Most people will be familiar with the BBC Show “Who Do You Think You Are?” . In each series, famous people are guided along researching their family tree. It throws up surprises. BBC journalist is a direct descendent of William the Conquerer, Irish comedian Brendan O’Carroll had a great uncle shot dead by a British murder gang in the War of Independence. In the American version of the show, actor Kelsey Grammar discovers that his ancestors were early pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
There is of course a point where it is pointless to trace back too far. We are all each others cousins in some way.
The Irish seem to have a unique approach to Genealogy. How many homes have we visited where there is a coat of arms bearing a family crest? Yes…I have one at the door. And I have a coat of arms on my key ring and on the coaster on which I set my mug of tea….although I have never actually used the mug that I bought on the Aran Islands last year. If you are Irish and reading this, there is a fifty per cent chance that you have such trinkets. And you will know that there are not exactly authentic. It gives us a sense of “nobility”.
Of course if your name is O’Connor, O’Brien, O’Neill, you might well be a form of nobility. Mrs FJH likes to remind me that her ancestors ruled a lot of land in the Mourne Mountains, while my somewhat humble ancestors had a single field in County Offaly. Of course it is nice to be an O’Malley who had castles in County Mayo or a McCarthy who had castles in County Cork.
But the reality is that since Plantation and Conquest, we ceased to have any aspirations to nobility except for those chieftains who accepted English “re-granted” titles. But effectively we were dispersed to Hell or Connacht or more likely as peasant labour and tenat farmers to the New Order.
With our Religion banned, limitations on land ownership and limitations on education, the Irish became undocumented aliens in our own country.
Of course those who are descended from convicts transported to Botany Bay and those descended from the coffin ships that made it to New York harbour visit Ireland…to buy the key rings with the coat of arms.
And Catholic Emancipation (1829), free education, census results makes us documented but it doesnt end the sense of degradation. We migh be documented…in prison records, ship manifests to USA and Famine workhouses.
For those really interested in the old family tree, it is best known that we are only six or seven generations away from Degradation.
Uncle Jackie (my father’s brother) warned me years ago. In every Irish family tree, there is someone hanging from a rope. He did not like questions and while my father was more approachable, they died within seven weeks of each other (and my father in a virtual coma for more than a week).
But the one historic thing that I knew was that they both claimed a connexion to the Wild Geese, which seemed unlikely and effectively disproved when I had access to the Wild Geese Database of every Franco-Irish soldier from 1692-1793 …and just one of us shows up, hopelessly under-represented and strangely proving my family’s aversion to any kind of heroism.
History and Family History has a way of inter-acting. So that my great-grandfather, born in County Monaghan joined the “Royal Irish Constabulary” ending up a sergeant before retiring around 1900. He had two sons (my grandfather Jack and his brother Bob) and he disowned them both. They married “below” their social standing….not befitting the local RIC sergeant, who was born before the Famine and had achieved Respectability.
As I only discovered three years ago, Bob married a Belfast Protestant and had a family and went to USA where he worked alongside James Larkin. Bobs wife died in USA and he came back to Ireland on the same ship as Larkin. The children were raised by their Protestant relatives and Bob went to live in Dublin where he met his second wife…romantically on a picket line during a strike by cinema and theatre usherettes. And he had a second family.
So Great Uncle Bob and his wife Kathleen were socialists. Geography and eventually Death separated Bob and my grandfather, Jack.
My grandfather died when I was 6 years old and my granny when I was 8 years old. Few but treasured memories …under-scored by repeated assertions of their kindness to everyone. Maybe my granny was in fact making the world a better place. She had been raised in the worst kind of late Victorian poverty.
The only connexion I have to my RIC Sergeant Grandfather is a glass pen with his name on it. I have no paternal cousins so the sketchy nature of the family history irritates me.
The story of all Irish Catholic families…whether in Belfast, Liverpool, Melbourne or Chicago is…the search for Respectability…and maintaining Respectability…wiping out all memory of starvation, workhouses, prisons, orphanages, illegitimacy, disease……its the story of young women, being educated by nuns to do needlework and cook….and tame the railroad workers, dock labourers thru marriage and educate their children into a better life. It is the story of tea in china cups and triangle shaped sandwiches when relatives visit on a Sunday.
Suppressing the memory for new generations was a community effort.
I cant say that I cared too much about family history in the 1960s. When I started asking questions, Uncle Jackie told me that I didnt need to know about the ones with the nooses around their necks. My father was more fortcoming …that someday we would talk about it all.
But Uncle Jackie and my father died either side of Christmas 1982.
So finally a few months ago, I put together the last few pieces of the jigsaw. The RIC sergeant comes out of this badly. His sons ….shock horror…..married ….shock horror…Protestants. And he disowned them. And in the case of my granny, a young woman who the census records was the only person in her house who could read and write.
Was that really worth suppressing?
There is an irony. And if Uncle Jackie was alive today he would “laugh his leg off”.
Thru the Wild Geese database, I established there is no family connexion to the Wild Geese.
I spent most of my time at Queens University looking at Wild Geese history, even though it was not part of any module.
Books that list the fate of every man captured in the aftermath of Culloden, including the Wild Geese Franco-Irish regiments….and sight of the State papers that lists the Wild Geese prisoners captured at sea in 1745 and 1746. …and details of their interrogation by a broadly sympathetic Captain Eyre (of Eyrecourt and who was familiar with Irish Jacobite thinking).
Eyre would have known that the prisoners were all lying thru their teeth….they claimed to be born in France, or joined the French army before the war had begun, or had been visiting relatives in France when pressed into the French Army…and as Eyre was really after Irish recruiters rather than “French” soldiers who would all be exchanged anyway….they all named people already dead as the people who had sent them off to France. In his notes, Eyre expresses amused irritation that one such recruiter from Kings County (Offaly) had been hanged for treason, for sending men off to France, including at least one who became a trooper in the cavalry regiment….Fitzjames Horse.
I smiled when I saw the name of the Wild Geese recruiter.