Irish Roots

October 19th

John Grenham


As time goes on, my flip generalisation a few weeks back that nobody is interested in other people's ancestors seems more and more absurd.

I've just finished rereading David Thomson's Woodbrook after almost 30 years, and couldn't help being struck by just how strange and spellbinding it still is. Thomson was a student of history at Oxford in 1932 when he first came to the Woodbrook estate between Carrick-on-Shannon and Boyle to teach the Kirkwood children. The book, published in 1974, is a retrospective account of deepening connections with the family and the estate over the following decade, centred on his silent adolescent love for Phoebe, the eldest daughter. Around this personal story, Thomson builds a wonderfully vivid picture of life in Roscommon in the 1930s and 1940s, both elegiac and utterly unsentimental. He also uses his growing relationships with workers on the estate and with the Kirkwood family to tease out detailed day-by-day accounts of some of the pivotal events of Irish history, following back the family connections between those he is living with and their ancestors: James Kirkwood on the Board of Guardians of Carrick-on-Shannon Poor Law Union during the Famine; Captain William Kirkwood, prisoner of the French in Killala during the 1798 invasion; Charles Kirkwood, at the mercy of the Compulsory Tillage Act during the Emergency. The result is some of the best local historical writing ever done, at least about Ireland, gracefully demonstrating just how the particulars of private lives flow with the giant currents of history.

In the late 1990s the German writer W.G.Sebald was celebrated for having invented a new genre, part autobiography, part novel, part travelogue, part historical essay. Sebald’s books are wonderful, but Woodbrook, in essence a work of family history, is the daddy of them all.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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