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


  1. Wow, Sharon! What a privilege to walk these thought-worlds with you!