Deborah Sullivan Gellerson with her third cousin Kevin Coyne (center) in Maam, County Galway, Ireland.Deb Sullivan Gellerson/Portland Press Herald

A genealogy-based DNA project in Maine, where 18 percent of the population claims Irish ancestry, is connecting people to their relatives in Ireland.

The Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project was started in 2011 by the Maine Irish Heritage Center in Portland. The project is overseen by several volunteers who have spent thousands of hours and their own money developing a massive family tree of Irish immigrants who came to Maine during the Industrial Revolution and the Great Famine of 1845-1852, the Portland Press Herald reports.

To date the project has integrated the family trees and DNA test results of some 535 project members. The Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project now has a list of more than 142,000 people.

Dr. Maurice Gleeson, a psychiatrist based in London whose personal passion is genetic genealogy, praised the project.

“It’s the most advanced DNA project of its kind in existence,” said Gleeson. “It’s almost a template for other DNA projects. They have married traditional genealogy with genetic genealogy. What they have done could be replicated anywhere.”

The project was started by Margaret Feeney LaCombe, 65, a lead genealogist at the Maine Irish Heritage Center. She had the idea after researching her own family tree.

“I had amassed thousands of records, sitting at microfilm machines for months and writing down hundreds of Feeneys, Foleys, McDonoughs, Connollys, Mulkerns and Costellos in my family tree,” said LaCombe. “You know, if you keep digging, everybody’s related.”

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In the late 1990s, she delved into genetic genealogy by testing her mother’s DNA. Since then, she has tested an uncle, three brothers and four cousins.

“My mother was in her 80s when the DNA kits started coming out, so I wanted to get her DNA before it was too late,” said LaCombe, whose Feeney ancestors hail from Leitir Mór, off the coast of County Galway.

The Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project includes the family trees and DNA test results from people still living in Ireland, particularly in the Connemara region of County Galway, where many Irish Mainers have roots.

LaCombe, who is the project administrator, and Maureen Coyne Norris, 68, the founding board chairwoman of the center, have traveled to Ireland numerous times to test dozens of people from different families using DNA test kits purchased with their own money, assuming people would be more inclined to be tested if it was free. 

They’ve even tested elderly residents in nursing homes who have surnames that would help to expand the project’s database.

“They’re so appreciative that we want to know about their history. I’ve only ever had one person say no,” said Norris, who is an ambassador to the Emigration and Diaspora Centre in Carna, County Galway.

The DNA tests are a big help to people trying to track down their ancestors in Ireland, where many public records are illegible or nonexistent.

Gleeson says that many parishes in Ireland didn’t keep records to avoid persecution by the English.

“We still have the same problem with going back further than the early to mid-1800s on most Irish ancestral lines,” he said.

Complicating the process is the fact that in 1922, during the Irish Civil War, the country’s public records office in Dublin was destroyed by fire. Census records from 1821, 1831, 1841, 1851 and more were lost in the fire.

“We lost 800 years of Irish history in a matter of seconds,” Gleeson said.

Through the project, Deb Sullivan Gellerson, a volunteer genealogist at the center, was able to connect with her relative Kevin Coyne, a retired postmaster living in County Galway. Gellerson and Coyne are third cousins within the Joyce family, Gellerson’s mother’s paternal line.

Gellerson had met Coyne on previous trips to Ireland. After Coyne was “swabbed” for DNA as part of the project, Gellerson traveled to Ireland in 2014 and shared the DNA results with him.

“He was very pleased, but he expected it,” Gellerson recalled. “For me, it just verified so much. You work so hard to find out anything you can about where your people come from. Some people are satisfied if they can’t find out exactly, but I want solid proof.”

The Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project requires members to submit genetic information through the Family Tree DNA website.

Project members can use the website’s Family Finder autosomal DNA test, which can confirm parent-child, sibling and cousin relationships through genetic matches excluding the X or Y sex chromosomes.

“The autosomal test reaches as far out as fifth cousins and as far back as five generations,” said Krista Heatley Ozyazgan, co-administrator of the Maine Gaeltacht DNA Project.

People who’ve been tested through, or National Geographic’s Genographic Project can transfer their results to

The Portland Press Herald reports that male project participants can test their YDNA to determine their paternal line, and female participants can test their mtDNA to find their maternal line. All participants joining the project must submit a family pedigree delineating at least three to five generations.

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