A widespread assumption among people who haven’t done any family history, and a reason often advanced for not starting, is that there’s a dreadful skeleton somewhere in the family past that mustn’t be brought out into the open. I used to think this was just Irish Catholic guilt seeping out of our collective unconscious but it seems to be present in almost all cultures: De mortuis nil nisi bonum, ‘Of the dead, speak nothing but good’, was first coined more than two-and-a-half millennia ago.
In Ireland, that suspected skeleton almost always boils down to a suspicion of a birth out of wedlock somewhere a couple of generations back.
It’s very hard now for us to grasp just how shameful illegitimacy was, even a few decades ago, and shameful not just for the mother (fathers usually managed anonymity or just decamped), but for the child and even for later generations. There were sem-racist overtones, hints of tainted blood and multi-generational stains. Some of the outraged comments in the baptismal entries of children born outside marriage in nineteenth-century church registers make it clear just how grievous the offence was.
The possibility of descendants suing for the insult to their ancestry was one of the main reasons the Catholic Church was so little reluctant to have their records digitised as recently the 1980s. Now, though, there is no shame: one man I did some research for was very hurt to find out about his mother’s illegitimacy after her death. But the hurt was only because she had not trusted him enough to tell him while she was alive.
Similar reversals of attitude have happened in other areas. Convict ancestry was once something Aussies kept quiet about. It’s now a badge of pride. Having a relative who entered a workhouse used to be a disgrace for the entire family, a feeling that probably accounts for the loss and deliberate neglect of most Irish workhouse admission registers. Nobody feels like that now.
Today, we have different taboos. All our empathy is for the destitute pauper, the poor convict, the single mother and child. Skeletons are Halloween jokes. And the dead are no longer entitled to secrets.