Saturday, 12 September 2015

Genealogy Saturday: Using Y DNA to find our Wynne ancestors

John Wynne, my second-great-grandfather, poses the most vexing genealogy brick wall, on my mother's side. He is a challenge to research, despite the evidence placing his birth in Dublin city, about 1820.1

It's not that the search is demanding, like say with the Byrne lines – shared discretely by two of my four grandparents – where the surname is just too common to see the wood for the trees, so to speak. The problem with John Wynne is that nothing at all is known about his parents or the family of his childhood.

So, I wouldn't recognise them, even if I stumbled upon them in Dublin in 1820 and they invited me in for tea!

Thus, changing track, I thought I'd investigate where the Wynnes came from, generally, and it seems the surname is usually of Welsh origin. From Gwyn, meaning ‘white’, the Wynnes first came to Ireland as sixteenth-century immigrants to Connacht. For example, the illustrious Wynne family from Hazelwood in Sligo was of Welsh origin. There is also some evidence the name arrived here with the Huguenots, during the reign of Louis XIV.2 And, of course, the surname is known to have had some Gaelic roots too.

I have reason to suspect our Wynne surname was one of Gaelic origin. You see, Uncle Colm took a DNA test on his Y chromosome – just one of the legacies he left for us to continue our genealogy pursuits.

Down through the millennia, the Y chromosome is copied and passed from father to son, with only occasional copying errors, or mutations as they are known. Surnames, in this part of the world, typically follow the same path - from father to son. So, Y DNA can help trace their origins back to when they were first adopted and in Ireland, hereditary surnames were taken from about the eleventh century onward.

By honing in on specific mutations, experts can associate the DNA signature, and hence the surname, to specific places and time periods in the past.

Ireland, c. 900 AD, with Kingdoms & Viking towns
Colm tested positive for a mutation known as Z16950, which at this point appears synonymous with the DNA signature of the Byrne clan from the kingdom of Leinster.3 In the early eleventh century, this sept, then known as the Uí Fáeláin, was driven from the rich plains around Naas, Co. Kildare to the mountains in Co. Wicklow.

And, because our DNA signature matches that of the Byrne clan, it seems feasible to conclude our Wynne family also originated around Kildare/Wicklow.

The Gaelic name ‘Wynne’ was derived from the Irish word gaoithe, meaning ‘of wind’, and the surname cropped up, independently, all over Ireland. When Gaelic names were then anglicised during the second half of the sixteenth century, Wynne became a synonym for some of the surnames derived from gaoithe.4

Coincidentally, or maybe not, one such surname was ‘Gahan’ and the Gahan family were ancient chiefs of Síol Éalaigh, or Shillelagh, a district close to the Byrne chief’s historic home in Co. Wicklow.4 Not that there's any proof we're actually ‘related’ to this Gahan family - at least, not yet.

But, in theory, and given the surname is not as common as Byrne, it's possible we should start picking up our Wynne family in Wicklow (somewhere between Dublin and Wexford, on this map), from 1650 onward. 

In truth, there are a number of reasons why surnames would not follow the same path as DNA. One of our Wynne ancestors may have been fathered by someone other than a Wynne, like in an adoption, or if a child took his step-father's surname, or kept his mother's name, or for any other reason you might imagine.

Remember we are talking hundreds of years, and only one such event need have occurred to throw the surname out of sync with its DNA signature.

Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the fact DNA science is still in its infancy, this provides a clue and we need all the help we can get to find where John Wynne came from.

We can only pray we're not dealing with yet another Byrne lineage that merely assumed the Wynne name in the more recent past!

1 John Wynne, DED North City in 1901 and Arran Quay in 1911, Census of Ireland, National Archives of Ireland. 
2 John O’Hart, Irish Pedigrees, ii, 5th ed. (Dublin, 1892) pp 459, 478.
3 Paul Burns, The Clan O'Byrne of Leinster as defined by its DNA’ Genetic Genealogy Ireland Lectures, 2014, on YouTube.
4 Edward MacLysaght, The Surnames of Ireland, 6th ed. (Dublin, 1985); Patrick Woulfe, Sloinnte Gaedheal is gall: Irish Names and Surnames (Dublin, 1922); Irish Ancestors/Surnames, The Irish Times.

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy


  1. John Wynne is being very elusive. You are certainly following logical steps to track him down. I wish you luck with your research.

  2. Thanks Colleen, I don't think he wants to be found, but maybe some day ;-)

  3. Those potential name changes that show up in Y-DNA testing can indeed be frustrating. When we did that test on my husband--thinking for sure we'd see a result point straight back to his origin in County Mayo--the results were anything but conclusive.

    And yet, reading in Christine Kenneally's The Invisible History of the Human Race about advances in DNA testing, applied both to specific regions of Ireland and Wales, it was fascinating to see the advances that are affording us very fine genetic details about regional origins. Perhaps you, too, will soon unravel your Wynne mystery, Dara.

  4. Thanks Jacqi, And, I’ve just started reading J.P. Mallory, The Origins of the Irish, which I hope will unravel all my mysteries, or at least point me in the right direction.


I look forward to reading your comments, even more especially if you're related to someone mentioned in this post.

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