The Irish branches of my family tree spread across the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and – of course – Ireland. I use six DNA websites to help research my Irish heritage. Here is the list, ordered by how useful I’ve found them for building the Irish branches of my family tree.
- Family Tree DNA
- Living DNA
Do you also need them all? I don’t think so! This article provides a feature comparison of using DNA tests on different sites to research Irish ancestry and family trees.
Which DNA Sites are Best for People with Irish heritage?
The best approach will be to combine the paid and free services of some or all of the companies. Your choices will depend on what you want to learn from your journey into genetic genealogy. I’ll give you a road map to get the best benefits in the most cost-effective way.
It’s useful to know upfront that you don’t need to purchase a DNA kit from five of the listed sites that sell them (GEDmatch is the one that doesn’t sell DNA kits).
These four sites allow a free upload of DNA results that you tested elsewhere:
- Family Tree DNA
- Living DNA
You get a more limited set of features, but they may deliver all you need for your current research goals. This will largely depend on what you want to learn.
What Do You Want To Learn From Your DNA Test?
If you’re a little stumped by this massive question, let me break it down to four common research goals:
- Build your Irish family tree back to at least the 19th Century
- Research your Irish branches through DNA relatives who test with the same site
- Connect and communicate with contemporary (living) Irish relatives
- Discover your ancient Irish origins and ancestral places
Some DNA sites are better equipped than others to help you with specific goals. This article will highlight where a particular site has considerable advantages over the others.
If your main interest is to build your family tree back as far as records allow, then your DNA kit is the key to opening the door to genetic genealogy. The first two goals go hand in hand. This article will cover researching your family tree through analyzing your DNA relatives who have tested with the same DNA site.
We’ll cover the 3rd and 4th goals in future articles. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to sign up for notifications of newly published articles.
This is a lengthy in-depth review. The next few sections summarize my rankings. The rest of the article goes into plenty of detail of how I compare the sites.
My analysis is based on my own DNA results on five of the six DNA sites. LivingDNA is the exception, as it has not completed processing. I’ll return to update this article when complete.
A Summary of DNA Sites Ranked By Counts
Which sites have the most DNA tests? And which have the most with Irish heritage?
Ancestry tops the list of total number of DNA tests in its database. Within my own results, it also gives me the highest number of DNA matches that I identify as having Irish heritage. And the rest? Here you go:
Things get a little more interesting below the #1 spot. 23andMe has the second-largest autosomal DNA database of all the sites. But they’ve capped the total number of DNA relatives available to their customers. So 23andMe tumbles down my personal ranking.
GEDmatch also has a cap of 3,000 matches for free uploads of DNA from other sites. They take second place on my list in the months that I pay their premium.
Are you wondering how I’ve arrived at a count of my DNA matches with Irish heritage? There’s a full section on this analysis later on.
DNA Sites Ranked By My Favorite Research Features
I’ve chosen a list of features which help me identify and research my DNA matches from the perspective of Irish heritage.
Some of these are simply a time-saver, while others let you zero in on very specific detail. Can you filter a list of a thousand DNA relatives to show only those who have a family tree? Can you find DNA matches who share that they are resident in Ireland?
MyHeritage comes out on top for having most of these features. Ancestry is a very close second – losing out on filtering by DNA match residence.
What and where are these features? This article goes into detail on each of these aspects. There are screenshots to help you find what you may have missed!
So, those are the summaries of my comparative rankings. Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I want to give a case study on using a DNA site to expand the Irish lines of my own family tree.
Family Trees and DNA Matches – A Case Study on Irish Branches
Each of the six DNA sites will give you a list of other testers who share a significant amount of DNA with you. These are your DNA relatives. They are also known as DNA “matches”.
Imagine reviewing the details of tester “canoe_456”. Yes, that is close to being the moniker of one of my DNA relatives, and this is a real example from my own testing.
The DNA site labels him as a possible fourth-sixth cousin, but I have no idea who this guy is. We may share a pair of great-great-great-grandparents, and that’s going back a bit!
Leveraging on the Research of your DNA Relatives
But wait! This DNA match has used the features of the DNA website to enter a well-researched and documented family tree going back many generations. 2,228 people? That’s a sizeable tree. For privacy reasons, I won’t see the details of living people in Mr. Canoe’s tree – even if he’s chosen to make it viewable by other site members. However, I get to see Cousin Canoe’s direct line back to the earliest ancestral generations that he could find.
Unfortunately, Cousin Canoe did not get back as far as our joint Irish ancestors. He stopped two generations short. He documented the ancestor who was born in Ireland but lived our her adult life in the United States. Many American trees stop at the Atlantic ocean. And if all you know is that your ancestor is Joe Reilly or Mary Ryan from “Ireland” – that’s understandable.
Yet I recognized the details of a daughter of a sister of my great-great-grandmother. Huh? It’s easier to see when I map it out on paper. Canoe’s tree is circled in red on the left.
See the arrows pointing to two first cousins in my tree? Both women were born in Ireland. But I could not locate Irish records beyond birth and baptism for one of them. Let’s call her Anne, for that was her name. Without a death record, Anne remained a dangling question mark in my tree. Until I matched with her great-great-grandson on a DNA site and validated that his research was correct (be sure to do due diligence on other peoples’ trees!).
Women who emigrate and marry: a particular challenge when building trees with Irish lines!
Building Out The Irish Lines
Where one Irish sibling goes…others tend to follow. Canoe’s tree became the gift that kept on giving. I knew Anne’s mother had eight children, all born and baptized in Ireland. Yet, I had struggled to track most of them past birth.
Cousin Canoe had documented Anne’s address in New York. Well, census and social security records showed that house to be a “first port” for a succession of Anne’s siblings arriving into the New World. It proved to be a launching pad for my own research.
It took me months to follow the records but eventually my tree was enriched with many new branches. Some, but not all, were in Canoe’s tree.
By the way, I sent Cousin Canoe a message through the DNA site’s contact system. I wished to give him the extra details of our common ancestors and other lines. I received no reply. That’s not unusual with any test site. Other testers may not be interested in communication and collaboration.
So, enough for now about my experience. I laid it out to give you an idea of how to use DNA sites for researching your family tree. Now, I want to get into a comparison of the sites for this purpose.
Family Trees and DNA Matches – A Comparison Between DNA Sites
I’m going to assess and rate the DNA sites on these five questions:
- How many DNA relatives with Irish heritage are you likely to get on the DNA site?
- Does the DNA site give access to ancestral details of your DNA relatives? Which details?
- Does the DNA site allow you to build your family tree?
- Does the DNA site give you access to Irish archives?
- Does the DNA site give access to archives of countries most typical of Irish emigrants?
Not all these factors may be important to you.
If you already use family tree software on your desktop, then you may not care a jot that you can’t build a traditional family tree on 23andMe. That’s why I’ve got the previous question as to whether the site gives access to ancestral or family tree details of your DNA relatives. That is going to be very important!
If you’re already using record archives such as FamilySearch or FindMyPast, you may not need the same archives on Ancestry or MyHeritage. But some DNA sites are trying to be a “one-stop-shop” for all your research. I’ll take a look at which ones in a later section.
The questions aren’t listed in the order of importance – except for the first one i.e. how many DNA relatives with Irish heritage are you likely to get. Size matters! I’ve got about 900 DNA matches on FamilyTreeDNA. I have sixteen thousand on Ancestry. Do you see where I’m going? Although you’ll find I won’t be recommending one over the other – I’ll be recommending you use both.
Okay, enough preamble. Let’s knock off these questions one by one, starting with total numbers.
An Estimate of Total Autosomal DNA Tests Across Sites
Here are my approximate estimates of autosomal DNA tests per site in 2020. This is how many DNA tests are in the company’s database, and available to be compared to your own.
Some of these numbers are reported by the companies themselves. Some are estimates based on public statements or interviews by company executives. Some are guesses based on “outside-the-box” analysis by other genealogists. Here’s a link to an article where I cite my sources. But I’m not going to dwell on these numbers here – because they’re not particularly useful for this article.
These numbers don’t assess proportions of testers with Irish heritage. If the site skews towards customers of continental European heritage, then a large customer base is irrelevant for our purposes.
How To Compare “Irish Heritage” Testers Across DNA Sites?
Let me state from the outset that I can’t tell you how many people with Irish heritage have tested at each DNA site. Nor can I tell you how many DNA kits have been sold to people resident in Ireland. So I’m going to have to approach this indirectly.
What I want is to make an approximate ranking of the sites in order of which is more likely to provide more DNA relatives with Irish heritage.
An Ideal Case Study
Let’s say I had access to someone close to being 100% Irish – if such a construct exists. Let’s narrow that down to a more focused definition: someone whose direct ancestral line was born on the island of Ireland as far back as records are available.
And let’s say that person used all six of the DNA sites. Well, she’s not going to get a mix of relatives through English or Scandinavian or other European lines. Every DNA match will be due to one or more Irish lines.
We could make a broad comparison and ranking of her total DNA relatives across the sites.
I’d better tell you now that I don’t have such a person. But I’m halfway there.
My Irish Half as the Case Study
My eight maternal 2nd great-grandparents were born within the same county in Ireland. If that was repeated on my paternal side, then I’d qualify to be part of the reference panels that DNA sites use for their ethnicity estimates.
But my father is East African, where DNA testing is not a recreational pastime. I’m lucky to get a handful of paternal relatives on the six DNA sites. I can safely assume that over 99% of my DNA matches are maternal.
So, I’m just going to compare and rank my total number of DNA relatives across the sites.
A Comparison of My DNA Relatives with Irish Heritage Across Sites
Here are my numbers, rounded to the nearest hundred. It follows the general trend of totals for all DNA tests, with the notable exception of 23andMe.
Ancestry is still the winner…just about
A few months ago, this would have been a landslide victory for Ancestry. My list of DNA relatives there is close to 17 thousand. The next highest site is 5,400.
But Ancestry recently reduced the number of DNA matches they will show to new testers. In other words, they raised the threshold of the amount of DNA you must share to qualify as being related.
So for this exercise, I’m going to use the lower total of my number of matches that are above the new threshold of 8 centimorgans. Which is a considerably lower total of about 6,500.
GEDmatch Extra Premium
GedMatch provides a free upload for DNA results from other sites. But you are limited to your top 3,000 matches on the free tier.
It costs $10 per month to unlock the paid tier. Unlike the other DNA sites, GedMatch does not have an absolute lower threshold. I paid the additional fee in October 2020 – to find a total of 5,400 DNA relatives at a lower limit of 7 cM, and 3,300 at a higher limit of 8 cM.
23andMe Extra Premium?
23andMe have also recently reduced the number of DNA matches for testers who haven’t paid for their premium service. The cap was dropped from 2,000 total matches to 1,500, and I currently have 1,500 DNA relatives on my list.
In theory, if I paid for an upgrade I would see up to 5,000 matches in total. But the upgrade is not available in Ireland. No, that doesn’t irritate me at all (sarcasm alert!).
However, I never reached the two thousand limit on 23andMe before they dropped the cap. I figure that I do have access to more than 1500 DNA relatives, but not more than 2,000.
FamilyTreeDNA Upload vs Own Kit?
Family Tree DNA sell their own DNA Kits, and they also allow the free upload of DNA from other sites. I have uploaded my DNA from Ancestry. Is there a difference between the total of matches shown for direct or indirect tests? I’m not sure.
When I was researching this article, I spotted a mention on genealogy forums of a cap of one thousand matches. I trawled through the Family Tree DNA support pages – and can’t see any mention of this. If you have any info on this, drop me a comment!
One way or the other, it doesn’t matter to me – as I only have 890 DNA relatives on FamilyTreeDNA.
Why Match Counts Aren’t Enough To Be Useful
This review is about which DNA sites are better for researching your family tree. So, even if you have a gazillion DNA matches on Ancestry – it doesn’t matter much if they are all called “Canoe” and have no other available details about their genealogy.
Ideally, every DNA relative would have an accessible family tree with well-researched and documented generations back to at least the 19th century. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. Well, how far off the ideal is each site? I can put some numbers on that!
The next sections address this question:
Does the DNA site give access to ancestral details of your DNA relatives? If so, which details?
At the most basic level, we can rate the sites according to what genealogical details are accessible. The best format is a family tree. A “better than nothing” format is a simple list of ancestral surnames and places.
Does the DNA site support family trees?
Here is a summary of what each site supports. Note that you must have some form of membership to view other members’ trees.
What’s the difference between Trees and Locations? Any site marked as having trees will support a standard genealogical family tree, which you can navigate up through the generations.
In contrast, a Surname/Location list is simply a list of Ancestral surnames and places found somewhere in the direct line of the DNA relative. This is far less useful to your research.
Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA, and GEDmatch Family Trees
The top three listed sites have a fairly similar look-and-feel to their tree software.
In contrast, the GEDmatch tree viewer is a spidery ascii-style layout that is truly awful to my eyes. It’s awkward to navigate, but all the genealogical information is there. You may have to work a little harder to extract what you need.
23andMe Linked Trees, Surname Lists, and Genetic Trees
23andMe rolled out a non-genealogical tree feature in 2019. I’ve got an article about it 23andMe’s genetic trees here. I find it of little use due to my low number of closer DNA matches. You might get more benefits.
Like FamilyTreeDNA, the 23andMe site allows customers to enter a list of ancestral surnames. We can also put a web link to a family tree hosted elsewhere – on sites such as Ancestry or FamilySearch. This would be useful if many 23andMe customers avail of it. They don’t. I’ll go into that in the next section.
Living DNA is the only site that does not offer genealogical information. They do say that a family tree feature will arrive in 2021. This is the notification on their “Tree Builder” menu:
How Many Useful Family Trees For Irish Research?
I’ve done extensive analysis in 2018 and 2020 of the percentage of my DNA matches on Ancestry who have public trees. It’s the majority of matches, but unfortunately many are tiny trees with Mum and Dad – whose living details will be private.
But don’t be despondent. You can go a long way if a small fraction of a large number of DNA matches has a decent well-researched tree going back generations.
Let’s focus now on researching Irish heritage with these trees. Let’s say you’re a proud New Yorker who found your great-grandpa Joe Reilly in the 1901 census. His country of birth was named as Ireland. Now you want to know the region or county from which this line came.
Remember my example of Cousin Canoe? Whose tree went back to his great-great-grandmother in the U.S.? If Canoe had found my tree, he could have followed the line one generation back to a small village in an Irish county. And he would have seen that some of his 2nd great grandmother’s brothers and sisters stayed in that county and their descendants married, procreated, and died within a smattering of neighboring parishes to this very day.
Well, due to privacy he would have only got down to my grandparents’ generation. But I’d have been happy to communicate with any details of interest.
So this is one target for our New Yorker to research. Find trees with at least a grandparent who is shown to be born in Ireland. But how many of these might you find? Now, I can roll up my sleeves and start counting.
Percentage of My Match Trees With An Irish Ancestor
No, I’m not going to open the trees of all my matches and look for an entry with a birth location in Ireland. Because this would have to be done manually. Instead, I’ll take a sample of twenty relatives with trees on each site. Here’s a summary.
On Ancestry, nine out of twenty DNA matches with a linked tree had at least a grandparent recorded as born in Ireland.
MyHeritage ran close with seven match trees out of twenty showing at least one Irish grandparent.
That’s quite a decent return, considering that I have thousands of matches on both DNA sites. There’s lots of research to be getting on with.
A nice feature shared by both Ancestry and MyHeritage is the ability to filter your DNA relatives to list those who have family trees.
You might think that a site with “Family Tree” in the name might also have this useful feature. But FamilyTreeDNA does not. However, there is a visual indicator on the match list page as to whether the relative has a tree or not. You just have to peer very closely to see a darker shade of blue.
I checked twenty of my DNA relatives on FamilyTreeDNA who were marked with having a tree. Five had at least an Irish grandparent. Not bad.
GEDmatch For The Win!
GEDmatch has a tree filter – in that you can sort the GED column in the “Beta” match list display. Make sure you change the filter of 50 matches to your maximum.
Did I mention that I dislike the GEDCOM viewer? Well, it comes into its own for the purposes of finding Irish ancestors. As the tree is just laid out as text on a page, use your browser to search for “Ireland” on the page. Simple as that!
So, how did GEDmatch work out? Really well, actually. Ten out of twenty matches with a GEDCOM file had a direct line ancestor born in Ireland.
I should add that GEDmatch also allows users to link out to a tree on WikiTree. This is a gussied up version of the GED tree display.
23andMe – A Special Case
I’m ruling out 23andMe from this tree analysis. To be fair, they do ask members to fill in details of ancestry surnames AND ancestral places. Unfortunately, they keep these as two separate and independent lists.
So, one relative has a surname list of “Arquette, Ryan, Reilly, Hassellfhoff”? And a location list of “Berlin, Paris, Dublin, New York?” Is that Reilly of Berlin and Hasselhoff of Dublin? Who the heck knows?
But 23andMe does have a really neat filter that I wish other DNA sites would borrow. You can filter your relatives to those with grandparents from a specific country. You can choose all four grandparents, and may well end up with DNA relatives who live in Ireland. Or you can set it to one grandparent and will find descendants of the Irish diaspora.
So let’s move on to other great features that some or all the DNA sites have to help with this search for Irish heritage.
Search and Filter Features for Researching Irish Heritage
I’ve mentioned a few helpful features for researching a particular heritage. At the very least, some will speed up your research. These are the features I’ll compare across the DNA sites:
- Can you filter your DNA relatives to show only those with a family tree?
- Can you list only DNA matches with an ancestor born in a specific location?
- Will it search for ancestors with a specific last name?
- Can you filter DNA relatives by their country of residence?
- Is there a filter on ethnicity (there are different terms for this across the sites)?
- Can you run a general search across all family trees on the DNA site?
I’ve dropped LivingDNA from this comparison, as its tree features are “coming soon”.
MyHeritage is coming out on top for the extent of its features. You’ll notice a few asterisks, I’ll explain those below.
Filter on Ancestor Location – Asterisks
23andMe has a location search box right there on the Relatives page. It’s not currently working for me. They are moving functionality as part of the new premium or plus package. It may come back…
Filter on Match Residence – Asterisks
MyHeritage is the only site where this feature actually works. Note that the search isn’t looking for place of birth in family trees. It’s looking at the account profile of the DNA relative.
Again, the 23andMe feature seems to be amiss. If I search for Ireland, two accounts show up – both in Northern Ireland. I find it hard to believe that none of my other 1,498 DNA relatives are resident in my home country.
Filter By Ethnicity
This filter would be based on ethnicity estimates, or what is also called ancestry.
MyHeritage is the only site that offers this filter properly. A match must have over 10% of the category as part of its breakdown.
But they get asterisked due to one big drawback. The current MyHeritage ethnicity reports don’t separate Irish from Scottish and Welsh. It’s a Celtic category that is separate from their English breakdown. Still, it’s better than nothing.
Ancestry used to have a filter on what they called “genetic communities”, but they’ve taken it away. Instead, they show a paltry three DNA matches as some kind of representation for each community.
Similarly, 23andMe lists five DNA matches under a particular category.
Which DNA Sites are Best for Traditional Genealogy Research Into Irish Heritage?
Do you want a “one-stop-shop” for your venture into genetic genealogy? This would be a DNA site where you can review your DNA relatives, search historical records, and build your family tree all in one place.
It’s fair to say that Ancestry and MyHeritage are the only sites that go for the “get everything you need here” play. Both offer paid subscriptions to record archives.
Remember, these are the questions we posed about genealogy research:
- Does the DNA site allow you to build your family tree?
- Will you get access to (some) Irish record archives?
- Can you get access to (some) archives of countries most typical of Irish emigrants?
I’ve put an asterisk against GEDmatch for offering the ability to build and edit a family tree. You can upload a family tree in the form of a GEDCOM file to the site. But you must edit it offline in some other software or website.
Ancestry vs MyHeritage Record Archives?
Which is best? It’s a fair question. There is a lot of overlap between recordsets, but some archives are unique to each. Unfortunately, the answer to which is best is beyond the scope of this article.
I will mention that both DNA sites have offered temporary free access in the period around St Patrick’s Day. So keep an eye out for special deals.
“Built For You” Speculative Trees
Let’s look back again to my Cousin Canoe, whose tree went back fewer generations than my own.
Wouldn’t it be great if the DNA site reached out, tapped Canoe on the shoulder, and said – go take a look at this speculative extra ancestor who we’ve stitched together using trees from your DNA relatives.
Well, several DNA sites will do just that. Without the scary tap on the shoulder. They use data science techniques to trawl their database of member trees and generate suggestions to extend your own. These suggestions are only as good as the trees on which they are based. So they may be right, or they may be completely wrong.
All the different offerings are fairly recent features and are still being improved.
I’ve written two detailed articles about Ancestry’s ThruLines: how they work and tips on using ThruLines. And we’ve got a video walkthrough of MyHeritage Theories of Family Relativity.
I don’t personally consider 23andMe’s Genetic Trees to fall into this category, as it doesn’t build a traditional family tree. You can check out my article on the 23andMe generated trees here.
GEDmatch has a paid offering to find common ancestors with your DNA relatives.
My general verdict? Ancestry and MyHeritage have delivered at least one accurate suggestion for me. I also have suggestions from Ancestry that were incorrect. GEDmatch is in the “must try harder” bracket – none of its suggestions are correct.
How Much Do These Alternatives Cost?
Because this review is based on my own experience, I want to give a breakdown of my own costs. I’ve paid full whack for some items, and availed of special offers for others. Some of these items are probably more expensive for my place of residence outside the United States (I’m looking at you, 23andMe!).
But you probably don’t need everything I’ve purchased to research your own Irish heritage. I’ll strip it back in the next section.
So, this is what I’ve paid for DNA testing and analysis (converted to US dollars) – starting back in 2017.
|Ancestry DNA Kit||100|
|23andMe DNA Kit||170|
|Uploaded Ancestry Results to MyHeritage||Free|
|Uploaded Ancestry Results to FamilyTreeDNA||Free|
|Uploaded Ancestry Results to GEDmatch||Free|
|Uploaded Ancestry Results to LivingDNA||Free|
|Unlock Fee for FamilyTreeDNA||20|
|Exempt from Unlock Fee for MyHeritage (usually $30)||N/A|
I was an early DNA uploader to MyHeritage back in 2017. So, I was one of many customers who they exempted when they introduced their “Unlock” fee for premium DNA features (e.g. their chromosome browser). I’ve noticed that they waive this fee every now and then – keep an eye out for special offers.
As well as DNA purchases, I also pay annual or monthly subscriptions for record archives and other DNA analysis services. Here are my current Ancestry and MyHeritage subscription costs, which are most relevant to this article. You most likely don’t need to take both!
|ANNUAL MEMBERSHIP AND SUBSCRIPTIONS||USD|
|Ancestry subscription for world-wide records||200|
|50% discounted offer for MyHeritage world-wide records||100|
Personally, I enjoy the convenience and effectiveness of an archive service that integrates with my DNA research – and will pay the price when I am fortunate enough to afford it.
A Cost-Effective Approach – Best DNA Tests for Irish Ancestry
The general advice on maximizing your DNA research is to fish in every pond. You’ve got to start somewhere, and my personal ratings for Irish heritage puts Ancestry and MyHeritage at the top of the list.
The MyHeritage kit will usually be cheaper than the Ancestry DNA kit. But you should also consider that MyHeritage accepts DNA uploads from Ancestry, but the reverse isn’t possible. You will also likely get more DNA matches on Ancestry than the smaller MyHeritage site.
So here’s a suggested path if you’re particularly interested in building out your family tree. Note that you should review the privacy and security policies of every DNA site before you choose to upload your DNA results.
1. Purchase an Ancestry DNA kit
Start with a DNA kit from Ancestry.
If you want to wait for a deal, Ancestry tends to offer discounts around major U.S. holidays. Watch out for offers coming up to Thanksgiving, Mother’s day etc.
2. Take a monthly Ancestry record subscription
You can start with a free trial, which may tends to be 14 days. And then move to a monthly subscription, which you can cancel when you want to pause your research. Your family tree remains intact if you cancel your subscription.
3. Upload your DNA results for free to other DNA sites
Review the security history and privacy policies of the DNA sites that take free uploads from Ancestry. Then upload your DNA to sites which you’ve verified you are comfortable with their policies.
- Read our guide on uploading to MyHeritage
- Watch our video on uploading to FamilyTreeDNA
4. Consider the Premium Features for your Free Uploads
Do you need the additional paid features on MyHeritage and/or FamilyTreeDNA? I suggest you use the sites for a while before considering an upgrade.