Thursday, 30 November 2017

DNA reveals a major Welsh connection?

One of the main reasons for using DNA as a genealogical tool is to help you break through Brick Walls in your family tree research - those dead ends or roadblocks where you are currently stuck and can't go back any further. Only this year DNA helped me achieve a major breakthrough on one of my ancestral lines which has taken me on a wild adventure that is continuing to shock and surprise. This particular breakthrough throws new light on the Early Limerick Spierin's and the social circles in which they moved. And it also reveals that some of us within the project may have ties to the English monarchy.

The most useful of the three tests for genealogical purposes is the autosomal DNA test. We each have 46 chromosomes in every cell in our body and the autosomal DNA test assesses all 46 of these in women and 45 out of the 46 in men. (The remaining 46th chromosome in men is the Y chromosome and the Y-DNA test is the primary focus of the Spearin Surname Project).

I did my first autosomal DNA testing with FamilyTreeDNA back in 2010. I tested myself, my father and my maternal aunt. We each had several hundred matches, most of them distant relatives with no obvious common ancestor despite comparing respective family trees. This is what it was like in the early days of autosomal DNA testing - the various company databases were small and close matches were not common. That has all changed in recent years with currently about 9 million customers in the top three company databases (Ancestry 6 million, 23andMe 2 million, FamilyTreeDNA 1 million). This number is set to reach about 25 million by 2020 and more and more people will find close matches in the databases. By a close match I mean someone with whom you share a common ancestor in the relatively recent past, say up to a third cousin (and therefore common great great grandparents).

As time moved on, I tested several other family members, including more distant cousins. And several other distant cousins became interested in DNA testing and they paid for their own tests (all with FamilyTreeDNA). Then, about 2 years ago, it came to my notice that four of my family members who had tested all descended from the same ancestral couple - Patrick Spierin (PS) and Mary Morgan (MM), my great great great grandparents, and one of my Brick Walls. This is illustrated in the diagram below. The four family members were my Dad (MHG), his paternal first cousin (COC), his 2nd cousin once removed (KS), and his 2nd cousin twice removed (EW). The line of ascent from my Dad to PS & MM is indicated by the green rimmed boxes. It occurred to me that any matches that they shared in common with each other were likely to be related via PS & MM. And by contacting these shared matches, one of them might hold the clue that allowed me to break through the Brick Wall I had at that level and allow me to push my family tree back an extra generation.

Triangulating on Patrick Spierin & Mary Morgan

That was the theory at least. But could I prove it?

So as an experiment, I compared their respective lists of matches (each had about 1000 matches at this stage) and extracted those matches that any two of the four family members shared with each other. This was relatively easy to do as FamilyTreeDNA allows you to identify such Shared Matches and download them into a spreadsheet as an Excel or csv file. You can see the actual numbers of Shared Matches shared among the four family members in the diagram above. I ended up with a spreadsheet of 135 Shared Matches and after removing duplicates, I was left with 100 people.

I next wrote 100 individual emails to all the people on the list, explaining that they match two or more of my four family members, all of whom were descended from PS & MM and asking them if they had any Spierin or Morgan ancestors in their family tree.

The response rate to this exercise was pretty good and over the next several weeks I received 49 replies, trickling in slowly and tantalisingly. Each email reply was eagerly opened. Would this be the one that held the treasure? And each reply was a polite no. No Spierin ancestors, no Morgan ancestors. I quickly learnt to expect disappointment.

And then came the 50th reply. From Tony in Arizona.

"YES!! We have Morgan ancestors!"

I was thrilled. Had the experiment worked? I quickly sent Tony a link to my online family tree so that he could see what information I had about Patrick Spierin & Mary Morgan. I knew that they were married in Tipperary in 1828 but I had no date or place of birth for either of them. Presumably they would have been born sometime between 1800-1810. They had several children and the baptism records revealed that Patrick Spierin was variously a Police Constable and a "Sargent at Arms". I searched for him in the records of the Royal Irish Constabulary but he was not there. It is probable that he served in the Peace Preservation Force (PPF, an armed militia) but sadly there are no surviving records related to the PPF. However I found mention of him on several occasions in local newspapers of the period. Apparently on one occasion he was involved in a riot and shot someone. And on another occasion (in 1838) he was the arresting officer in the notorious murder case of Wayland and Cooper, two local landlords who were set upon by the Whiteboys, a local vigilante gang that intimidated landlords who evicted tenants, for this was the time of many "agrarian outrages". Four men were charged with the murder and the case made constant headlines in the papers. Two of the men escaped, one died in prison, and one was hanged outside Clonmel gaol. The case sparked the Devon Commission enquiry into land ownership in Ireland.

But by 1845, Constable Patrick Spierin had had enough. He next appears in Dublin as a porter for the Great Southern and Western Railway. It may be that Tipperary was getting too hot for him. Maybe people singled him out as "the man who got Con Hickey hung", and so he left with his family and moved them to the relative safety of Ireland's capitol. And that is where they lived out their days. He died in 1872 and Mary in 1878.

And that was all the information I had on them. And this is what I shared with Tony from Arizona. I also asked if I could see where his Morgan line appeared in his tree. And that is where we hit a problem. Tony knew there was a Morgan connection but nobody in the family knew where it fitted in. But it was plainly written for all to see on the gravestone of the wife of John Morgan in St Laurence's Cemetery in Limerick.

The gravestone erected by John Morgan

The gravestone states that John Morgan's wife had died in 1879 (aged 78) and he had erected the stone in her memory. But also buried in the gave is John Morgan's great nephew, John O'Dwyer who tragically died in World War One on 23rd Feb 1917. Now Tony's family knew this great nephew well, and knew where he fitted into the more recent family tree, but nobody had any idea who John Morgan was nor how he was related to John O'Dwyer. Assuming that John Morgan was roughly the same age as his wife, he would have been born about 1800, which is around about the same time I estimated that my great great great grandmother Mary Morgan was born. Could it be possible that John and Mary were brother and sister?

Another member of Tony's family agreed to do a DNA test (Tony's first cousin) and she too came back as a match to some of my four family members. This certainly supported a family connection via the Morgan's but it was a distant match and we could never be sure that there wasn't some second connection on some other ancestral line in either of our respective family trees. And despite an exhaustive search of the usual genealogical records, we could not precisely place John Morgan in Tony's family tree.

Sadly, after several months of flurried activity, we were going nowhere and we put the research aside.

Two years later, I received the 51st response.

In fact, this was a new match, someone who had recently done an autosomal DNA test. And Andrew informed me that he too had a Morgan ancestor - Patrick Morgan, born about 1812. And he had served for many years in the Royal Irish Constabulary. Bells started going off. My Patrick Spierin had been in the Peace Preservation Force. Were the two men associated with some sort of traditional family occupation?

Andrew sent me Patrick's picture, taken in the 1860s, in all his fine regalia, including a wonderful ceremonial sword. Could Andrew's Patrick Morgan have been a brother to my Mary Morgan and Tony's John Morgan?

Photo of Patrick Morgan (c. 1867)

I took out all the old research and started emailing back and forth with Andrew. I searched online for new clues. I searched on Ancestry for records and other family trees containing Andrew's Patrick Morgan. No luck. I googled Patrick Morgan RIC and generated pages of search results. And then one of them caught my eye. It was a family tree on GENI ( And sure enough, there was a family tree that contained Andrew's Patrick Morgan. But wait ... it also had his parents! Oh wow, I thought, this could be a breakthrough for Andrew! And it also had siblings for Patrick Morgan, and sure enough one of them was a John Morgan, who was married to a Mary! Hey, that could be Tony's ancestor - that could be a real breakthrough for Tony! Two for the price of one! And then as I looked further along the line of siblings, I came to someone called Patrick Spierin, married to a Mary Morgan! Hey! Those are mine! What are you doing with my ancestors in your tree?!

The Morgan family tree on Geni ... with all the key players therein!
(click to enlarge)

After the initial shock, I searched desperately for sources. Where did this information come from? What wonderful records had I missed in my own research? But there were no sources. It was just a tree with names. I could not verify any of the information against independent primary sources. This was disappointing because this meant that the only way I could access the sources would be to contact the owner and the tree had been created in June 2009, eight years previously. I had severe doubts that any email I sent to the author of the tree might take another 8 years to be answered. I was disappointed and feared the worst. I wrote a brief email making gentle enquiries about the source of the information and sent off the email into the ether with few hopes of receiving an early response.

And how wrong I was! A few days later I received a wonderful reply from George. "You ask what my sources were" he said. "Quite simply, the notebooks of Professor Wardell". "Who was he?" I asked. The reply: "Professor of Military History in Trinity College Dublin at the turn of the century. He undertook a study of the Morgan surname in Ireland and had access to all the records that went up in smoke in the Public Records Office fire of 1922. And he recorded everything in his notebook. And I have his notebook."

George's source for the family tree was Prof Wardell's notebooks from the early 1900s

It is not very often that I stare at my computer in complete astonishment but this was one of those times. Could we actually have solved the mystery, united the three Morgan's as siblings, and pushed back the family tree one extra generation?

In fact we did much more than that.

George, Andrew and I started exchanging emails left, right and centre. Suddenly huge amounts of information started flooding in, not just from the notebooks of Prof Wardell that George had in his possession but from a whole array of associated records. And in fact Prof Wardell's notebooks not only established that our three Morgan ancestors were siblings, but it pushed the Morgan family tree back five generations to the Morgan's of Dunmoylan and Old Abbey. You see our Morgan's were landed gentry and went all the way back to Limerick in the 1600s. All the way back to Lieutenant Edward Morgan who in 1716 (or thereabouts) married Alice Spierin, daughter of Luke Spierin!

The Morgan's of Old Abbey - note the Luke Spierin connection

Not only that, but they claimed descent from the Morgan's of Tredegar in Wales, who have a pedigree that goes back to 1089.

Not only that, but on a recent visit to the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, I discovered an old pedigree that states that the Morgan's of Tredegar are descended from "six Kings, five Lords, and a Ducke". And during that visit I met Jim who informed me that he too is descended from the Tredegar Morgan's (making us something like 13th cousins) and that some of our Morgan relatives (fellow Morgan descendants) include somebody called JP Morgan, someone else called Princess Diana, and someone else who was a Captain in the Caribbean and gave his name to a bottle of rum.

And because the first Morgan settler in Ireland married the daughter of Luke Spierin, any of her descendants will automatically tie in to the Morgan's of Tredegar and their connections to the English monarchy.

So I am still reeling. And suddenly we have an awful lot of fact-checking to do. And lots more blog posts to write!

But what incredible adventures awaits us!

Maurice Gleeson
Nov 2017


  1. My husband's great greatgrandfather was Peter Morgan a farmer near Newry born c 1815. Is there any chance the wardell notebook would have any information relating to his family?
    This is fascinating and gives hope to all of us that we might break through our brick walls.

    1. I don't think so. Prof Wardell's notebooks refer to the Limerick Morgan's only. I'll keep an eye out for any Newry connection.

  2. Congratulations! Sounds like a wonderful adventure!

  3. Maurice, it seems we are also related! My mom's family has a Morgan line that also ties into the Wales Morgans you mentioned. Can't wait to figure out the relationship between us!

    1. Sounds very exciting. By all means drop me an email and let's compare notes ... mauricegleeson AT