We have history

A few years ago, Cork historian Barry Keane came across a Home Office file in the UK National Archives, HO 317/78, “Activities of named paid informants against Irish secret societies”. (The wonderfully bland online catalogue entry is here.) It covered various years between 1886 and 1910, but almost all of it had been redacted. When Mr Keane appealed to the Home Office for the missing information, the entire file was withdrawn. He requested a review under the Freedom of Information Act, was turned down, appealed to the Freedom of Information Tribunal and finally lost that appeal after a two year wait.

Nobody will talk to them if we find out who spilled the beans in 1898

His appeal was rejected on two grounds. The first was precisely the reason our own Central Statistics Office gave for not releasing the 1926 census: if people know they might be identified three generations into the future, they won’t co-operate now. This was laughable when put forward by the CSO, and even more so when a Metropolitan Police officer – behind a screen at the appeal hearing, no less – claimed that making the century-old informers file available would put the entire UK covert human intelligence system at risk. A very sensible minority dissent on the tribunal described this argument as “self-evidently absurd”.

The other reason for refusal, that descendants of those named in the file might be in danger, or exposed to opprobrium, is less absurd. Maybe Cork is now all forgiveness and sweetness and light, but I’m not so sure about elsewhere in Ireland. After a talk I gave in Armagh a few years back, one of the audience questions was from a woman who wanted to know where the historic files naming “the touts” were stored. I don’t think she was researching her own ancestors.

I’m with the tribunal majority on their decision. In Ireland, some things just take longer to become history.

You can make up your own mind: the full official transcript of the hearing is on the tribunal website.

How Gaelic surnames were Englished

Hereditary patronymic surnames, Ó (“grandson of”) and Mac (“son of”), were a central part of Gaelic Irish culture from at least the 11th century, testament to a deep need for public markers of family membership.

But this was not the product of some mystical Celtic yearning for blood connection. Far from it.

Not why the Gaels adopted surnames.

For almost 1,000 years, the main unit of Gaelic society was not the nuclear family as we conceive it, but a very particular version of the extended family, the derbhfhine, all the descendants of a common great-grandfather.

Among other things, property ownership rested with the derbhfhine, not the individual. So what you could own – cattle in particular –  depended on who your kin were. No wonder genealogy loomed so large and surnames that signalled kinship were so important.

Why the Gaels adopted surnames

The name you bore was transparent to those around you, not just, as today, a convenient marker, but instead laden with resonance: stories, possessions, reputations, feuds, homeplaces . . . Gaelic surnames were deeply ingrained in everyday social interactions, as vital and ordinary as language or weather or food.

Imagine, then, the reactions of the Gaels when the first English arrived. John Bird? George Winterbottom? William Featherstone? The initial response must have been simple hilarity. How could there be people with such ludicrous names, telling nothing of parentage and kin?

The laughing can’t have lasted long. Over the course of the long, catastrophic 17th century, the old Gaelic institutions crumbled under the weight of the English conquest and took with them the centrality of Gaelic surnames.

And after only a few generations, those whose grandparents had laughed at the opaque stupidity of English names were having their own names mangled into opacity by English-speaking administrators: Harrington, Waters, Rabbit, Kidney, Boner . . . all names deriving from perfectly traditional and transparent O and Mac patronymics were stripped of all their old significance to force them into English.