It’s alive!

Forty years ago, when I asked my mother about her grandparents, her response summed up the Irish outlook of those days:

“What do you want to know about them for? Sure aren’t they all dead?”

This is not to say that family was unimportant. Far from it. My mother and her sisters could spend hours knitting together second and third cousins and neighbours and the in-laws of in-laws. In a tribal society nothing is more important than who your relatives are. Obviously, common ancestry determines the relationship, but that’s its only importance.

This makes for a peculiar relationship with the past. On the one hand, we’re drenched in it. Every rock in every field has its own name, history and controversy, and the issues that fueled politics and rebellion two centuries ago still underlie Irish politics today. For better or worse, history is no bewigged pageant here.  It’s alive.

An Englishman encounters Irish history.

On the other hand, we have very little sentiment about what we inherit. In the space of little more than a century, we’ve shed a national language and a national religion, two national currencies, as well as membership of a kingdom, an Empire and a Commonwealth. In the last decade alone we’ve re-invented ourselves as business moguls, four-hour commuters, consumerist party animals, abortion-friendly LGBT celebs … Who knows what’s next?

With change at this pace, eventually even the strongest roots begin to shrivel, and the past acquires the rosy glow of distance. For most Irish today, the tribe is not as straightforward as it used to be, and one way the difference is showing is how Irish genealogy is seen in Ireland. It’s no longer the preserve of the blue-rinsed or the tartan-trousered.

So fear no more. When you tell someone Irish you’re researching your ancestors, they’re no longer likely to question your sanity.

The normal laws of space-time do not apply

How much can we rely on family oral traditions? The question attracts a horde of ifs, buts and maybes.

Take the undying belief of large numbers of families in the west of Ireland that one of their ancestors was a survivor of the wreck of the Spanish Armada in 1588. As many as 24 ships were indeed wrecked on the Irish coast, but the conditions that greeted anyone who made it ashore were hardly conducive to settling down and raising a family. The English military force in Ireland, too small to fight off an invasion, compensated with savagery, slaughtering every Spaniard who couldn’t be ransomed. The native Irish did not show much hospitality either.

An envoy of Phillip II sent to Ireland in 1596 to seek out survivors could find only eight individuals.

But hold on. What about those eight? If just one of them had two surviving offspring who stayed in Ireland, who in turn each had two offspring – a very conservative survival rate – and this rate of reproduction continued in each of the 13 or so generations down to the present, that single survivor would now have 8192 descendants, plenty to provide a basis for a family tradition. Though, of course, the tradition remains impossible to prove.

That’s the difference between genealogy and academic history. Because we focus on individual stories, the strangest statistical flukes crop up again and again. The wonderfully conspicuous Balthazar McGuffin will appear nowhere in the records of the 1870s, where you expect him. But dozens of Balthazar McGuffins will then begin to crop up in the records of freed slaves, or medieval guild rolls, or at the court of Catherine the Great. “Black swan” events like these give historians attacks of the vapours, and very understandably.

As for quantum physics, so for history: at the smallest level, the normal laws of space-time do not apply.

The intersection of Touro and Marais in New Orleans. Also the centre of the universe