Who do you think you are?


BIOGRAPHY:Patricia Craig’s tracing of her family lineage has little room for stereotypes of Gael and planter

A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland, By Patricia Craig, Blackstaff Press, 277pp, £12.99

In 2010, as a preview of the upcoming decade of commemorations, the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council organised an impressive event at Belfast city hall. There was one refrain: a rolling Who Do You Think You Are? scheme for the divided communities of Northern Ireland. And this is what we have in Patricia Craig’s splendid ancestral biography.

Other Irish writers have already done this kind of thing. My favourite is that of his Waterford upbringing by the guru of imagined identity, Benedict Anderson, in the Dublin Review of Books, in 2003.

Where Craig’s differs is in her very successful creation of the atmosphere and environments in which her ancestors operated, particularly the kind of people who do not figure in official records.

Craig is a much-respected literary critic and writer. She grew up on Falls Road in Belfast and imbibed all the origin myths of Irish Catholic nationalism about the dispossessed and downtrodden Gael.

It was this cultural programming that produced the IRA, and though she escaped Belfast before she herself had any such involvement, she was fully signed up to romantic republicanism as a teenager. Many who witnessed the horrors that such cultural programming produced are reassessing their cultural baggage. A Twisted Root is Craig’s contribution to this post-Troubles rethinking.

Her journey takes her to planter ancestors from Warwickshire, though these humble Tippings, seeking a better life in Ulster, scarcely fit the stereotype conveyed by the loaded term planter. Katharine and John Tipping and their five children arrived in the Lisburn area of Co Antrim in the early 17th century.

Their children were already intermarrying with the so-called “native Irish” by 1622 and seem to have survived the horrors of 1641 (though another relative was slaughtered by the same native Irish). By the time we reach the 20th century the Tippings are Catholic and red-hot republicans. So some ancestral credibility has been found for the Irish/Catholic/rebel photofit.

But Northern Catholics have been perceived by the rest of Ireland as not quite the full shilling in terms of being fully paid-up members of the Irish Catholic nation, so a southern line was quite a useful attribute. This Craig finds in Wexford, and involvement in 1798.

But wait a minute: these are Protestants (Letts) who survived the massacre of loyalists at Scullabogue. So this line, too, is a little dodgy, even though one of them joined the rebels. The presumed tolerance of the United Irishmen and Tone’s “common name of Irishman” ideal has been a talisman for moderate Northerners, and so it is a refrain throughout this book. The sectarianism of some 1798 rebels clearly shocks the author.

Other Protestant ancestors include the notorious 19th-century grand master of the Orange Order, William Blacker, he who was removed from the magistracy because of his anti-Catholicism. And the Orange connections resurface in the Craig ancestry – no grandees such as Blacker here, however, but a stable hand and coachman.

This is the author’s grandfather, and she recalls her grandmother’s clumps of orange lilies in her garden – yes, even the flowers one grew were a cultural signifier.

And yet she found, as I too have, that much of this was an unthinking pride of belonging, not always involving the kind of anti-popery traditionally associated with such symbols.

Of course, the other side of the coin was the Catholics’ sense of not belonging and the development of a conscious counterculture.

The Protestant upbringing of Patricia Craig’s father (though now a convert to the Catholicism of her mother) saved his life during the Troubles. When taken off a bus by a group of loyalist killers, he was versed in all the Protestant origin myths, a real-life echo of Bernard MacLaverty’s powerful story, Walking the Dog.

Genteel forebears

There is not much evidence in these real stories to support the stereotypes of the downtrodden Catholic Gael or ascendancy Prod/planter in the Irish national story. For in the family background Blacker is matched by the successful Catholic manufacturers, the Jordans, who lived genteelly in a former manor house.

There is also a moving account of the Catholic ancestor who joined the British army and died in the first World War, leaving behind a young widow and fledgling family.

The story of how one of these children was nevertheless pushed towards education and became one of those very few female students (let alone a Catholic female student) to study at Queen’s University Belfast in the 1930s is one of the highlights of this book.

Among the many ironies was the successful application by the Mercy nuns of Lurgan to the British Legion to fund the education of this poor Catholic child, and her discovery and love of English literature.

It is the same redeeming light that propelled another poor Irish girl towards equivalent fulfilment, as told in Edith Devlin’s wonderful autobiography, Speaking Volumes: A Dublin Childhood (2000), the story of an impoverished Protestant upbringing in 1930s Dublin.

The richness of this section in Craig’s book comes from the insightful interviews of her mother, Nora (Brady) Craig, supported by old photographs. These are the kind of black-and-white studio poses that we all have in family albums. Craig’s go back to the 19th century and form a documentary backdrop to the storytelling.

I craved more of this rich family oral history, so lyrically retold, rather than the secondary historical analysis, which sometimes works in terms of scene-setting but is too general and wandering for the 1919-21 period.

I love good autobiographies. For historians they can fill the gaps in the written record and confirm for us what might only have been hunches. They are also usually very readable and accessible forms of history, and this one is among the best – once you get beyond the repeated and baffling (for such a polished piece of literature) colloquial abbreviations: it’s, doesn’t, I’d, they’d, and so on.

Given the remarkable procreativity of these ancestors, Protestant and Catholic alike, one or more family trees might also have stemmed a certain confusion in the reader. For individuals, centuries removed, reappear all over the place to make telling, and often humorous, observations.

Otherwise, this is a magical book, showing how very tragic and unnecessary have been our divisions. For we are all probably related anyway.

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