Irish Roots

March 28th, 2011

John Grenham


A few peculiar assumptions recur when people speak about their ancestors. Foremost is the (almost always) unjustified belief that foul skeletons lie in the family cupboard waiting to be dragged into the daylight. Of course, the vast majority of ancestors are perfectly unexceptionable. It’s much more likely that vague, present-day feelings of guilt are causing us to project imaginary faults onto past generations, visiting the sins of the children on their fathers, so to speak.

Almost as widespread is the longing for exotic origins. An example is the enduring belief of some families in the west that their ancestors were Spanish. Dark hair and swarthy complexions abound, and an Iberian origin is used to explain them. But there are never any Spanish in the documentary records. So a Spaniard entering the family line must have done so before records began, about two centuries ago. More than two centuries means at least seven generations, which in turn means the earliest candidate can only have been one of 128 forebears. Wherever the abundance of black hair and sallow skin comes from, it’s hardly that (at most) 128th part of the genetic inheritance.

Why should such a belief linger so strongly? Is there any possibility of a basis in truth? Spanish sailors were certainly regular visitors to Galway up to the sixteenth century and it is inevitable that some married and settled in the area. But a purely oral family tradition can hardly preserve an accurate record over half a millennium. Or is the belief perhaps a faint echo of the legendary origins of the Irish with Milesius (“Míl Espáine”) in Spain?

I don’t think so. I think the real explanation is quite simple. It is the hazy sense, most nagging now among urban dwellers, that we don’t quite belong where we are.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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