Caution! It’s risky to check your DNA heritage: Vincent Burke


CULPEPER, Virginia — A kindly warning: You may not be who you think you are, and a DNA report will disclose it.

My partner Frank and I were intrigued by ads touting DNA testing. So we both ordered the kits and returned the requested samples of saliva. We waited for the results.

I was confident of what my report would say: Italian, from my mother’s father, who emigrated to America from Italy, and Irish, since both of my paternal grandparents were Irish. Somehow, I was forgetting my maternal grandmother, who came here from Hungary. I expected my report to be 50% Italian, 50% Irish. Frank’s would call him 100% Italian, since all of his grandparents were Italian.

Sure, I liked my Irish part. I even got Irish citizenship. Actually, that’s misleading. If a grandparent was born in Ireland, you are an Irish citizen at birth. You don’t become one; you’ve always been one. So I became acknowledged as a foreign-born citizen, and I got an Irish passport. The Hungarian, that I now recalled, would be exotic. I can see Frank and me in a dusky bistro swaying to the cries of a mournful violin.

But what I valued the most is the Italian. I’ve bragged about it. Between flashing my Irish passport and practicing an Italian accent, I’m a scintillating fellow at parties, the few I’m invited to. Oh, the blessings of being Italian! The Roman Empire, the Colosseum, Sophia Loren. I am of that illustrious race. Leonardo, Michelangelo, pasta and vino. La Dolce Vita.

Soon, I got an email: My report was on the internet. I was curious, but I’m not sure why. I already knew the result.

I followed the link and stared unbelievingly at the screen. There’s some horrible mistake! Not one iota of Italian in this so-called DNA report. Nowhere was the word Italy or Italian. I check the name at the top; yes, it’s my name.

My eyes ran down the figures: 35% Irish, County Mayo; 32% English or Welsh, that figures since the English were always imposing on the Irish; 13% Germanic, 12% Eastern European, my maternal grandmother. And 2% each for France, Sweden, Norway, the Balkan states. What a mongrel they say I am. I add up everything: 100%. So it couldn’t be they accidentally left out my 50% Italian. This was willful!

Where, I ask, is my DNA from my maternal grandfather, born in Trento? That’s Trento, ITALY, and there can’t be a more Italian name then Massimo Filippi. He sure wasn’t Irish.

I revealed the catastrophe to Frank, however reluctant I was to admit I may not be of his acclaimed race after all. He had just gotten his report, too. Can you believe it? Ninety-two percent Italian! Was it fraud when I represented myself to him as sharing his ethnicity?

I couldn’t dial the DNA people fast enough. I told the agent I wanted to appeal. She had never heard of such a thing, and instead would email me a publication explaining unexpected results. And I searched the internet. I didn’t like what I read.

Vincent Burke

Vincent Burke in a contemporary photo.

Every source agreed that you inherit half of your DNA from each parent, but no specific genes. I suppose in an unfortunate soul such as me, an ethnicity can be lost through the ages. My thought had been to possible hanky panky, that my mother’s father was not her father, Whew! I can forget that. Or maybe not. I don’t want to think about it.

But to all this DNA science, I say hogwash! In my heart, I know I’m Italian. Hardly anyone eats as much spaghetti as I do, with meatballs! I might even learn Italian.

Sono Italiano! Sono Italiano!

Vincent Burke, a former reporter for the Cleveland News and former adman, is author of “Forgiveness: A Gay Man’s Memoir.” He now lives in Virginia.

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