Am I British? It says so on my passport, that soon-to-be-blue-again booklet which proclaims my unasked-for membership of this particular club. I’ve always known, however, that on my mother’s side I’m actually descended from Irish ancestry. So this week, staying with my cousin in Dublin, it’s inevitable that the conversation has turned towards tracing our family tree.
I dabbled with Ancestry.com a couple of years ago, and managed to find census records for my great grandparents, as far back as the beginning of the 20th century. Further back, however, the trail becomes impossible to follow; my great grandparents were born in England but it seems their parents weren’t, and the sheer numbers who migrated from Ireland to Liverpool in the second half of the 19th century were enough to defeat my limited research skills. I simply couldn’t work out which Quirk or McCann I might be descended from.
But this week I’ve been adding to my store of knowledge by picking the brains of my cousins. Two days ago, six of us gathered over tea and cake, sharing what we knew of our ancestry. One member of the family had traced the family tree back to the 1860s. Another remembered that the connection between the Liverpool and Dublin branches was because her grandfather was the brother of my grandmother’s grandparent (in other words either my great great grandmother or grandfather). After a couple of hours and a lot of cake, we established that our common ancestors were John Nugent and Catherine Hogan, who were married in 1866, and lived in Edenderry, County Offaly. Their oldest son, James Nugent, was the line through which my Irish cousins are descended. However one of his younger siblings – we’re not sure which one, or when – moved to Liverpool, and that’s partly why I’m British not Irish.
The bare facts are fascinating enough, but it’s the unrecoverable human stories behind these names and dates which really spark my curiosity. Why did one of John and Catherine’s children leave Ireland when their siblings didn’t? For work? Marriage? Were they heading for America but only got as far as Liverpool? How did they feel being so far apart? How did they keep in touch with their siblings and cousins back home? The census records I did manage to find showed a family of seamen, dock workers, dressmakers, shop workers, living in overcrowded houses on inner city streets which have long since been demolished. One of my great grandmothers signed her name on the census record with X, suggesting that she was illiterate. Letters would have had to be written – and read aloud – by someone else on her behalf. And yet somehow, they stayed in touch. As a child my grandmother was sent to stay with her Dublin cousins – the parents and grandparents of the people I’ve been visiting this week – and she kept up regular visits until the last few years of her life.
The facts that are recorded, in census documents, birth and death certificates, are one source of information. But the oral history passed on from generation to generation gives a different picture – more fragmented, but rich with personal details. One of my cousins this week told me that my grandfather’s ancestors were ‘burned out of the north’ in a wave of anti Catholic violence – a snippet of information I’d never heard before. On hearing this, I suddenly remembered my mother telling me a family story that had been passed down from that same grandfather’s side, of how one of our ancestors had escaped being murdered by Cromwell’s troops by hiding under a barrel as they ransacked the town. When I mentioned this yesterday to another Irish friend, he suggested that these two memories might point to Drogheda, as Cromwell only ransacked a limited number of northern towns. This would tie in with the fact that most Irish people I’ve spoken to seem to think that Quirk (my grandfather’s surname) isn’t a common name in the southern provinces.
So where am I from? For years my answer to this question has been Leeds but I grew up in Liverpool, and no, I don’t have a scouse accent because my dad’s a southerner and I grew up saying ‘barth’ instead of ‘bath’. And this week has reminded me why my mum and her parents always saw themselves partly as Irish emigrants despite being British born. If anything, it’s strengthened my belief that nationality is really just an accident. I’m British because around 140 years ago, some of my ancestors felt that their best option was getting out of Ireland (an Ireland ruled and ruthlessly exploited by Britain, let’s not forget). I can’t get patriotic about that. I’ve always agreed with Virginia Woolf’s view that a woman has no country. It’s actually really great to think I have such strong connections with Ireland, to go with my wonderful friends in the Netherlands and Spain, my Japanese, American and Algerian in-laws and my daughters’ new baby cousin who’s just been born in Australia. I’m that “citizen of nowhere” Theresa May was pouring scorn on a few months ago. Sounds pretty good to me.