Digging Into DNA, Newtown Residents Discover Their Ancestry: Doreen Kelleher

Published: February 08, 2019 at 07:00 am


More than 20 million people throughout the world have begun exploring their genealogy through websites like ancestry.com and 23andme.com.

Whether the person is hoping to gain insight on their family’s past, connect with living relatives, or know their genetic makeup, there is an innate curiosity that has fueled the surge in people participating in DNA-based websites.

Its popularity has even expanded to pet owners seeking knowledge about their dog’s breed and health facts through similar programs.

In this new series, The Newtown Bee is inviting residents to share the stories of what they have discovered after participating in these sites and how their findings have affected their lives.

Doreen (Murphy) Kelleher

Ms Kelleher has always had an interest in learning about her family’s history, but it was not until she received a relative’s handwritten notes four years ago that she began investigating what other information there was to discover.

The letter was scrawled on yellow legal pad paper and given to her from her mother, Dell (Egan) Murphy, after her father, William Joseph Murphy, passed away on April 27, 2013.

Ms Kelleher was told the notes were written by an elderly relative named Mary Ellen Farrelly during a visit where her father asked her to write as much as she could remember about their family’s ancestry.

Around the time she received the papers, her son Dylan was in medical school and given the opportunity to try 23andMe at a reduced rate.

“He didn’t tell us about it, and then one day he said, ‘Is this guy George related to us?’ It turns out it was one of my husband’s cousins,” Ms Kelleher said.

Intrigued by the website, she ordered a 23andMe DNA kit and intended to use it herself — until her daughter Kate asked if she could try it. Obliging her daughter’s request, she went on to order another, and in that same generous spirit, let her husband Ed use it.

“I always wanted to do it, but every time I’d buy a kit, someone else would want to use it,” Ms Kelleher said with a laugh.

When the day finally came last December where she was able to use a DNA kit for herself, she decided to use one from ancestry.com.

The Results

“I was 100 percent Irish,” Ms Kelleher revealed.

The genetic findings were not all that shocking to her, she says, since her mother came directly from Ireland and her father’s parents both came from Ireland to America.

However, Ancestry’s feature of creating a family tree brought the most surprising results of all.

After paying the membership fees to have access to additional archived information, she began cultivating a family tree of more than 100 relatives. Her oldest ancestor that the tree stems from is currently Cornelius Murphy, who was born in 1805.

The process of collecting and reviewing the documents in the website’s database may be time consuming, Ms Kelleher says, but she has enjoyed how Ancestry shows information about what was going on in the world at the time of her ancestors’ lives to give context to what their life experiences may have been like.

She has also discovered tips along the way to help others navigate through archived documents.

“If you look at someone’s wedding announcement and you see who their witnesses are, you can pretty much figure out it is a cousin or a sibling, generally, and go back that way,” Ms Kelleher said. “That’s what I’ve found so interesting about it.”

Another common occurrence she has found is the reuse of names within family lines.

“Apparently, in Irish families, everyone has the same name. If you look at my family tree, everyone is either William Murphy or Patrick Murphy, and the girls are all Joanna,” she explained. “Also, hardly anyone was ever called what they were baptized. Patricks were called Paddy, and they would put that name on formal documents.”

Many times, if a child died, the family would even choose to give their next born child that same name, causing many documents to have duplicate names but vary in years.

Through her ancestry search, Ms Kelleher even found that generations before her, there was a double wedding within the family where two siblings from the Murphy family married two siblings from the McCarthy family.

“It ended up meaning I had to have two trees,” she said.

In addition to using Ancestry, Ms Kelleher has also been utilizing a program called Legacy 9 that links to the web.

“There are all kinds of ways to sort people: by illness, by death, by year they were born,” which can be helpful, she says, when using that program in conjunction to Ancestry.

Still, with so much information out there to archive, she admits, “It’s overwhelming.”

Murphy Family Reunion

Ms Kelleher has not only been able to successfully assemble a digital family tree through Ancestry, but she has used her genealogy talents to bring together her living relatives from all around the world to participate in a Murphy family reunion

“I have a cousin in California, and her mother’s family was doing a reunion in New Jersey on a Saturday, and she said, ‘Why don’t we do one for the Murphy’s on Sunday?’ So, a third cousin said, ‘We can have it at my mother’s house.’ And she started assigning jobs,” Ms Kelleher explained.

“I didn’t have very long to plan it, but through Facebook, I set up a group called 2017 Murphy Family Reunion, and then I just scrolled Facebook through other cousins' [pages] and would invite people to the group,” she said. “A lot of people were way skeptical, but I just called people and asked them to bring their families and kids.”

Ms Kelleher helped coordinate 180 of her relatives to arrive in Congers, New York, at her late father’s late brother’s wife’s house on May 28, 2017. People came from Canada, California, New Mexico, North Carolina, and even Ireland. The youngest in attendance was a newborn and the eldest was 94 years old.

On the day of the Murphy family reunion, Ms Kelleher posted signs, checked everyone in, and displayed a print-out of the family tree she had created. The tree was so large that when it was taped up, it stretched a whole three-car garage.

“People loved it!” Ms Kelleher said. Her relatives were able to write on the family tree to share more information about their side of the family.

Today, Ms Kelleher still keeps her family’s Facebook group active by posting relative’s milestone achievements, like the opening of a new business, or posting service details when someone passes away.

In the future, she says she would like to continue her genealogy exploration by seeing what she can discover on 23andMe.

If you are a Newtown resident that has used a genealogy site to discover your family (or pet’s) ancestry and would like to be featured in this series, contact Alissa Silber at alissa@thebee.com or 203-426-3141.

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