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

16 thoughts on “The normal laws of space-time do not apply”

  1. I found that most of the stories handed down through the generations were half true at best. They put things in the best light possible. Having found out the truth through the local newspapers and records. I wince when I hear the “family lore has it” phrase used. I always view these stories with a sceptical eye.

  2. It’s really quite simple. We collectively enjoy a trait of our species that spans ethnicity and is handed-down in our DNA. “The older I get, the better I was”; it’s a universal constant.

    1. Paul, I agree with you assessment, An old coach of the U. S. Naval Academy once said, ” The older I get the faster I ran as a boy ” Sometimes I find myself falling into that trap.

  3. I would not give a blanket dismissal of oral history. From childhood, I listened avidly to family history stories, admittedly dating only to the mid-19c but invaluable to me nonetheless. As an adult doing genealogy, I have been able to document almost all of them. The remaining stories have not been disproved–I have just not been able to find documents one way or the other. Of course, I have not given up the research.

    One small example: The story was that my grandmother was born on St Patrick’s Day 1891 in NYC. Her father caught his death of pneumonia going out to get the doctor for my great-grandmother. He died ten days later. I found his death cert–dated twelve days after my grandmother’s birth. There was no city birth cert, as was usual then. Much later, I found her baptism record–March 24–that included her birth date–March 17. Very satisfying.

    1. I should have added that stating the birth date on the baptismal record is not a 100% guarantee the birth date was that exact date. If not exact, then it was very close, judging by the birth-baptism intervals of her nine siblings and NY Irish Catholics of the day and long after. Even I was baptized within a week of birth.

  4. There’s someone on the Interwebs out there who once asked me in an online message in an old website that ancestry has since overtaken, if my Carr family from Cloonshivna was the one descended from the Portuguese sailor. I have no idea, but it would be great to find that guy again somehow! It got me to thinking when I got my DNA! That’s funny about “the older I get, the better I was”. I did find out that if you are a Carr family member from anywhere on the border of Roscommon and Galway, Ireland, we are probably related but we probably can’t go back far enough to prove it. And we only need to go back to 1800 or so to solve many of these mysteries!

    1. HA!!!! My father always said WE were descended from a Portuguese sailor come to shore, hence the “black Irish” . Sadly, of my 16 2x gg parents who were famine immigrant s, my CARR and SULLIVAN lines are the two I can’t track back prior to arrival! So Far YDNA from my brothers has been of now help. So if you have any Pennsylvania Carr’s – let me know!

  5. I read somewhere that the working seaman of the Spanish Armada were predominately Berbers from North Africa. Perhaps some of the survivors not being Spanish were not included in the 8 Philip the IIs envoy located. Any research on that possibility?

  6. I agree that in general family lore is often more imaginary than truth but not always, as some have said. My dad’s sister May was amazing on the family and local Tourmakeady area family history she had in her head – stories she learned as a child from the grandparents and grand aunts and uncles she stayed with or did chores for. (She was born in 1924, so those oldsters were born before 1850). She never left the area where she was born and was well connected with the area. She wrote a lot of family history related letters with the stories of us and the neighbors, I have some decades of them. I’m US born and so most of my connection with her was via letter. So far my research has found less than a handful of situations where I disagree with her and I’m not sure still that she’s right and I’m wrong.

    The fact that she had a steady stream of Americans who visited her in Derryveeny to learn about their families didn’t make me realize how deep her grasp of the local area and the families in the area was. Until I got serious into genealogy and blundered into a lot of people who told me what she told them and we found proofs to support things. Her stories being proven when records did exist has made me believe her stories in the more common situations where records will never exist. Sad fact of Mayo records for that. Her only fault was her self-censuring embarrassing things. She’d not suger coat them, she’d simply pretend they didn’t exist. When I’d ask her about things and explain how I came to know, she’d confirm but only if I promised not to share because the family (whoever it was) would be upset. Despite the fact the people were 100 years dead. Just wish I could have gotten her to draw up a family tree, but then again, she assumed most people were like her, and knew all this stuff.

    But I suspect for every person like my Aunt May there are 9,999 people with tales of Nial of the Nine and being related to “the lady pirate”. Folks like her are rare but the real deal.

  7. Virginia, I too believe there is always something truth in family stories.
    My mother told the story of a photo on their mantelpiece of 2 Asian children .
    Thru genealogy I found that her mother had remarried and she had 2 stepsisters. These 2 stepsisters married 2 Chinese brothers. So they were my mother’s step cousins
    Cheers Margaret Copley

  8. Re: family lore, I think generational distance really matters.

    If a relative tells me a story about someone that he or she actually knew, or about someone that his or her mother or father (or aunt or cousin, or what have you) actually knew….yeah, I’m going to look into that…Probably some of the details got garbled, and embellished and embroidered, over time, but there may well be something behind the story….

    But when it’s something from way back in the mists of time, from a period from which we could not possibly have any records … When it’s a tale of how one of our ancestors was a survivor of the shipwreck of the Spanish Armada, for example (and yeah, as a child, not in the west of Ireland but in Canada, I was told this tale), or of how we were once the kings and queens of County Tipperary (this I was also told, as a child in Canada), I’m going to file it under “family mythology,” and NOT under “family history.”

  9. Interesting snapshot into the assimilation of the Huguenots in Cork can be seen in this 1818 letter seeking to hire a French-speaking minister. Observes “the Old Branches [Huguenots] formerly very numerous being married into the Native Irish”. NAI reference CSO/RP/1818/537, may have non-commercial use restrictions). Surprisingly (to me) the document image is visible online. Also noted on “Cork Genealogical Society / IGP County Cork” Facebook group.

  10. My Flack family tradition was that my great-great-grandfather, William Flack (1810-1892), although born in Ireland (Bailieborough, Cavan), was the son of an English soldier who was serving in Ireland at the time. The story said that his family was from East Anglia area in England. Subsequent research, including DNA tests, have provided strong evidence that he was in fact from a Presbyterian Irish family and that his ancestors were probably named “Fleck” or “Affleck” from Ayrshire in Scotland. How wrong can family stories be?

  11. When starting my genealogical search, the info I got from my mother on her grandfather was minimal, we had his name and that he was ‘the youngest of 13’. That little tidbit helped identify which family he belonged to when researching the 1900 US census (how many John Moriarty’s do you think there are in a state or city?). So sometimes you have to use those verbal hints. I also remember my grandmother talking about the Goggins although I had no idea who they were. That was another clue to help me find the right family as they showed as next door in the census.

  12. My Irish family made up the biggest whoppers ever. I am not sure who told them, how they were created but they were completely accepted by the immigrants grandchildren and beyond.
    My immigrant was b. 1833 and immigrated around 1850ish. The rumors and lore of where “they” came in and settled for a while has not been proven or disproven and the fact they left and headed towards Clinton Iowa as there was a big building boom is right in place and building boom but just who were the “they”? The immigrant had a brother. Name? “Poppa’s brother who was killed in the war”! Yep what even his youngest children, still alive and spoke to my mother in the 1960s, called him. Hard to find two young men when one has no name. He now does have a name for I found him and know where he died “in the war.” Tales of escaping from prison in Vicksburg, building a raft to float down “the river”, to spending harsh months in Ft Massachusetts, to walking all the way to Jackson to start a business. All hogwash! All disproven with records anyone could find and apply historical facts and dates. To think his grandson tracked all the area near Rodney, MS looking for the grave of “Poppa’s brother who was killed in the war”. Not even the right state. So I warn anyone, prove what the lore was about. Find the answers. Take nothing as factual.

  13. Well, that may explain the trace DNA from Spain in my Ancestry DNA. Mother, brother and two sisters always had a slight darkness to their skin tone. Mother always joked it was the postman. The rest of us were fair complexion and blonde. Mother and father both have Irish roots.

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