Monday, September 27, 2021

The "What If" Strategy Revisited


Sometimes, we stumble upon research possibilities which look good—except for one detail. That detail might be a missing document, or a date which looks like too much of a stretch to be believable. No matter what the research glitch, it leaves a hole in our proof argument demanding to be secured.

While I play around with the possibilities, juggling the facts I can support with the conjectures I cannot, I engage in what I call "what if" strategies. As we enter the final week of grappling with my research project for September, let's rearrange what we've gleaned on my father-in-law's Flanagan family, both in Ireland and in the United States.

We've seen that Anna Flanagan Malloy somehow made her way from her home in or near Ballyagran, County Limerick, to a new residence in Chicago. We know that she was in the neighborhood of Ballyagran in 1849, based on the letter sent to her there from her husband, Stephen Malloy, before his disappearance. We can find Anna with her daughter Catherine and her brother William in the 1860 U.S. census in Chicago. When they left Ireland, or how they arrived in North America, I can't yet tell, but I know each of them remained in Chicago for the rest of their lives.

Record of tenants in the region where Anna was staying when she received that letter from her husband showed only one property attributed to the surname Flanagan: a small house and lot leased to one William Flanagan. Later, that lot's tenant was listed as Catherine—then even later as James Flanagan.

Church records show that there was one James Flanagan in the area whose son by the same name was baptised in 1864. Could that elder James Flanagan be the same as the James Flanagan listed in the Valuation records for 1868? My "what if" conjecture would be: could James Flanagan be son of William and Catherine Flanagan? And could our Anna be James' sister? After all, it would have made sense for Anna, once her husband left, to return to her parents' home, especially if she were a young mother with a one-year-old child to care for.

While we lack a paper trail which could demonstrate—or negate—such a possibility, we do have another type of record at our disposal: autosomal DNA. It turns out that my husband, who is Anna Flanagan Malloy's great-great grandson, has a DNA match with a descendant of a James Flanagan. If the elder James, father in that baptismal record, were brother to our Anna, with this DNA match, we'd be comparing third cousins once removed.

According to, where the match was located, the two Flanagan descendants share a mere seventeen centiMorgans. What are the possibilities for a match at that level of shared genetic material? Consulting the charts at DNA Painter, it is quite possible. Third cousin once removed, for seventeen centiMorgans, occurs in the top tier, according to statistics provided by Leah Larkin at The DNA Geek. In other words, the likelihood of this being a possible connection for a third cousin once removed is twenty three percent.

But what if that isn't the case? After all, there are other possibilities, as well. Even if they were less likely, the connection could have been farther away—say, fourth cousin—or even closer, as in third cousin. The measure of the genetic connection doesn't quite pinpoint the relationship; it just provides us assurance that we're in the right general area.

That, of course, is a start. It confirms that, whoever was the original tenant in that one Flanagan home in the Catholic Ballyagran parish, he was related to our Anna. And whoever his property eventually got passed to was likely one and the same as the James Flanagan whose son's name was preserved in that 1864 baptismal record. Though that isn't a "for sure" thing, it at least gives us license to play that "what if" strategy with a bit more confidence.


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