Make Mine a Guinness

The author discovers his genetic Irishness

I have always longed to have exotic ancestry. Apparently, so did my ancestors. Back in the 19th century, some of my forebears convinced themselves that the name Lomax was a shortened form of Lomazzi and that the family originated in medieval Florence. Back then, it was fashionable to be of Latin stock -- Norman French over Anglo-Saxon, Florentine over Welsh, Scottish or Irish, so perhaps that is how the Lomazzi tale originated.

And a tale it would seem to be. The first Lomax of my line in America -- one William Lomax -- seemed to have arrived in North Carolina more or less out of thin air in about 1745. A family legend has it that he was English, and had trained to become an Anglican priest there, had delivered one sermon and then had a crisis of faith, became a deist and lit out for the colonies. (There is no record anywhere in England of his having ever been a priest.) Once here, he worked as a carpenter and went bankrupt a few times. Some of the only records that exist of the man document the sheriff carting off all his worldly goods.

And there exists a much less glamorous etymology of the name Lomax than the Florentine story. According to several scholarly sources, Lomax is a mucky old Anglo-Saxon name. Originally, it referred to a village near Manchester and was spelled Lumhalghs, which breaks down like this in Old English: lumm means "pool," halgh, which is pronounced "holla," means "valley" or "depression." (A variant of this word is still in use in Appalachia and elsewhere in the South, where valleys are often still called hollers.) So apparently Lomax is about as mundane as a name gets -- it's Anglo-Saxon, and it means "home near a valley pool." Another theory is worse yet: Using a different Anglo-Saxon dialect, you get the even more tedious "home near a brush-covered district boundary."

And until my grandfather married, all of the Lomaxes wed women with boringly English, hard-to-research names, such as Coxe, Green, Cooper and Brown. My paternal grandmother's name was Margaret Marable, which seemed to offer a whiff of the French, but I've since found out that it too is English. (At least some of her ancestors were Scottish -- and along with some hints of Irish blood and possible Germans, that's as exotic as my father's side gets.)

On my mother's side, I'm believed to be nearly 100 percent English, save for the lineage brought here by my maternal grandfather's grandfather, who was an Irishman. To be exact, an Anglo-Irishman. So even my Irish ancestors were genetically English.

So I was hoping that even if FTDNA couldn't change the meaning of my boring name, or verify William Lomax's deism, it could at least place me in a cool haplogroup thanks to more distant ancestors. Maybe I would be in one of the Viking groups, or maybe it was a Jew or a Gypsy who lived near that valley pool or brushy boundary. Maybe one of my American ancestors was black. Who knows?

I sent off my test, and a few weeks later I got my results via e-mail. I took the 12-marker Y-chromosome test, which is not as accurate as the 25- or 37-marker test, though it is cheaper and can determine your haplogroup, which after all was what I was most interested to learn. And it was R-1B, the most common Western European haplo. Sigh.

The more I looked, though, the more intriguing it became. It seemed my genes were far more frequent in Scotland and especially Ireland than they were in England -- six out of eight of my exact matches who knew their foreign ancestors' origins were either Irish or Scots, with one Frenchman and one Englishman being the others. Other databases seemed to confirm this. It seems my genes are far more Celtic than Anglo-Saxon. So no more agonizing about whether I really belonged at a St. Paddy's Day parade -- and bartender, bring me a Guinness and a Jameson…

I was also intrigued by the fact that I had about a dozen exact DNA matches in FTDNA's database, and many more on Ysearch.com, an FTDNA-sponsored site that collects results from their database and others. I Googled the ones I could, and the three that had active Web presences that revealed something of their lives beyond genealogy all had one thing in common: music. There was a Dolan whose father scored The Three Faces of Eve, How the West Was Won, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Bells of St. Mary's. There was a Maher in New Jersey who serves as a multi-instrumentalist in the power-pop band the Play Trains. And there was a Bolt whose family has a music scholarship in its name at Catawba College in North Carolina. And then there was me, the music editor at this paper; my father, John Lomax III, who managed Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Kasey Chambers, among many other jobs in the music business of the last 35 years; my uncle Joseph, who sang and danced publicly in Houston in the '80s and wrote occasional music articles; my grandfather John Avery Lomax Jr., who also sang publicly and recorded some of his versions of cowboy songs, founded the Houston Folklore Society and helped the careers of Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Clifton Chenier; and my great-grandfather John Avery and great-uncle Alan, both of whom spent decades preserving the folk music of America and, in Alan's case, the world. And my son is already showing a pretty keen sense of music appreciation at eight years of age.

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