'Irish Roots' archive



Irish Roots


A very 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. In most cases what this boils down to is a suspicion of illegitimacy a few 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 almost racist overtones, hints of tainted blood. Some of the outraged comments in the baptismal entries of children born outside marriage in 19th century church registers make it clear just how grievous the offence was. The possibility of descendants suing for the insult to their ancestry was actually one of the reasons the Catholic Church was a little reluctant to have their records digitised as recently the 1980s. Now, though, there is no shame: one man I know was very hurt to find out about his mother's illegitimacy only after her death, but hurt only that she had not trusted him enough to tell him.

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.

Today, we have different taboos. All our sympathy is with the destitute pauper, the poor convict, the single mother and child. Skeletons are Halloween jokes, and the dead are not entitled to secrets.

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