The dead are no longer entitled to secrets

Say Hello to great-aunt Attila

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.


My favourite outraged clergyman

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.

Austrailian crown jewels

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.

28 thoughts on “The dead are no longer entitled to secrets”

    1. I DO, and I have the trial file along with the many letters seeking a pardon for him as well as the official pardon signed by the governor. This is what makes genealogy so fun!

  1. Completely agree! Recently found out an ancestor was committed to an asylum in Drogheda Ireland for “being a dangerous lunatic.” She also “intentionally broke a window at some guy’s house and was sentenced to the gaol. This, after she was arrested a couple of times for running an unlicensed pub out of her home. Love genealogy!

    1. Read up on the dangerour lunatic laws, you could have anyone put away just on the word of another, no proof required. “Criminal Lunatics Act”

    2. I am not aware of a publicly operated asylum /mental hospital in Drogheda.
      County Louth was served by the Richmond District Lunatic Asylum, aka St Brendan’s Hospital, Grangegorman, until the opening in the 1930s of the hospital in Ardee.

  2. In doing my family history a branch of my living family had no idea when their parents were married – it was never discussed and they never really thought about it. You can see where this is going, right? Digging up a MC indicated a beloved (aunt, cousin, uncle, not being too specific) was either very premature or…. The relative I’m working with was simply shocked. About his/her parents and his/her sibling. And he/she isn’t a prude or close minded, it simply had never been imaginable. I’ve since come up with 2 other examples in living family that I annotate but don’t really advertise. This would be Ireland from 1920 – 1950 time frames. And what is interesting is that the relative who was “premature” has grandkids, but the child who had the grandkids isn’t married (they are partners living together) so under the old view, those grandkids would all be illigitimate, no? But in the 21st century in Dublin, no one in the family cares, which is as it should be I think.

  3. Yes, secrets! What’s interesting is finding that my 2G grandfather, who was rumored to end up in a monastery, was SIX times in court for abusing or firing the hired help without paying them, according to the Ireland, Petty Sessions Court Registers, County Limerick. In one case, he “violently assaulted the Complainant on the morning of the 25th October 1870 having struck her with a teapot on the head.” What the heck, 2G Granddad?

  4. To date my research has unearthed 3 convict ancestors on different sides of the family. One from County Tyrone, Ireland was sentenced to transportation and arrived in Sydney in 1838. He brought with him two sons while his wife and three other children were left in Ireland. I was able to access the court records from the Archives in Ireland but to date have not been able to find any trace of the family remaining in Ireland. My convict ancestors never returned to Ireland and one of the two boys accompanying him married and raised his own family in Australia. Life for convicts when they arrived was really tough and I can only imagine how difficult it was for them trying to build a new life in Australia. The more information available in regard to the ‘secret lives’ of our ancestors helps us understand the social and economic drivers that effected the way people lived their lives. Rather than looking down on them as social misfits, they should be admired for surviving what were often difficult and often corrupt circumstances.

  5. I did uncover an illegitimate ancestor, born mid-19th century in Ireland, when researching the family tree. Although I do have her parents’ names, I can’t uncover any other information about them, so this is now a dead end in the family tree. She went to a neighboring parish to be baptized as an adult, I assume because she was to embarrassed to be baptized at her own.

  6. I think I may have found that one of my great uncles got in trouble for selling whiskey during the prohibition. I don’t have quite enough proof that I’ve got the right guy. But more power to him if he did.
    No, the shocking, deep, dark, secret in my family tree is that so many of my ancestors came from Ireland. (Roughly 2/3 – which is on the high end of values for 0%.) I distinctly remember someone telling me when I was a small child that there weren’t any Irish people in OUR family. (I really wish I could remember who told me that.) We were told that many of our ancestors were Scottish and that does explain the prevalence of red hair. But it seems that all of my Scottish ancestors actually came here from Ireland. With the exception of my great grandmother Mary Catherine Malloy who was born in Scotland in 1867…to Irish parents.
    And I do admit that I sometimes worry that my more recent ancestors might be offended by my unearthing our Irish roots. Even though I understand that they lived in a time and place where there was a lot of prejudice towards Irish people. And I believe they just wanted the best for their children.

  7. I’m working on an ancestor who was probably born out of wedlock in the 1850s. She gave birth in the work house to at least four of her six known children in the 1870s and 1880s. No father’s name was ever listed on the civil registration. I can’t entirely imagine what her life must have been like. The one bit of dignity I have found for her is that her children provided a tombstone to mark her grave. Time having passed, I am far more intrigued by this woman than embarrassed.

  8. “No convicts in my family” is one of the favourite sayings of my 95 year old, Irish background, 4th generation Australian mother. Wish there were a few, convicts have marvelous records!!

  9. Just a story to illustrate that one still needs to be cautious and sensitive in these matters. At to my past event” event in the R.D.S. a couple of years ago, at which there was a talk about the on-line publication of the Catholic Church microfilms I got chatting to a middle-aged lady and her friend. She had been unable to locate her grandfather Bill’s baptismal record. She had a lap-top with her, so I offered to have a look for it with her. She had the parish and the approximate date. After scrolling down, I located it under Gulielmus, which she had not realized was the Latin for Bill. She was delighted. However she then asked why the format in this case was not the same as the other entries which was something like “bapt Joannem fil leg Michaelus et Teresa Murphy” whereas Bill’s record was “bapt Gulielmus fil ileg Teresa Murphy” (not real surnames). Without thinking, I said that it meant that he was illegitimate. She attacked in a loud voice saying how dare I say her grandfather was a bastard. Her friend calmed her down, pointing out that I was only saying what the record stated. Even then she ended up thanking God that her mother had died some years previously without finding out that her father was illegitimate. She was also concerned as to how she would tell her own siblings or should she. So one still needs to be careful about what one broadcasts or puts up on family trees. One may consider them to have outdated prejudices, but should try to avoid upsetting them all the same.

  10. The Poet O’Connell’s family would have been really shocked to hear of the circumstances surrounding the death of family member, Hugh. In the Drumlish, Co. Longford Death Records a friend of mine came across a Hugh O’Connell, a poet. We can’t find any poet or balladeer of that name and it’s a rare enough name here in Longford.

    The priest wrote the following, and note his two exclamation marks: OConnell Hugh, Poeta tonitru peremptus!! Iulius 23 1857.” It means “Poet killed by thunder” (by ‘thunder’ I suppose ‘lightening’ is meant). You’ll find it here:

    All Drumlish death notices are followed by money amounts. There’s no amount for Hugh who must have been like Raftery the poet: “ag seinm ceoil do phócaí folamh” (performing for empty pockets) because other entries have varying amounts which may have been from ‘the collection’ taken up for the priest. Years ago, the priest would read out what each person gave: “John Murphy two shillings.” And “Joe Kelly two pounds.” It was awful. Poor O’Connell had no one to make ‘an offering’ even in death.

  11. I have two non paternal events in my family…one each on Paternal and Maternal lines. One was rumored and the other a complete surprise and both were proven by YDNA tests of several descendants.

    I have an Uncle I really never knew much about until I did my family research. He was a bit of a juvenile delinquent and then forged an endorsement of his grandfather’s signature on a $30 check which put him in a reformatory. But………..he went on to serve honorably in WWII and married.

    I have a great uncle who served both in the infantry and tin clad squadron in the American Civil War (Union). Three months after the war was over he was still sitting on his Tin Clad on the Mississippi and like many just went home. That action resulted in the loss of his pension.

    Theirs are hiccups in an otherwise successful group of people. No matter what………….they are a part of my history.

  12. Our family research involves a LOT of connections to families married into Doppings (making a lot of them direct but far out cousins).

    This for what we thought were good respectable Irish rebels!

  13. I joke that my family has a tradition of early or out-of-wedlock births in virtually every generation. We aren’t embarrassed, it’s just a fact we all know. We also have a variety of “criminal elements”: from the several times great grandfather who illegally sold beer to “the indians”, to his mother who was fined for slugging her neighbor, to the car thief, to to gambler to other questionable activities. It is interesting to note that the majority of the crimes were temper based. I say that I can trace our bad tempers back 430 years on my Mom’s side and back over 900 years on my Dad’s side!

  14. The Kirk in Scotland also expressed its disapproval of out-of-wedlock births in the Old Parish Records by categorizing the infant as a”natural” son or daughter, instead of “lawful”, and sometimes added “begotten in fornication”! The couple, or frequently, just the mother (the father having heaed for the hills) had to appear before the Kirk Sessions to be scolded and be told of her punishment.
    And as John says,the stigma persisted: I’ve been shocked to see that, after official records were introduced in 1855, a person who had survived well into adulthood was sometimes described on his death reg as “illegitimate”!
    Personally, my only objection to my out-of-wedlock ancestors is that it’s difficult (or even impossible) to establish the father’s identity.

  15. Although, I have been pleasantly surprised how many times I have come across nineteenth century baptismal records of “bastard” children. At least the priests, even in very rural Ireland did not deny baptism to illegit children.

  16. One female ancestor appeared to have been in trouble with the law for fighting with neighbors and on two occasions attacking family members. After looking at newspaper reports and the dates these events occurred it appeared to be only at certain ‘times of the month’ and also could have been around the time she was menopausal. This ‘mad woman’ skeleton in our families cupboard is now looked at with different eyes.

  17. If my Irish ancestors only knew that one day their secrets would be exposed a hundred years down the road, they would have done a better job of covering up their lies. It blows my mind knowing that what we believed to be true for our entire lives we only recently discovered was all fabricated, and I have yet to understand the reason why.

  18. But sometimes, such was the shame, that a child on becoming and adult emigrated to a new life where he was unknown and unlikely to meet anyone from home, and invented a set of parents if needed while discouraging curiosity. As for criminal ancestors, be careful what you wish for…

  19. I have mixed feelings about this one. I have been obsessed with genealogy for 40 years (since I was a child). Dare I say that some records are too accessible. For instance, fully searchable on-line death records from as recent as the 1960s. In one instance I discovered that a sibling of my employer –still very much alive –who died at four had succumbed to syphilis. The 1960 marriage record — on-line — reveals that a prominent politician was born to an unwed mother and a “father unknown”. My own grandmother’s 1952 death record –again, view able on-line –lists her cause of death as schizophrenia. The health history of her six children have subsequently revealed that what she had was Hashimoto’s Syndrome (underactive thyroid & pernicious anaemia).

  20. Found that out the hard way with DNA from a family member a couple of generations ago. Trying to find someone related to the female (direct line descendant) to find out if they were of a different father, or someone else’s child they raised. I did manage to find someone, just been waiting for about 4 months for them to call me about taking an MTDNA test. Wish me luck.

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