SALT LAKE CITY — As a direct descendant of Irish royalty, Garry Bryant is so intrigued with High King Brian Boru, he carved a large likeness of his ancestor so the two of them can bond a bit.
The carving hangs on the living room wall in his Farmington home, watching over his family history research, the phone conversations with far-flung relatives with whom he's connected and his study of a region in western Ireland where his ancestors' family clan lived.
His ongoing interest in kin was piqued several years ago at the National Genealogical Society's annual Family History Conference, held in Salt Lake City. This year's event opened Wednesday at the Salt Palace and runs through Saturday. For information, go to www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/conference_info.
After years of trying to connect his extended family heritage through written records, a mere blood test has now linked Bryant through DNA to the Irish king, born more than 1,000 years ago.
The ability to tie Bryant — whose family surname was originally O'Brien — to others also descended from the Irish high king has "confirmed some family legends and dismissed others," he said, giving him a new window into the diversity of a bloodline that now boasts descendants in South Africa, France, New Zealand, Australia and New Netherlands.
At the family history conference in 2002, Bryant provided a sample of his blood and his family pedigree to representatives of the Salt Lake-based Sorenson Molecular Genealogical Foundation. Founded by the late medical devices pioneer James Sorenson, the local foundation has been gathering DNA for more than a decade and now has samples from 170 countries and a wide variety of cultures in its database.
The foundation can now link some people via DNA to ancestors who lived centuries ago, based on the fact that royal lines in many nations are often in possession of the most well-documented family histories available. Based on his blood test, Bryant got a call in 2007 from Kevin O'Brien, a New York man who had also provided his DNA to the SMGF.
As the two shared information about the 37 genetic markers that come through the male's Y chromosome, they found they are identical — meaning the two descend from a common ancestor.
Scott Woodward, executive director of SMGF, told the Deseret News this week that the company's database now includes DNA and family pedigrees from more than 100,000 people worldwide. Researchers are making the information available to the public at www.genetree.com.
For fees ranging from $19.95 to $150 for DNA tests and $25 to $75 for a consultation, people looking to plug holes in a family tree, or to extend their search to relatives that branch off direct lines, can access the SMGF database to see if DNA can provide the answer.
"One of Mr. Sorenson's dreams was to get this data into the hands of as many people as possible for the least amount of money," Woodward said. "He and his family literally put tens of millions of dollars into this project to make that possible. The database project has been heavily subsidized by all the work and research that's been financed by the family."
Though there are several similar DNA databases, Woodward said many Utahns have participated by providing their DNA to the SMGF, and "we're really to the point now where we think it can be useful for almost anyone. The database has reached a critical mass; almost anyone can come in and find some sort of link to people they're connected to in genealogically relevant time. "
While some testing now available on the market describes connections to deep ancestry that is "thousands and tens of thousands of years in the past.," Woodward said the SMGF's major emphasis is in helping people "find those connections within the past 10 generations."
The SMGF provided the bloodline connection between Bryant and O'Brien, but most of the research to connect their families has been done through the O'Brien Clan DNA Surname Project, Bryant said. That project has been endorsed and supported by Sir Conor O'Brien, who can trace his line from Ireland's great high king and the clan's progenitor, Brian Boru.
Learning about his progenitors through a DNA connection has given Bryant "a sense that we really are brothers and sisters. It may be 400 or 1,000 years ago, but we're related to each other as the family of man."