I have found the disintegrating remains of my grandfather’s birth certificate. It tells me he was born in 1875, in County Mayo. This I already knew, but what I did not know is that his father, John, a farmer, was illiterate. He signs with a cross and his name is inked in by the registrar. My grandfather’s mother, Catherine, was from County Sligo. This also I did not know. She signs for herself, is literate, as are all her children.
I searched the Irish census of 1901 and found their names, but the facts gleaned are few; I now have the Gaelic translation of the place they lived: Trian na cailligh; I know both were bilingual – Irish and English; that they lived in a stone-built dwelling consisting of three rooms and a roof that was either thatch or turf; that there were two adult children living with them: the eldest son, John, who would take over the tenancy on the death of his father in 1918, and a daughter, Bridget. Beyond that, I know nothing of their lives. No photographs survive, if indeed they ever existed. Their story is lost. Time has erased them.
Of course their story is of no interest to anyone but me, and all I can do is imagine them, weave them into myth. But in doing so, in colouring the blanks this way, I’m aware I’m also colouring in what I perceive to be the blanks in myself. Indeed I believe there’s a danger genealogy feeds a dissatisfaction with the story of our own lives, that through our imagining of the past lives of our ancestors, we are searching for something we might use to frame our own lives differently.
So,… I trace one branch of my ancestry to a three roomed rustic farmhouse in Trian na cailligh, County Mayo. I imagine a thatch roof, imagine my great grandparents, imagine hard lives as landholders in nineteenth century Ireland. I like this image because there’s a romance to it, also an inverse snobbery in flaunting one’s humble origins. But then I imagine their sadness at the leaving of my grandfather for England in the 1890′s and with that sadness comes a sense of their humanness – the first and perhaps the only substantially meaningful connection I can make with them. Then I imagine all the links of fate and love that led from them to me, and I wonder if there’s anything more of them in me than just the traces of our DNA.
I think there is.
I’ve noticed how my children have taken up an interest in things I’ve dallied with in the past myself – yet they do this without encouragement, and sometimes even without the knowledge of my own former passion. Also I note things that fascinated my father are being reborn this way. So yes, I think there is a passing on of ideas, of artistry, of curiosity – all the intangible things that define us as human beings, and which are the more important artifacts of our ancestry, travelling through time to be reborn in our descendants.
As for the more tangible details that await the genealogist,… they tell a different story, and it’s never true because it can never scratch any deeper than the surface. What is my story? My children’s birth certificates do not have their father’s occupation down as writer, so I can see some future genealogist, for whom perhaps I shall be great grandfather, getting me all wrong, because I am a writer first and foremost in my life.
Yet I did not go to London, did not elbow my way into the literary set, did not make my living by the publishing of novels. I found an ordinary job instead and have lived and loved and worked all my life within walking distance of the place where I was born. And the writing? In my middle years, I was to create a cloak of anonymity for it, then cast my words into the clouds for anyone who happened to be passing by – like deliberately leaving my notes on a park bench. My true story, indeed all our stories, are more complex and mysterious than can ever be recorded by the registrar’s pen.
Of course none of this matters. Time will erase all our stories, and we have to be accepting of this if we are ever to frame our own lives accurately. Yet to John and Catherine, imperfectly imagined, living their lives out in the fields of County Mayo, I say this: I will never know your real story, just as none who follow me will ever know mine, but I give thanks for your lives all the same.