Posts Tagged ‘genealogy’


If you and I traced our ancestors back, say a couple of thousand years, we’d find we were related. But that’s the thing with family trees. The further back you go, the branches widen, sweeping up more and more of us. Even a couple of hundred years is enough to ensure you’ll score some landed gentry among your lot. There’s likely the occasional murderer, too. But you’re only one in tens of thousands of souls, all related in the same vague way, so it doesn’t mean anything, does it?

I used to think there was nothing worse than some ardent genealogist banging on about his family tree. On and on they’d go, like you could be interested. I mean, what did it matter that so and so married so and so a hundred years ago? But then you get the bug yourself and you begin to see things differently. You begin to understand the fascination.

First, you simply want to honour your family by getting all their names in order, names you heard as a child but never met because they were long dead. Or maybe they’d branched off a few generations ago and gone to live on the other side of the world. So now you want to get them straight in your head. You want them with the right spouse, the right children. You want to pass them on to your own kids, a neat little package of heritage – like your own kids could be bothered. But then you tap into something else, you experience a “wow” moment,  and you realize there’s much more going on here.

Tracing your family history is like sketching out a story, and stories are powerful things. Suddenly, they can transform those dimly remembered names into heroes, into characters of mythological status, and myths are strange things. Once we tap into them our lives change, because that’s what myths do. They come from our deepest past, and they energise our present.

My Irish grandfather, Michael, came to Lancashire to work the quarries as a farrier. Whilst here, he had a fling with a mill-girl called Lizzie. Then he lost his job and went back to his parents’ farm in County Mayo, leaving Lizzie behind. But Lizzie discovered she was with child. So, urgent letters were exchanged and Michael returned to a hasty marriage.

He settled in a village on the edge of the Western Pennines, raised a family of four, one of them my mother. If he’d been a different kind of guy, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story. I imagine a hard-working, happy-go-lucky character, a bit of a charmer, and full of stories, not all of them true, but when things got serious, he’d always do the right thing.

That mill-girl had a brother called Richard. He married another mill-girl called Annie. Then he got swept up in the Great War, and died of fever in Mesopotamia, never saw home again. Annie struggled for years on a war-widow’s pension, then left for Australia on the promise of a better life. There, she married Fred, a German guy – at a time when German guys were still unpopular. I’ve not followed him up yet, but I’m thinking Fred must have been something special. Anyway, the two of them went on to pioneer land near Pingaring, and they seemed to make a go of it. That’s where her story peters out for me, them living a cowboy and cowgirl kind of life in the vastness of Western Australia.

This is not to say my family is any more or less fascinating than yours. We can all find the archetypal stories if we look. It’s not about the bloodline. Blood means nothing unless there’s money involved. Annie’s not a blood relative, but I think about her story a lot. Romance, tragedy, courage, adventure and triumph over adversity. It’s got everything and I find it inspiring. Even across time, something about her story, played out a century ago influences the way I think today.

But there’s more. I’ve researched the life of an obscure Victorian man of letters. He’s no relation at all, yet I ended up living his story as intensely as if it were a part of my own. So it doesn’t need to be even a vague family connection either. It runs much deeper than genealogy. It transcends blood and kin. It reaches back to the collective from which all stories rise.

If by some magic we were able to meet those people for real, there’s a chance we might not like them very much. We would find them too human, rather than the perfected heroes and heroines of our imagination. What we’re doing then is projecting parts of our psyche upon a bare structure of names, dates and events. What we tap into are latent energies that seek passage into consciousness, and they take powerful form as stories.

As we unearth these stories, we’re not uncovering the literal truth of a past life. Rather, we are exploring pieces of our own selves. Doing so, we grant new life to the mythical foundations of the past, all our pasts because the thing with myths is they seek renewal for each generation who stumbles upon them. And they reward us with fresh meaning and direction.

I’ve discovered no celebrities, no toffs, no great statesmen, in my family tree, at least not between here and the early Victorian period. Any further than that, who knows?  Four generations seems plenty for keeping it real. Four generations, and the stories are still plentiful, still of sufficient resolution for one’s imagination to get to grips with.

The best stories do not need kings and queens to act them out. We find them in the ordinary. That’s why they’re of such universal appeal. Colliers, labourers, crofters, weavers, quarrymen, farriers, domestics, pioneers and conscripted soldiers. That’s my lot. Plus of course life, love and adversity,… the stuff of stories and the bedrock of existence.

It turns out, genealogy isn’t boring after all.

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An Irish Cottage - Helen Allingham - 1840-1926I 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.

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