife and a castle on the same day. (7)

Interestingly, if a couple separated at the end of the trial marriage, any children born to them during that time became part of the woman's kin (and thus presumably bore the name of her kin). (8) Thus if an O'Malley woman had a child during the trial period and then decided not to continue to legal marriage, the child would become an O'Malley but would carry non-O'Malley Y-DNA. Thus different Y-DNA was introduced to the wider O'Malley Clan.

Polygamy was allowed and it was common to have two or more wives. However, the term "wife" was more applicable to the first wife (the chief or principal wife). Subsequent wives had fewer rights than the first wife and might perhaps be more aptly considered as "concubines". (8,11,12,13)

The Brehon Laws refer to nine forms of sexual union. (11) The first three roughly equate with our modern concept of marriage, and the next four could be more akin to casual sex (referred to as "affinity" or "affiliation"), and the last two cover rape and insanity. The nine forms of sexual union are:

  1. when a man and woman get married and bring equal property or wealth to the marriage
  2. a marriage where the woman brings little or no wealth / property / goods to the marriage
  3. a marriage where the man brings little or no wealth / property / goods
  4. when a man visits a woman at her home, and with her kin’s consent
  5. when a woman freely goes away (eloped?) with a man, but without her kin’s consent
  6. when a woman allows herself to be abducted, and without her kin’s consent
  7. when a woman and man secretly visit each other, without her kin’s consent
  8. union by rape
  9. union of two insane people

Why was it necessary to create these categories of sexual union? The reasons are probably complex and our understanding of them incomplete, but they had applicability with regard to the rights of children to inherit their father's estate, the inheritance rights of the different types of "wife", the division of property and wealth following divorce, and the legal status of the woman (i.e. under whose rule she came, how much fine was payable if she was killed or raped, and how much fine was due and payable by whom if she committed a crime). 

In cases of rape, forced abduction, or where the woman did not consent to the sexual union, heavy fines were levied on the offender, and the responsibility for raising any child of the union fell on the offender and his kin. (8,11) This applied whether the woman was married, unmarried, a servant or a slave. (11)

Sex with servants was apparently commonplace, both heterosexual and homosexual. (8,14) The children of any such union may have become the father's responsibility, and may have adopted his surname, but this is unclear and would have depended on the circumstances and whether the mother had any rights.

In certain circumstances, the woman alone was responsible for rearing a child (presumably with the help of her own kin). These included if she was a prostitute, or if the father was a stranger / alien (cú glas), a slave, a satirist, a man expelled by his kin; a dependent son, who impregnated her without his father's permission; or a priest who later repented. What surname the child took in these circumstances is not clear, but no doubt in many instances a son would have retained the mother's surname, and in this way, the particular surname could have become associated with different Y-DNA.

Legal documents often consisted of large text (representing the original law) with explanatory text and interpretations in small print. The above is a detail from RIA MS 23 Q 6, p33.

Divorce & Separation

Brehon Law allowed for women to divorce their husbands under specific circumstances, (8,11,13,14,15) including:

  • if he tricked her into marriage through sorcery
  • if he failed to support her
  • if he hit her and left a (permanent?) mark
  • if he insulted her in public
  • if he spread a false story or satire about her
  • if he discussed their sex life with others
  • if he became too fat to have sex
  • if he was impotent
  • if he preferred to lie with boys
  • if he rejected her for another woman
  • if he entered the priesthood
  • if he took a second "wife" without her knowledge (was this akin to our current concept of "infidelity"? Also, if he took a second wife/concubine with the knowledge of his first wife, would this then not be considered infidelity? In other words, you could do what you wanted as long as you told your spouse in advance??)
Men also had grounds for divorcing a wife including: 
  • "infidelity" (not further defined)
  • persistent thieving (... but occasional thieving was okay?)
  • bringing shame on her husband's honour
  • inducing an abortion
  • smothering a child
  • not being able to produce breast milk because of sickness

Furthermore women who left their husbands without just cause were stripped of their rights, denied shelter, and treated as outcasts. (8,11,14) There is no mention of this same treatment being inflicted on men, so the gender equality scales were not exactly balanced.

Another interesting example of grounds for divorce was if the couple were related by "affinity" i.e. if either party had had sex at any time in the past with a relation of their spouse, out to the level of third cousins. (13) Under Canon Law, the medieval church forbade marriage if the couple were 3rd cousins or closer, or if either had been married or had had sex (even once) with any of their prospective partner's relatives, out to the level of 3rd cousin. (How did they figure this out? Did they sit down and go through each other's family trees? Sounds like if you wanted to get married properly, you had to be a genealogist.)  If either party was previously married to a relative of the other (within the proscribed range), a papal dispensation would be necessary for the new marriage to be allowed and to be considered valid. Given society's relaxed attitude to sex, and the tendency to marry one's own kinfolk, it is likely that many marriages would not have been considered "valid"  in the eyes of the Church, but the couple managed to sail under the ecclesiastical radar ... or alternatively, could divorce each other at the drop of a hat. (12,13)

There were specific circumstances in which a couple could separate without being fined or penalised. Eleven such scenarios are listed in one book of Brehon Laws (Heptad 53) and these include death, entering the priesthood, and a variety of situations associated with temporary separation, such as going on a pilgrimage, searching for a far-off friend, going on a sea voyage, being in a revenge attack party, or being sick and requiring care away from home. But the most relevant situation with regard to Y-DNA is where the husband is infertile, the wife does not wish to divorce him, and instead goes away "to seek a child" by another man. The resultant child was treated as that of her husband - and in such a situation, the child would carry the husband's name but another man's Y-DNA. (11, p75)


Under Brehon Law, there was no concept of "illegitimacy" as we know it today  - every child was cared for by kin, no matter what their origins, be it a legal marriage, a casual fling, or an illicit tryst. In addition, there was apparently no social stigma, no concept of "the fallen woman" who had become pregnant "out of wedlock". Their attitude to such things was very different to that of (for example) 20th century Ireland. (8,11,13,14)

And these children, born outside of legal marriage, had equal rights to inherit their biological father's estate. (11,13) Today in 2022, legislation is currently going through the Irish parliament that will restore this prior right that these children would have enjoyed under Brehon Law. The only thing that "out-of-wedlock" children were barred from doing was being a priest, apparently because "the child carried the sin of the mother".

In medieval Ireland, sometimes entertaining the guests went a lot further than just having them over for dinner. This is evidenced by the custom of "Naming" of children. In this case, a married woman, usually on her deathbed, would reveal that one of her sons had in fact been fathered by a man other than her husband, and usually quite a famous man with status, wealth and property. This newly illegitimized son thus became entitled to inherit the estate of his new father, but could also fall under his protection (thus securing his safety when his mother was no longer around to protect him). There are numerous contemporary examples of these "named children" and some of them (or their own children) became clan chiefs (e.g. in the latter half of the 1500s, James Meagh became chief of the O'More's, and Feardorcha O'Neill's son Hugh O'Neill became Earl of Tyrone). (13) Undoubtedly some of these "naming" events were pure lies, but this is another example of how different Y-DNA could become associated with a particular surname.

Adoption & Fosterage

Fosterage was very common in medieval Ireland. Parents would give a child for fosterage to another family if they wanted to forge strong links with that family, or if they wanted their child to learn a profession. The period of fosterage was usually up to to seventeen years old for boys, and up to 14 years old for girls (after which they became nuns or wives). (11)

If a child was adopted (by a childless couple, for example), it is likely that they would have carried the surname (but not the Y-DNA) of the adoptive father. But if a child was fostered, then they probably retained the surname (and Y-DNA) of their biological father. The only circumstance where the fostered child might adopt the name of the foster father, might have been if the natural father died while the child was being fostered.

The Election Process

The way clan chiefs were elected changed considerably over time. The Irish clans operated under Brehon Law and the system of Tanistry, whereby a successor for the chieftainship would be chosen from relatives of the previous chief, out as far as "the fifth degree of relationship" (roughly second cousins). (13) As a result, it is quite possible that the DNA of the Clan Chief may have varied from time to time, and thus the various genetic groups we see in the O'Malley DNA project today, may have been represented (at one time or another) by a chief that carried their DNA signature. 

This Irish system of Tanistry was eventually replaced when the English system of primogeniture was foisted upon the clans (including the O'Malley's) following the Composition of Connaught in 1585. (16,17) Thereafter, the role of chief should have been passed from father to eldest son (the law was not always obeyed), thus probably reducing the opportunity for different DNA signatures to be associated with the role of clan chief.


So, to recap, the causes for different genetic signatures being associated with the same surname may include the following ...

  1. multiple origins for the same surname
  2. anglicisation of Irish surnames to English approximations
  3. switching surname as an act of fealty / loyalty
  4. having your surname switched as an honour / distinction bestowed by a clan
  5. changing your surname to that of your higher status wife
  6. being the child of failed trial marriage (and taking the mother's surname)
  7. the child being raised by the mother on her own (and taking the mother's surname)
  8. the wife being impregnated by another man if her husband was infertile
  9. a child in fosterage adopting the name of the foster father following the death of his biological father
  10. being a "named child"(i.e. the result of a union with a man of high status)

This article serves to emphasise that it is the O'Malley surname, and not the DNA associated with it, that unites everyone in the O'Malley Clan. It is highly likely that many of the genetic groups within the project have carried the O'Malley surname for hundreds of years, and that their Y-DNA signature became associated with the O'Malley name during the medieval period. 

Further Y-DNA data will help clarify how long each of the groups have been carrying the O'Malley surname and its associated Y-DNA signatures.

Maurice Gleeson
April 2022

Sources & Links

1) History of the Law in Ireland. Available at the website of The Courts Service of Ireland.

2) Woulfe, Patrick. Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall: Irish Names and Surnames, collected and edited with explanatory and historical notes (1923). Available at

3) Westropp, T.J. (1916) The antiquities of Limerick and its neighbourhood. Dublin: Hodges Figgis & Co. Available from the website here. Note that pages 81 and 140 are missing from this version but can be found in this alternative version on the AskAboutIreland website here.

4) Murphy, P. The Anglicization of Ireland: A Model for the Linguistic Imperialist? Available online here.

5) Crowley, AE (2016) Language, Politics and Identity in Ireland: a Historical Overview. In: Hickey, R, (ed.) Sociolinguistics in Ireland. Palgrave Macmillan , London , pp. 198-217. ISBN 978-1-137-45347-1

6) Clan FAQs at

7) Chambers, A (2009, 7th edition). Grace O'Malley: The Biography of Ireland's Pirate Queen 1530–1603. Gill Books. Available from

8) Kerrigan, J (2020) Brehon Laws: The Ancient Wisdom of Ireland. Free Kindle edition available here.

9) Castlelow, E. Oliver Cromwell. Biographical article at Historic UK website available here.

10) Trowbridge, B (2016) Meeting Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s pirate queen. This article includes digital images of Grace's petition to Queen Elizabeth I (Catalogue reference: SP 63/170 f. 204) as well as the 18 "interrogatories" and her responses (SP 63/170 f. 201-202). Available at The National Archives blog.

11) Kelly, F (1988, reprinted 2016) A Guide to Early Irish Law. School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. Available from DIAS here.
Prof Fergus Kelly is a Senior Professor in the School of Celtic Studies at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS).

12) Simms, K (1975) The Legal Position of Irishwomen in the Later Middle Ages. Irish Jurist, vol.10, pp96-111. Available to read or download here.
Katharine Simms is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History in the School of Histories and Humanities, Trinity College Dublin.

13) Nicholls, K. (2003, 2012 digital reprint) Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages. The Lilliput Press. Kindle Edition available from Amazon here
Kenneth Nicholls is a former Professor of History at University College Cork.

14) Duggan, C (2013) The Lost Laws of Ireland. Glasnevin Publishing. Kindle Edition. Paperback edition available here.

15) Ginnell, L (1898, reprinted 2011) The Brehon Laws: a Legal Handbook. Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition available from Amazon here. Also, freely available from the LibraryIreland website here.
Laurence Ginnell (1852-1923) was an Irish nationalist politician, lawyer and Member of Parliament (MP).

16) Cunningham, B (1984) The Composition of Connacht in the Lordships of Clanricard and Thomond, 1577-1641. Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 24, No. 93 (May 1984), pp. 1-14. Available online here.

17) McInerney, L (2011) The Composition of Connacht: an ancillary document from Lambeth Palace. North Munster Antiquarian Journal vol. 51. Available online here.

Thursday, 21 April 2022

How all the O'Malley's are related

The diagram below shows how all the O'Malley's in the DNA Project are related to each other. It summarises the placement of all the various O'Malley groups on a single family tree. To the right is a summary of the major historical events in Ireland that our ancestors lived through and that shaped the genetic signatures of the O'Malley's today.

Click to enlarge (it takes a while to load). 
A high quality pdf version (1.1 MB) is available to download here
Update: a newer version (May 2022) is available here

There are 5 main genetic groups within the project so far. 
  • Group 1 goes back to Galway in 1795. See previous post here.
  • Group 2 represents the Limerick O'Malley's and consists of 6 subgroups. See here.
  • Group 3 represents the Mayo O'Malley's and consists of 7 subgroups currently, many with roots in Mayo. See here and here.
  • Group 4 participants probably share a common ancestor in the 1700s, possibly from Kilkenny. See here.
  • Group 5 is another Galway group (with Kilmilkin origins). This group was previously associated with the surname Joyce. See this article here.

The Group 2 O'Malley's all sit beneath the branch characterised by L226, which is the marker for the Dalcassian group of surnames. They would therefore be related to Brian Boru, first High King of Ireland (941-1014). These subgroups would all share a common ancestor about 1500 years ago. These O'Malley's can be traced back to the 1100's in Limerick and arose completely independently from the Mayo O'Malley's. See previous articles here and here

Note that the horizontal green line indicates the time when surnames were introduced into Ireland, and that all subgroups are connected to common ancestors above this line (i.e. pre-surnames). The single exception is Group 2a and 2b, which may in fact be related by a common ancestor (DC362) who lived after surnames were introduced. As we get more data, it should be possible to refine the age estimate for the common ancestor of these two subgroups.

The Group 3 subgroups all sit beneath the branch characterised by the SNP marker M222 and therefore are related to Niall of the Nine Hostages (NOTNH). This is not surprising given that the Mayo O'Malley's are recorded as being descendants of Niall's brother Brian. (1) These subgroups would all share a common ancestor about 2100 years ago.

The Groups 2, 3 and 4 would share a common ancestor (who carried the marker DF13) about 4100 years ago. Group 5 would share a common ancestor (M785) with Groups 2, 3 and 4 about 23,000 years ago. And the common ancestor they all share with Group 1 (PF3495) would have lived about 47,000 years ago.

Not included in this diagram are the 11 O'Malley men who currently remain in the Ungrouped section of the project. These are people who currently do not have a match within the project, but as more people join, many of these will form new groups, causing the project to continually expand.

In the next article we will look at why there are so many different genetic signatures within the O'Malley DNA Project ... and you may find some of the possible reasons rather surprising ...

Maurice Gleeson
April 2022
Sources & Links

1) O Hart, J (1892) Irish Pedigrees: or the Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation. Available online here.

Update 26th April 2022

Following the availability of new Y-DNA results, the chart has now been updated to include the following:
  • a new SNP marker for Group 3a1
  • a completely new Group 3g for the Kilmilkin O'Malley's
  • revised possible origins for Groups 4 and 5
  • some minor refinements following feedback from project members
The revised chart is below and available for download here.

(click to enlarge)

Finding Grace - update since the Clan Rally

The O'Malley Clan Rally 2022 took place over the weekend of June 24th to 26th and it was such a joy to be able to meet with people face ...