A high chiefs-to-Indians ratio
The lure of blue blood is a perennial hazard in genealogy, and by no means confined to Ireland. Witness the “Order of the Crown of Charlemagne in the United States Of America” (charlemagne.org) or indeed the Confucius Genealogy, claiming to go back more than 2,500 years and supposedly listing more than two million of his living descendants (tinyurl.ie/a4w).
The basic mechanism is simple: someone looks into their heart and sees innate nobility, then looks around at their daily life and sees very little nobility indeed. The mismatch can only be accounted for by a mistake, a forgotten blood link to the truly noble. For most people, this is a grown-up version of an eight-year-old girl’s Princess fantasy, but it can still be powerful enough to warp all logic and common sense.
In Ireland, the affliction usually involves a half-remembered family tradition – “my granduncle’s brother-in-law’s neighbour told me …” – or simple geographical proximity. Your ancestors were called Kelly, and came from South Roscommon, so they must be descended from the O’Kellys of Uí Máine. If you can just stretch your own family history back five generations and stretch the O’Kellys forward another five … Dealing with stuff like this sets any experienced researcher’s hair on end: you just can’t know the answer before you start the research.
A classic jibe of Victorian Ireland against the Gael was that every dirt-poor Irish tenant claimed to be a descendant of the old Gaelic aristocracy. The irony is that there was probably more truth to the claim than Victorian superciliousness could allow. Medieval Ireland had an extremely high chiefs-to-Indians ratio, so there were enough nobles to guarantee that pretty much everyone had (and has) kings and princes in their family tree. It’s just impossible to prove. That warm glow of innate nobility will have to suffice. And don’t forget that the tree still has a lot more Indians than chiefs.
['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/magazine/column]