Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Reflections after transcribing more Creggan Parish Registers.

The task of the present is to correct our understanding of the past.
And that task becomes the more urgent
when the past cannot be corrected.
Elizabeth Finch. Julian Barnes p.49

When our children were still preschoolers, and yet still old enough to understand that death could sometimes happen, my husband and I used to tell them that if a rhinoceros sat on mummy and daddy, our closest friends would take care of them. Also, if our closest friends died first, then their children would move in with us. After years of all these children growing up while enjoying frequent sleepovers in each other’s homes, they ended up as life-long friends - enjoying friendships much like the cousin-friendships common amongst those rural Irish communities from a few hundred years ago. 

When my eldest daughter, now in her mid-forties, introduced one of my women friends as her other mother, some may have briefly wondered if my friend and I were a lesbian couple. These days, second mothers mostly occur because of a divorce, or because they involve same sex partners. In times past, it was assumed that an other-mother, a second mother, was to be expected after the death of the first.

As they grew up, our children and the children of our friends began to refer to my women friends as alter-mums.  Dr. Darcia Narvaez, author of Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality uses the term: allomothers - ἄλλος, meaning other. Same, same, I reckon. Narvaez makes the point that in the not-so-distant past, allomothers had a more significant role in what she calls our social commons. Such relationships were key contributors to the kinds of humans which we were likely to become.

Allomothers take the baby when mom needs a break … they carry, rock and play with the child. They take care of mundane tasks … they are the buffer for the mother-child, father-child relationship. Gabor Maté MD with Daniel Maté. The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture. p 175

Recently, while transcribing more of the Creggan Parish records, it occurred to me that had we and our friends'  families lived in that time and place, some of our eldest children might have even been joined in a first-cousin marriage. Ironically, given that a sister of one of my friends had already married one of my brothers, our extended family already looked somewhat more like a mid-1800s Creggan Parish family than what most families look like today. These multiple connections between our families has ended up being a real strength for us.

Whenever I transcribed the dates of a burial of a young mother, a date which was too often recorded shortly after she had given birth, my first response - after taking time to absorb the loss - was usually to ask myself: Who cared for and loved this newborn child? Who cared for and loved their older brothers and sisters? Did their father remarry? Tracking down the answers to these questions has helped me to better understand some of the echoes in my own family. The challenge is that each new question leads me to another. It is like doing laundry. The work never ends.

It bears remembering that the rural families of Creggan Parish lived in what we call an endogenous society, one where village traditions meant that people tended to marry somebody who was from their own village, often someone who was a 1st or 2nd cousin.

My great-aunt Bessie, who lived much of her life in Ballymoney, was once asked why she never married. When her turn came, she answered cheerfully: there were no male cousins left. Another old bachelor, when posed the same question, said that, when the time came for him to marry, there were no first cousins left and no second cousins either. “And you'd hardly expect me”, he said, “to go with a stranger”. Liz McManus in her book When Things Come To Light.

Because of the constraints of geography, class and religion, it was not unusual to find two sisters married to two brothers, or a 2nd wife being the sister or cousin of a 1st wife. This kind of in-marrying has more benefits than it might seem at first blush. These benefits included financial support (land stayed in the family), emotional support (from people already connected to you and who knew you well), as well as the ever-present practical supports (help with children, crop harvesting, or whatever else might be needed). It sure beats the nuclear family option on may fronts.

Children also saw and experienced the many ways that one could choose to parent (which back then was only a noun, and never a verb).  It freed them from our more limited experiences of how to parent:

Parents are destined to repeat their own parents’ mistakes. Whether that’s a once-in-a-while type of thing or a perpetual-reenactment loop, the “intergenerational transmission of parenting” is an established phenomenon of child-rearing—for better and for worse. And the constraints of the nuclear family make this birthright all the more challenging to break free from. SOURCE: Parenting Déjà Vu. Kelli María Korducki. The Atlantic

To be sure there are downsides to mating within a seriously restricted pool of DNA. It only takes one look at  the Habsburg jaw (The Distinctive ‘Habsburg Jaw’ Was Likely the Result of the Royal Family’s Inbreeding) to appreciate the impact of certain recessive alleles.  Even so, as dog, cattle and sheep breeders know, good health and such can also be the result of constrained breeding.  Robert Salopsky, a professor of biology, neurology, neurological sciences, and neurosurgery (he is also a primatologist) makes an additional observation that may surprise many (it surprised me):

Women prefer the smell of moderately related over unrelated men. In a study of 160 years of data concerning every couple in Iceland (which is a mecca for human geneticist, its generic and socio-economic homogeneity), the highest reproductive success arose from third – and fourth cousin marriages. SOURCE:  Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. Robert Sapolsky. P340.

To envision the various intermarriages that occurred in Creggan Parish, it helps to think of braiding hair. An ancestral strand from one family may begin on the left side of the plait, one from another family may begin in the middle, and a 3rd on the right. When the braid is completed, it is hard to trace each plait back to where it began but it is clear that they were all part of the same head of hair, and like a braid, the end result is more anchored and stronger than the individual plaits. 

A family pedigree one which includes no intermarriage events, tends to look like an ever-expanding triangle. The number of ancestors increases with every line and exponentially expands the base.


In Creggan Parish, it took the invention of the bicycle to open up the possibilities for longer-range courting. Until then, many lineages looked less like the triangle in the image above, and more like the diamond beneath. This is called: Pedigree Collapse. In short, there were fewer unique ancestors.


In a future post (hopefully soon to follow this one), I will explore the impact of these realities on successive generations of Creggan Parish JACKSONs, but before I do, here are some aspects that I plan to keep front of mind as I make sense of the data included in these old records. Firstly, Data only leads us to the people. It does not tell their stories.

We are all products of our history. I don’t really think it’s surprising that we carry our fears, traumas, tics and insecurities and pass them on to their children to some degree, whether it’s a depression-era recipe for potato salad or a deep-seated fear of abandonment. Stephany Foo, quoted in How does trauma spill from one generation to the next?

Secondly, in the early 2000s, our experience of cradle to death and inter-generational relationships has become increasingly rare in many cultures. Today, 52% of the people who are currently alive in the world do not live in the country of their birth. The result is that many countries, especially in what is often referred to (without irony) as the first world,  have increasingly been left to rely on the connections of friendships which have taken root in thinner soil. 

Finally, it always bears remembering: The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. L. P. Hartley (in The Go-Between).  

But, enough of all these quotes. Time to circle back to the quote which opened this post - and to use all of these quotes to inform how to craft the next post, a post that will be more data-driven:

The task of the present is to correct our understanding of the past.
And that task becomes the more urgent
when the past cannot be corrected.
Elizabeth Finch. Julian Barnes p.49

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Updates to my Memorials of Deeds Pages

Rabbit Holes and my Deeds Research


The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.
Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next. First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything; then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were
filled with cupboards and book-shelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures
hung upon pegs.
Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll. Project Gutenberg (my emphasis)

In the past two decades, while transcribing and adding to my collection of Irish Memorials of Deeds -  more than 6,000 so far - I have often identified with poor, confused Alice. Down the rabbit hole! While Method and Madness may be the name of an Irish Whiskey that I enjoyed on a recent visit to Ireland, it could also be a good description of my research approach. Falling into rabbit holes may be utterly crazy-making, to me and to Alice, but it does open up one’s head to new ways of seeing. 

As part of trying to better understand the lives of shared ancestors, I have started documenting collateral lines – aunts, uncles, cousins and such. Quite revealing. Plus, I have been digging into the leases of their neighbours. As a realtor might say, Location. Location. Location – or perhaps more accurately in this case: Rabbit-hole, Rabbit-hole, Rabbit-hole. You can check out the recent update of my collection of Irish Memorials of Deeds, to  see where it might take you. Who knows? (Updates include adding more hyperlinks to the original sources, as well as links to townlands, and to relevant family trees.)

As a result of one recent rabbit hole, I ended up with enough data to create a Purefoy Family Tree. Why that particular rabbit-hole? Well, I had found that two William PUREFOYs – cousins of each other – had held leases bracketing land in Clonad in Kings Co. (aka Offaly), land which had been granted to a Francis JACKSON in 1667. Decades later, other JACKSONs lived nearby. Would the leases of the PUREFOYS lead me to an earlier ancestor? Also: Why did Francis JACKSON not continue to lease that land?

Of course nothing in Irish history or geography is ever simple. There are three townlands called Clonad in Co. Offaly (aka Kings Co.), but the one that we need here is the Clonad in Parish Clonsast, Barony Coolestown. The page that I then did of a Purefoy Family Tree became an example of the fun that happens when others respond to shared data. The photos which David H. Molony of Tipperary, sent to me after I first uploaded that post, give that family story some added snap and meaning. When I then assembled a page on PUREFOY deeds, it became easy to see a few PUREFOY-JACKSON links worth following up on. While there were no slam dunks, sometimes the breadcrumbs lead to breakthroughs. Not that I have yet found out who this Francis JACKSON was (am still exploring several options).

More recently, I also started tracking and adding transcriptions of leases held by other folk who simply shared my Irish family surnames: JACKSONs, OLIVERs, etc . It turns out that families in the merchant class, many of whom had made their living in the linen trade, either parked a son in convenient ports to handle the shipping end of things, or else they made sure that their daughters married someone who could take that on. This is why families with access to ports in Dublin, Drogheda, Dundalk, Belfast, Coleraine, and Cork etc. often turn out to be connected to family homes in other counties. In Ireland when it comes to the expression  follow the money one should also add the caveat of follow the land.

In Ireland, the upper middle class of the 18th & 19th century included merchants, tradesmen, and “strong farmers”. Many of them finalized their legal agreements by shaking hands in front of witnesses in nearby pubs or else over Strongbow’s tomb in Christ Church Cathedral. The signatories in the memorials of these agreements were labelled as Esq.,  Gent, or often just as plain Mr. A few were described as widow, relict, spinster or Mrs. There was quite a range when it came to status.

I often imagine the lives of these people when I visit Ireland and walk past The Brazen Head Pub (est. 1198), or else stand beside Strongbow’s tomb in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. I imagine how they dressed, how they walked, what their voices sounded like, and what the air around them smelled like. If I stand there long enough, I can even imagine the whiff of the powder from the wigs worn by the Esqs. or the earthy scent of manure on the pant cuffs of those Gents who still actively farmed. Being there, on the land, and giving free rein to imagination is all part and parcel of embracing the total picture.

 People will tell you where they've gone They'll tell you where to go But till you get there yourself
You never really know
From Amelia by Joni Mitchell

PS If you have read this far, your reward is this racy doodle added by some long ago clerk or reader sketched on the parchment of one of the Townland Indexes. I wonder if they ever got caught. The speech bubbles are a little hard to read but say: (The Major) How dare you since I married you. The woman (with the head of a bird?) replies: So you did you Villein