Finding My Irish Family

For St. Patrick’s Day here is the text of a talk I gave to the Maryland Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians in March 2019. I was scheduled to present it again at the Maryland Irish Festival in the fall of 2020, but for obvious reasons that never happened.

My display table at the talk

I’m going to tell you about a long and winding road of research and travel in search of my Irish family. But first a confession, unlike perhaps most of you I’m not Irish-American, I’m Irish-Flemish. I grew up in England with an Irish father and a Flemish mother. My mother grew up during the Nazi occupation of Belgium and my father was born to Irish immigrants in the northern English town of Manchester. My parents met when my father was a soldier with the British troops who liberated my mother’s town of Ghent in Belgium after D Day. They had a classic wartime romance, married in Ghent in 1947, and settled in the suburbs of London. My brothers and sister and I are quite proud of our unusual heritage. I once met a Flemish history professor from the University of Louvain. Of course I told him I am half Flemish. He asked what was my other half? When I told him Irish he reared back in mock horror and said “What a volatile combination.” Both peoples are known to be hot-headed and argumentative. Anyway that’s my family’s excuse for any number of sins!

Bridie Byrne

Growing up in England my Irish grandmother Bridget Byrne lived with us. I knew her maiden name was Carney, and that her family had called her Bridie. We knew her as Nanny. She was a very quiet, nervous woman, very religious. Her bedroom was like a little chapel, full of religious pictures and statues. She had a statue of a rather obscure saint, St. Philomena, by her bed. Later on I would learn its significance. Every morning before school we would kneel by her bed to say our prayers and then she would give us a mint, holding the round white candy out to us almost like the host at Mass. She never talked about Ireland or her family. When I was about 12 she had a nervous breakdown with paranoid delusions that my mother was going to run away and take us to live in Belgium. She was in a mental hospital for a time and when she recovered she went to live in a convent retirement home. My mother told me this was perfect for her; when she was a girl she had wanted to be a nun but her family couldn’t afford the dowry you had to pay to convents in Ireland in those days.

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Plague, Pandemic, and Human Nature

Collecting the dead and pointing out anointers during the 1630 plague in Milan by Gallo Gallina

In the church of San Antonio in Milan in 1630 a frail elderly man who had been kneeling in prayer rose to sit on the pew behind him. Before he sat he used the edge of his cloak to wipe off the seat. Seeing this, a woman seated near him jumped up and pointing to the man cried out “Look, that old man is anointing the pews.” Despite the worship service in progress members of the congregation attacked the old man, grabbing him by the hair and dragging him outside the church where they beat and kicked him to death. The mob was acting under the influence of a bizarre, false conspiracy theory about how the plague was spreading through their city. When I read this in The Betrothed, a classic Italian novel by Alessandro Manzoni, I immediately thought of the way Americans of Asian descent were attacked in the street during the COVID pandemic. Just because the virus originated in China was no reason to blame or fear any individual Asian American, but the perpetrators of the violence were acting on an irrational conspiracy theory just like the mob in Milan four hundred years before.

The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi in Italian) is on my list of favorite reading of 2022. Written in the early nineteenth century it is a story of star-crossed lovers set against the background of historical events in seventeenth century Lombardy; famine, war, and plague. The chapters that describe the Milan Plague of 1630 are famous and considered one of the best accounts of the plague ever written. Manzoni based his account on memoirs and histories, notably those of Giuseppe Ripamonti and Alessandro Tadino. Dr. Tadino was deputy to the Chief Medical Officer of Milan and a member of the Tribunal of Health during the plague. He personally witnessed the attack on the old man in the church of San Antonio; it is not fiction.

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Tired of Harry and Meghan? Meet the Hanovers.

View of Hanover. Matthuis Merian. 1641.

If you’ve had enough of the Windsor family dramas you may be surprised to learn that they are far from the worst in the annals of dysfunctional British royal families. Meet the Hanovers! Forget the scandal of divorce; they just threw a discarded queen in prison for the rest of her life. Feuding fathers and sons? They set up rival courts. And no voluntarily “stepping back” from royal duties; one prince was thrown out of the palace, his belongings dumped in baskets outside the gates. As for royal babies, they weren’t always greeted with open arms.

It all began when the last of the Stuarts, Queen Anne, died without an heir in 1714. She had endured seventeen pregnancies, all but one ending in miscarriage, stillbirth, or babies who died very young. Her only child to survive infancy, William, died age eleven. The question of who should succeed her came down to religion. By the Act of Settlement passed in 1701 Catholics were disqualified from inheriting the throne. That excluded James II’s son and grandson, James Francis, known as The Old Pretender, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Instead the throne passed to the descendants of James I’s daughter Elizabeth Stuart, whose daughter Sophia had married the Elector of Hanover, a tiny German province. Sophia died shortly before Queen Anne so the throne passed to her son who became George I, the first king of the House of Hanover.

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Lacrosse Past and Present

Dakota play lacrosse on the Minnesota River. Oil painting 1848.

Goin’ fishin’? Wotcha catch? Where’s the kippers?

We endured these taunts and more, delivered in the broad Cockney of our neighborhood and accompanied by sneering laughter, as my sister and I walked home from the bus stop. Our Catholic school uniforms already made us a target of derision for the local kids, but now at the end of term we carried our lacrosse sticks with us. What else could these odd things be but fishing nets? The kids seemed delighted to have something new in their arsenal.

Girls clumsily cradle

Our experience of playing lacrosse at school wasn’t much more positive. On the playing field up the hill behind the school we ran back and forth in miserable grey English weather. Shorts were not allowed for convent school girls and sweatpants were unheard of. We wore gabardine divided skirts, shorts disguised as skirts with box pleats, and Aertex blouses. Our formidable games mistress Miss Sands wore a below the knee tweed skirt and a sensible cardigan with a whistle on a ribbon around her neck. For some reason lost to history we called her Daisy. If the rain was too heavy for outdoor sports she took us to the gym and made us dance the Highland Fling. I’m not sure which activity we dreaded most.

Cradle girls! she would cry, Cradle! This referred to the back and forth swinging motion of the stick we had to perfect to keep the ball secure in the net. Up and down the field we ran cradling and dropping the ball, and cradling some more. It seemed a very tedious business. There was occasional drama when the dangerously hard ball would hit some unfortunate girl in the head. No one in those days seemed concerned about concussion though. My sister remembers an incident when a too generous application of the stuff used to condition the leather netting caused her ball to be firmly stuck as she ran cradling away. Miss Sands called out Oh well held Byrne! in her fluting Queen’s accent. But of course my sister was unable to pass the ball so her sporting triumph was short lived.

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The Loyalists

This July 4th spare a thought for the losers of the War of Independence, those Americans who stayed loyal to King and Empire.

They were colonial government officials and aristocratic landowners, lowly tradespeople and farmers, descendants of the Mayflower and recent immigrants, White and Black and Native American, free, indentured, and enslaved. They were the Loyalists, about a third of all Americans, who for a variety of reasons chose the side of the King in what contemporaries called “a bitter civil war.” We catch only brief glimpses of them on the sidelines in the triumphalist histories of the American Revolution, but American historian Maya Jasanoff centers their stories in this first global history of the Loyalist experience from war to exile.

More than just a work of first-class scholarship, Liberty’s Exiles is a deeply moving masterpiece that fulfills the historian’s most challenging ambition: to revivify past experience.  

Niall Ferguson

The book is crammed with facts and statistics gleaned from the archives but enlivened by the intimate experiences of individuals, often in their own words.

During the war the colonies established Patriot “committees of safety” that administered loyalty oaths. Those who refused to swear could be jailed and their property confiscated. They were often subjected to mob violence, torture, and tar and feathering. Loyalists went into hiding or, as the war went on, sought refuge in the British held cities of New York, Savannah, and Charleston.

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Marks Gate Estate

Note to my American readers: If the word estate makes you think of a grand English country house be advised. In England council house developments, the equivalent of American public housing, are called estates.

Mum outside our house on Marks Gate Estate

In 1955 when I was seven years old we moved into a brand new house on Marks Gate Estate outside London in Essex. We were a family of five, my parents, my grandmother, my sister and I. Because my mother was pregnant with a third child we were moved up the waiting list for a council house. The wait was long. My parents had been on the list since shortly after I was born.

I remember the excitement of that day. The estate still had the raw appearance of a building site, our road not yet paved. The back garden was a patch of dirt, graced only with a washing line. My sister and I ran through the empty rooms. The front door led into a narrow entry hall with a small storage room at the back. Off the hall in front was a kitchen with an eating area and in back a living room with fireplace. Outside the kitchen door was a covered space for dustbins and coal storage. Upstairs the bare board floors were stained in places where it looked like the builders had mixed their materials. There were three bedrooms, one not much bigger than today’s closets, a lavatory, and a bathroom with something known as an airing cupboard where the hot water heater sat. By today’s standards it was a tiny house for a growing family but to us it seemed a mansion. It was one of over a million council homes built in Britain between 1945 and the late 1950’s.

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The Women Troubadours

On My Bookshelf I find a volume perfect for Women’s History Month, the story of medieval women songwriters whose words sound as fresh as if they were written today.

The troubadour is a familiar figure in Medieval history, a singer of songs of unrequited love for a beautiful and virtuous lady. But women troubadours? They were virtually forgotten until Meg Bogin published this study in 1976, the first since a German monograph in 1888. The book includes translations of the 23 songs that survive by 20 women. These voices from almost a thousand years ago are remarkably fresh and intimate, giving us a rare window into the lives of women in an age dominated by men.

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Digging Up Fiction

As a child I pored over the books on ancient Egypt in my father’s bookcase, fascinated by the tombs and treasures and the daring exploits of famous archaeologists. I dreamed of becoming an archaeologist myself one day, until I realized it involved spending a lot of time exposed to relentless sun in very hot places with hoards of nasty insects. I never could stand summer heat, even the 70 degrees that counted as a heat wave in England in those days. After a school field trip to a Roman dig near Colchester left me limp from heat exhaustion and covered in bug bites, I had to admit I was hardly cut out for the rigors of digging up ancient Egypt. Fortunately there is plenty of reading to satisfy an armchair archaeologist like me. Here are some of my favorite novels with an archaeological theme.

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson

Anglo-Saxons past and present are the subject of this satirical novel. Gerald Middleton is a historian past his prime when he is invited to edit a journal on the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, a topic that brings up a pivotal event from his youth. In a golden summer when he fell in love with the delectable Dollie he was present at an excavation that unearthed a pagan phallic idol in the tomb of a 7th century Christian bishop. But Gerald knows this was a fake and who was responsible for planting it. His dilemma sets off a rollicking portrait of 1950’s England with a Dickensian caste of characters including Gerald’s eccentric wife Inga, a posse of squabbling historians, and working class chancers no longer willing to stay in their place in the post-war world. A television mini-series based on the book can be seen on Acorn TV.

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What is History?

In this edition of On My Bookshelf I rediscover a history lesson.

This little paperback was published by Pelican Books, an imprint founded by Penguin Books in 1937 to offer intellectual nonfiction to ordinary people for “no more than the price of a packet of cigarettes.” The books were very popular in the postwar period, The Guardian calling them an “informal university for ’50s Britons.” My copy of What is History? by E. H. Carr was published in 1965 and shows its age. The pages are not so much yellowed as nicotine colored but the spine has held up. When I open it, for the first time in decades, I see a dedication written inside. A friend gave it to me for Christmas in 1965. She signed it with her schoolgirl nickname which I will refrain from sharing with the world to preserve her dignity. She is one of the few friends from that long ago time I am still in touch with.

What led me back to this book after so long? I remembered it and thought it might shed light on the current controversy over the teaching of history, particularly the history of slavery and race in America. I was not disappointed. This is one of the first relevant quotes I came across:

“There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write.

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The Plains of Abraham

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham

One autumn afternoon many years ago I stood on the Plains of Abraham high above the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. It remains one of the most memorable scenic views of my life along with the Grand Canyon and the English Lake District seen from the top of Helvellyn. Fierce winds flattened the grass, dark storm clouds threatened above, and the gleaming silver ribbon of the St. Lawrence far below made for a dramatic scene. In fact the sky reminded me of about the only thing I knew at the time about the history of this place, Benjamin West’s famous painting of the death of General James Wolfe. For it was here on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 that a decisive battle was fought in the great struggle for domination of North America. The name conjures a battle scene of Biblical proportions, a recent book on the subject is titled Armageddon, but the bleak windswept plain came by its name in a more prosaic way. The farmer who owned the land was named Abraham.

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