The Internet has had a dramatic impact on genealogy. Increasingly, research that used to require trips to local libraries, cemeteries and overseas travel, can now be done online. Everything from church records to census, court, land and vital records are starting to appear on the web.
Websites like Mormon-run FamilySearch.org, which is free to use, have led the online charge for genealogy, digitizing billions of records for the web.
MyHeritage has capitalized on the social networking trend of recent years, allowing you to link living family members together, viewing and contributing to a tree with them. To add to its growing collection of records, last week it acquired its former rival Geni.com, which is working on building an interconnected "world family tree."
Then there's the giant Ancestry.com, which was just acquired in October by an investor group for $1.6 billion. It has countless records indexed, though most require a membership or paid subscription.
Depending on your heritage, there are niche sites that can help. For those of Irish descent, RootsIreland.ie is invaluable. Those of French descent will find numerous church and civil records online as well. And so on.
It's all very exciting but for anyone who's dabbled into genealogy, there is a limit at some point. Traditional records can only take you back so far and you'll come to a point where you can't trace a branch in your family tree back any further.
I hit that point with Thomas Kennelly, my immigrant ancestor from Ireland who settled in Canada in 1849. His obituary only says he was from County Limerick, but Catholic church records for the time period of his birth are incomplete, making it unlikely to find his family.
Enter new technology. DNA genealogy has made significant strides and it has become more affordable in recent years. It's now a viable option to learn more about your roots and potentially find living relatives.
When I made plans to go to Ireland this fall, I felt compelled to take a DNA test to see if it would reveal any more about my roots.
I went with a company called Family Tree DNA, which I had seen referred to in the show "Who Do You Think You Are?" A simple cheek swab is all it took; I sent it to the lab, waited a few months, and then I heard back.
The results were both extremely exciting (and extremely lucky).
A Living Distant Cousin With My Last Name
A Tom Kennelly, living in Ireland today, popped up in my results (interestingly, same name as my immigrant ancestor). That's my last name too; the spelling just changed after my family arrived in Canada and the United States.
Tom and I are distantly related with 99% certainty, with a common male ancestor with the surname Kennelly most likely living in the 1700s, according to the test results.
This astounded me. I had no idea I had any living Kennelly relatives in Ireland. I never suspected it.
The biggest surprise: He took the test, too. Not only did I need a living relative in Ireland, but he would also have to take the DNA test for this to work. In this case, it was one who lived in a rural part of Ireland too, near the County Kerry/Limerick border, where his family has lived for hundreds of years (and by extension, my family as well).
I immediately wrote an email to the address listed for the DNA match. I soon learned it belonged to a woman named Helen Smith in Australia. Apparently her grandmother was a Kennelly and she wanted to learn more about that branch of the family. To do so, she needed a living male relative to take the DNA test (a Y-DNA test traces the Y chromosome, only passed from father to son). She asked a living male cousin in Ireland, Tom, to take it. He agreed.
Helen and I exchanged several emails, and she graciously provided Tom's contact information. I gave him a phone call in August, explaining our DNA match and how I was visiting Ireland in November. He told me to call him when I was in Ireland and we could arrange a meeting.
Following a pair of DNA tests and a phone call, I arrived in Ireland hopeful that I could indeed meet Tom. But we hadn't confirmed a date and time, so I was a bit nervous.
I tried calling his home again on a pay phone at a local service station in County Galway. After four attempts (the pay phone wasn't working), his daughter Margaret answered.
My window to visit them was tight. It was about a 24-hour period I would be close enough to stop by their home. Margaret said her parents weren't home at the moment. But they'd be home Thursday. Perfect. That's when I could visit.
It was a surreal moment pulling up at their house. I wasn't positive it was the right place, but then a man walked out from the front of it, and immediately I knew it was. I could just tell as soon as I saw him without ever having seen him before, no pictures online or anything that was a Kennelly.
I excitedly got out of my car and greeted him. We shook hands. It was a great moment. He took me inside the home and I met his wife Nora, daughter Margaret and grandson Jayden. They made me feel comfortable and Nora provided homemade bread and tea.
I got permission to video a decent portion of our visit with my iPhone. We went through old family photos on my iPad and their old family photos in photo albums and we were amazed by similarities in facial features, especially in older photos.
You have to go pretty far back for our common ancestor, but the relationship was unmistakable in the photos.
Tom took me to the old Kennelly family home, a short walk from his house, which dates back to the 1800s and is still standing. Back then our ancestors were much closer relatives. They may have even known each other. It was something to see.
He explained to me that we're related to the County Kerry Kennellys. That's all I needed to hear to extend my journey after visiting with them. I never expected to do this, but I carried on to County Kerry, through more narrow roads and some rain.
I punched Kennelly in my GPS and landed at a hardware store in County Kerry, met the owner Mike Kennelly and got our picture together. I went on to Ballylongford and stopped by the Kennelly's pub and Kennelly auto shop and got my photo with the auto shop owner Tim Kennelly.
It was a blend of technology and old-school research, communication tools and digging. It's a journey I'll never forget. I wouldn't have experienced any of this if it wasn't for that DNA test and the ever-expanding offerings for genealogy on the web.