Saturday 30 July 2016

The Phelps Connection

There are several surnames that turn up as close matches to the North Tipperary Gleeson's of Lineage II, and one of these is Phelps. Some of our project members have up to 10 Phelps individuals among their Y-DNA-37 matches and 8 Phelps individuals among their Y-DNA-67 matches. 

The North Tipp Gleeson's of Lineage II and the single Phelps in the Big Tree are connected by the SNP marker Z16438 which is estimated (by YFULL) to have been formed some time between 550 and 1200AD. Now at that stage (if we are to believe the ancient texts), the North Tipp Gleeson's would have been living somewhere between Muskerry (North Cork) and the Kingdom of Aradh (between present day Nenagh and Lough Derg). Furthermore, they would probably have been "pre-Gleeson" because the surname was probably not commonly used until sometime after 1000 AD. And these pre-Gleeson's could have given rise to not only people called Gleeson, but also people called Carroll & Prendergast.

Lineage II Gleeson's & their neighbours on the Big Tree
(TMRCA dates in blue i.e. Time to Most Recent Common Ancestor)

Now Phelps is not a Gaelic name. It is in fact very English. The story is that it is an Anglo-Norman name with a particular preponderance in Gloucestershire. So why is a Phelps so closely genetically related to the Gleeson's and their clearly Irish neighbours the Carroll's, the McCarthy's, & the Treacy's? Well, there are several possible explanations.
  • Could it be that they both have the same common ancestor? In other words, some time between  550 and 1200 AD, a man had two groups of descendants, one of which gave rise to the pre-Gleeson's of North Tipperary and the other to the Phelps of Gloucestershire ... this seems unlikely.
  • An alternative explanation could be that sometime during 550 to 1200 AD, a Phelps was in close contact with a pre-Gleeson descendant (let's call him "North Tipp Man") and (for whatever reason) the DNA of the North Tipp Man became associated with the surname of the Phelps. This could have been due to an adoption by a Phelps of a North Tipp Man's child, or perhaps the wife of a Phelps had an illicit encounter with a North Tipp Man or had a child from a previous marriage to a North Tipp Man and the child was raised as a Phelps.

The latter explanation seems more probable but is there any evidence to support it?

Surname Distribution of Phelps in the late 1800s with preponderance in Gloucestershire

There were Gleeson's and other Tipperary men in England from early times. One of these could feasibly have introduced North Tipp Man DNA into a Phelps line. This is an option that should be kept in mind.

Looking at the alternative scenario, there were Phelps in Ireland but very few of them. The 1911 and 1901 census returns have 22 and 17 of them respectively (mainly in Dublin & Clare), and Griffiths Valuation (1850s) reveals two landholders in Dublin, another two in Co. Down and one in Armagh.

But it's when we turn to the Landed Estates Database that we hit the jackpot:
Thomas Phelps, a Cromwellian soldier from Gloucestershire, was granted lands in counties Tipperary, Kerry and Down and at the Restoration settled in Limerick city. His descendants were involved in linen manufacturing in the North of Ireland. In 1864 John Lecky Phelps married Rosetta Anne, daughter of Colonel John Vandeleur of Ballinacourty, county Limerick, and in 1878 he purchased the Broadford estate in the barony of Tulla, county Clare, from Charles William White, son of Lord Annaly. In 1906 John V. Phelps is recorded as the owner of untenanted lands in the rural districts of Limerick No 2 and Tulla.
And sure enough, we find the original Thomas Phelps in 1670 in the Down Survey of Ireland, right in the heart of Gleeson country. The land he owned was situated in ten townlands around Killoscully, south and west of Silvermines (namely Goulreagh, Clonalough, Munnia, Controversy, Rossaguile, Aughavehir, Coolruntha, Maryglen, Barnabaun, & Bunkimalta - land previously held by the Ryan's).

Land held by Thomas Phelps in 1670

So this seems to put a Phelps in the right place at the right time. 

Furthermore, the matching Phelps belongs to Group 08 of the Phelps DNA Project. This group is associated with the Chowan and Tyrell counties of North Carolina and there is a separate geographic DNA Project for Phelps from this particular area. Interestingly, the 15 people in this group seem to be very tightly related with many of them having a Genetic Distance of 0/37 or 1/37 to other members of the group. The furthest distance between any two members seems to be 6/37. This suggests that the common ancestor for the whole group is some time in the past several hundred years, possibly some time after the appearance of Thomas Phelps in Tipperary in 1670. 

So it seems possible that Thomas Phelps who was in Tipperary in 1670 may have had a son or grandson who carried the Phelps surname but North Tipp Man DNA, and this son/grandson emigrated to the US, perhaps to live with other Phelps family members, eventually ending up in North Carolina.

The earliest known ancestor among the members of Phelps Group 8 is a Seth Phelps born about 1745 (i.e after 1670). But there is also a theory (as yet unsubstantiated) that this group descended from Cuthbert & Mary Phelps who arrived in Maryland in 1654 - this would be against the idea that one of the sons or grandsons of our Thomas is the progenitor of Phelps Group 8.

Testing living Irish Phelps men and finding a close match to Group 8 members would lend support to this theory. There is one Phelps in the Irish phone book and he lives in Mayo. Is he a descendant of our Thomas Phelps? Would his DNA match Group 8?

Are there any clues as to the identity of the North Tipp Man whose DNA was passed down along the Phelps line? We might get a clue from looking at the surnames of the matches of those in Phelps Group 8 - it might reveal some probable candidates for the surname of North Tipp Man.

Was it a Carroll? or a Pendergast? or some other Tipperary surname? I might be able to offer some suggestions in a subsequent post.

Maurice Gleeson
July 2016

Some additional information on Thomas Phelps:
  • He was born in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire in 1623 and died in Limerick in 1697. He appears to have been in Ireland from the 1640s onwards (according to some unsourced family trees on Ancestry). His first wife is reported to have been Susanna Fennell whom he married about 1650. One of their sons may have been the one that carried non-Phelps Y-DNA to America.
  • He had a son Thomas (1656-) who was granted land in America by William Penn. These were called the “Back Lands”, amounted to 5000 acres, and were in the county of Philadelphia. Thomas was one of 5 people to whom the land was granted. Could this be how the Irish Phelps got into America?
  • The Phelps estate in Tipperary was sold in 1820 to Lord Bloomfield for £43,000. It contained 12 townlands in the Barony of Owny & Arra, amounting to 3092 acres. Rental was £2274 per annum. 
  • According to "The Phelps family of America and their English ancestors" he had many descendants who spread all around the globe (UK, Australia, etc) - there should be someone of them who can undertake Y-DNA testing to see if they match the Phelps of Group 8.
  • Since writing the blog post I have heard that the Phelps of Group 8 match many Irish surnames including Ryan (GD 10/111), Doty, Mobley, O'Connor, Connelly, McMahon, and others.
  • There is a family tree for Thomas Phelps on WikiTree here


  1. HI , My father is A. Phelps Bell, whose ancestor was Thomas Phelps from Tewkesbury. This part of the Phelps family arrived in Canada from Moyallen Ireland in 1823. I am sure we would all match up.
    Best Heather Bell

    1. Thanks for your post, Heather. It would be very interesting to have your father tested to see if he matches the Phelps of Group 8. How did he get the surname Bell as well? You can email me if you like (mauricegleeson AT

    2. My mom is a Phelps, my uncle was tested and we descend back to Chowan/Tyrell Counties. To Cuthbert...

    3. Try and get a Phelps cousin to do the Y-DNA-37 test from FTDNA and join up to the Phelps DNA Project (for free).

  2. I'm a Phelps, my though, like my father, I was born in Ga, his father, grandfather was born in Bertie NC, area. He always told my father that his family had been there for over 250 years. Anyway, is this page still going and what can I do to help? I have my ancestry DNA raw data, which I have submitted to FTDNA and have also used MorelyDNA that takes said raw data and extracts the Y haplogroup. Are there any specific markers I should be looking for?

  3. Also, it may be useful, or may not, but when I looked up my Y haplogroup it came back with the nickname, Irish Sea Subclade.

    1. Hi D, the Irish Sea subclade probably refers to Z255 so it looks like you are on the right track. You will need to test at FTDNA (Y-DNA-37 first, then Big Y) to define the precise branch below Z255 that you sit on. You should also join the Z255 project here ...