Weak Brain, Narrow Mind

A truism of research is that every transcription of a set of records introduces its own layer of mistakes. In precisely the same way, every individual absorbing and reporting family information is liable to omit or mistake something, conflating different events or mixing up individuals. Eventually errors like these can encrust even the most carefully guarded family story, like a multi-generational game of Chinese Whispers. The only real protection is the trusty defence of every genealogical researcher, deep and abiding scepticism. But it can also help to be aware of the most typical way distortions occur.

The wonderful Willie Dixon

When someone speaks, the default expectation of a listener is that he or she will understand what is being said. This expectation is extremely difficult to defeat, and one result is that unfamiliar names are distorted to make them familiar. So “Grenham” is heard as Grennan or Grehan or Graham (repeatedly). After five generations, the place of origin of an Irish-American family mutates from “Carracastle” to “Kerry Castle”.

In Ireland itself a family of immigrant Italian origins, the Rolleris from Parma, all become O’Learys. This impulse, to tame and familiarise what is strange, is primarily responsible for the garbled surnames and place-names that plague research on the families of Irish emigrants. The notion that immigration officials at Ellis Island handed out fresh surnames to the new arrivals is a myth. What changed the names was the pressure to become familiar.

I recently came across a transcript of the lyrics of the wonderful Willie Dixon song, “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind“, and discovered the power of such wishful distortion. A couplet I had treasured for years – “If your brain is strong and your mind is broad/ You’ll have more women than a drinkin’ hog” – actually turned out to be “more women than a train can hold”.


Coca-Cola hurt my self-esteem

Whinging about globalisation is part of my stock-in-trade: A trans-national corporation stole my lunch money; Coca-Cola hurt my self-esteem. You get the idea.

John Grenham Jan 1 2015
Globalised man of mystery

So it’s a tad bemusing to find myself globalised. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been recording a series of talks about Irish genealogy (available here). Nothing strange in that. But I give the lectures to a PC in my front room in Dublin; they’re recorded and edited in a studio in Massachusetts; sit ready for download on a server in Arizona; and  their main market is Australia and New Zealand.

Cagney white heat2
Would you like eggs with that, Mr. Cagney?

My feelings are mixed. There is a touch of megalomania in the thought of what I’ve done spanning the globe – “Look at me, Ma! Top of the world!”. On the other hand, I’m sitting on my own in the front room.

My experience running the website without the protective cocoon of The Irish Times makes me think this combination of mass connection and personal atomisation is the new normal, at least in the developed world. Like it or not, know it or not, we’re all globalised.

One aspect of orating at a computer screen was fun, though. The bunch of five-year-olds who play in the cul-de-sac outside my front window had a ringside seat: that weirdo neighbour waving his hands around and talking very loudly to himself for hours. They learnt a lot about Irish genealogy.

And I didn’t steal their lunch money.

John O’Hart: Hero and Villain

John O’Hart (1824 -1902) is probably the single best-known writer on Irish genealogy. His most widely-available work is Irish Pedigrees (or the Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation), first published in 1878, with at least eight subsequent expanded editions.

The man himself

O’Hart had an extraordinary appetite for work and appears to have read and absorbed every single Irish pedigree published before the 1870s. He was also a passionate nationalist, and this passion shaped and distorted what he wrote. The primary aim of Irish Pedigrees, as its subtitle shows, was to demonstrate the homogeneity and racial purity of the Irish. To this end, O’Hart takes the legendary Milesian origins of the Gaels, extends them back to Adam, via Magog, Japhet and Moses, grafts onto this root every published medieval Irish genealogy, including all of the descents listed in the Annals of the Four Masters, and then extends them all into the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

The result is extraordinary. Every Gaelic Irish family is shown to descend from a single forebear, but only by constant jumbling of sources, unacknowledged guesswork and judicious omissions. And as a piece of wonderful inverted Gaelic snobbery, he even demonstrates the Milesian descent of the British royal family.

If this was all the book consisted of, it would merely be a historical curiosity, about as interesting as phrenology. The real tragedy is that it includes much information based on sources that no longer exist.

O'Hart's Irish PedigreesAs the scope of the work expanded through its various editions, O’Hart began to incorporate material relating to the non-Gaels, taken from the original sources in the Public Record Office that were destroyed in 1922. But since he gives no details of the sources, it is almost impossible to sort fantasy from fact. If ever there was an object lesson in the importance of academic citation, Irish Pedigrees is it.

Copies of various editions are widely available online, at LibraryIreland, books.google.com, archive.org and openlibrary.org, among others.

Approach with caution.

Why an Irish funeral trumps everything

At 9 am this morning, I got a note from a neighbour telling me that Vera from across the road had died suddenly and the funeral was at 10 am. So at 10 am, I was at a funeral mass with several hundred others, in my best sober shirt and tie.

I’d known Vera distantly for 15 years and spoken to her (weather only) maybe a dozen times. She seemed a perfectly nice person, with a passion for her front garden, but I never got to know her in any but the most superficial way.

So why did I drop everything at twenty minutes notice and hare off to her funeral? Because in Ireland a funeral trumps everything.

The country still operates in a forest of mutual obligations, of favours given, owed and received – the “round” system, which notoriously forces everyone in a group in an Irish pub to buy a drink for everyone else, is only the most egregious example.  And funerals are probably the most important mutual obligation of all.


A large network of mutual obligations

“I’ll go to your funeral if you come to mine”? A bit too Irish. No, the duty is to the survivors, the extended family and friends, other neighbours, the entire network of connections that allows us to recognise each other: kin, in the very broadest sense. Being there certainly conveys solidarity with the bereaved, but it also reconfirms membership in that broader group for everyone who attends.

A twenty-five-year ‘in memoriam’ notice, published in 1972

One result is that records of funerals are uniquely important in Ireland. Visitors can be bewildered at the half-hour-long lists of deaths and funeral arrangements that constitute prime-time broadcasting on local radio. One of the most visited Irish websites is rip.ie, providing a country-wide database of funerals. Newspapers still have full pages of “the deaths”.

And all of these include lists of immediate family, in-laws and grandchildren, with addresses, cemeteries, places of origin … everything needed for family history. When I looked up Vera’s death notice on rip.ie after coming home from the funeral, I found out more about her than in the fifteen years of being her neighbour.