In 2012, Alice Collins Plebuch sent away for a DNA test… just for fun. She thought what happened next was a mistake.Plebuch had been raised by her Irish American catholic parents but her father Jim, the son of Irish immigrants, had been raised in an orphanage and his past was unclear. The test results from Ancestry showed half her DNA was related to the British Isle, which she expected. The other half was a combination of European Jewish, Middle Eastern and Eastern European. At first she wrote a letter of complaint, but then after a conversation with her sister they agreed she should test again but with a different company.
As she waited for results, the sisters wondered: had either their mother or grandmother had an affair? Or had she been adopted? This seemed unlikely given the character of their mother and the large maternal family with lots of cousins and siblings. Their father’s family was more of a mystery. Jim’s mother died when he was a baby, his father John was unable to cope so Jim and his two siblings were put in an orphanage. John Collins died when Jim was still a child and he had limited knowledge of his family. But Alice and her sister Gerry Collins Wiggins could not understand the Jewish link.
So Plebuch asked two male cousins to have their DNA tested; meanwhile Plebuch’s second test results, from 23andMe, arrived. They were consistent with the first result. Her DNA included Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry from areas such as Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania. Her brother Bill was also tested with 23andMe and his results revealed the same ancestry; a relief, they were full brother and sister after all. So the queries now focused on their father; how could an Irish American have Jewish ancestry? Looking at family photographs, Plebuch realized her paternal grandfather looked nothing like no one in her immediate family.
What followed was a painstaking analysis of data and genomes from potential cousins, identified by DNA. The DNA of one cousin, Peter Nolan, the son of John Collins’ sister, showed he was not related. So John’s sister wasn’t actually his sister. The only conclusion was that Jim’s father was not related to his own parents. Jim’s birth certificate showed he was born in the Bronx on September 23, 1913, with this they wrote to his orphanage which confirmed he had been sent their by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. They considered the possibility of adoption, mis-spelling or mistaken identity, but got nowhere.
The final breakthrough came via a message on 23andMe. A stranger had received a result that she was related to Pete Nolan. She was expecting her results to be more Ashkenazi, not Irish. The long trail of painstaking research led to this answer: two babies were accidentally swapped at birth, a Jewish baby went home with an Irish family and an Irish baby went home with a Jewish family.
Read the full story in the Irish Times.
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