Current Projects | Family History

valerie whiffen

In Their Shoes

A few years ago, I started researching our family history. This project began as a Father’s Day gift for my Dad because he always said he didn’t know anything about his family. By the time I finished, I realized that I’d learned a great deal more than random facts about my ancestors. I had solved a hundred little mysteries from my childhood, and identified family patterns that go back generations. This book is intended to be aspirational. I want to show you how you can learn about your ancestors and in doing so enrich your understanding of who you are.

A Teaser

When I was growing up, some stories about my family were repeated so often and with such conviction that I accepted them to be absolutely true. One of the keystone stories concerned my parents’ marriage. By any reckoning, my parents had a wildly successful marriage. They are probably the most happily married couple I have ever known. So happily married that I can count on one hand the number of times I saw them disagree. Believe me, it was quite a shock when I started having my own relationships. Despite their obvious attachment and affection for each other, the story of their marriage is that both sides of the family opposed it. The wedding photograph is almost comical. My father’s mother wears black, ostensibly because she is in mourning, but I remember enough of her from my childhood to know that she also was making a point. My mother’s father doesn’t look any more cheerful. He stands at the back of the crowd, a grimace fixed to his face.

As I got older, my mother’s sister and her husband made their antipathy for my Dad explicit. They enumerated the points of difference between the families as proof. Dad was a Londoner; Mom grew up in the “Home Counties” or London suburbs. His family was working class; hers was middle class. She was Church of England; he was Catholic. But these differences were dwarfed by one simple distinction: he was Irish and she was English.

Unless you’ve grown up in the UK, it’s hard to appreciate the disdain directed toward the Irish. Many Irish were uneducated and rough. They were former tenant farmers, peasants accustomed to poverty, who were willing to take on the most arduous physical work to earn a living. At the same time, they felt that a job wasn’t a job without a perk: some barely legal or outright illegal way of making an extra shilling. The Fawlty Towers episode in which Basil hires Irish workers to move a door captures the stereotype. After procrastinating and prevaricating, they eventually move the wrong door. So to call my father Irish was to label him uncouth, shifty, law-breaking, lazy, and probably stupid. The fact that my father was the opposite – refined, conscientious to a fault, hard-working and one of the best-read people I’ve ever met -- had no impact on my mother’s family’s evaluation of him.

I’ve always identified with my Irish ancestors. My father’s mother, Lizzie, told her family that she had attended a convent school in Galway on the West Coast of Ireland. Her father, she claimed, was a British soldier who met her mother while he was stationed in Ireland. I embraced the story. I cultivated friendships with Irish colleagues, listened to gritty Irish music, watched obscure Irish films, read Irish fiction. I photographed the streets of Galway. I ate potatoes and cabbage. I even named my son Niall in the belief that I was proudly one-eighth Irish.

I first tried to research my father’s family during a trip to Ireland in 2014. I was new to genealogy research and I had read that I needed to go to the records office in Dublin to find my grandmother’s birth certificate. Irish government records are not available online and have to be searched in person. I knew her birthdate and her father’s surname, but she proved impossible to find. After a frustrating day and several wasted euros in photocopy charges, I gave up. A few weeks later, my husband and I were staying on the south coast of Donegal. He left me alone at the B ’n’ B to walk the high cliffs of Slieve League. A bit bored and frustrated by my experience in Dublin, I searched the 1911 Irish census, which is available online for free. Nothing. Then, on a lark, I paid a small sum to browse the 1911 UK census. I couldn’t find a single Irish-born woman with Lizzie’s name and birth year. But as a researcher, I’m accustomed to working with data sets that won’t give up their secrets. I decided to relax the requirement that the woman had been born in Ireland. Up Lizzie popped, along with her mother and six brothers and sisters whose names my father had given me.

Lizzie wasn’t born in Ireland and it’s highly unlikely that she ever attended convent school in Galway. She was born in the London borough of Marylebone in north-west central London. Working backwards, I found her mother, Jane, who also was born in London in the borough of Paddington. Then Jane’s mother, Mary Ann, who was born in St. Giles-in-the-Fields. St. Giles was a very rough district of London populated by Irish migrants. Nicknamed “Little Ireland,” it is widely considered to have been one of the worst slums in English history. It may have been an Irish slum, but it wasn’t Ireland. I finally hit actual born-in-Ireland with Mary Ann’s husband, five generations ago. Richard, my 2nd great-grandfather, was born in Dublin in 1832.

How could this be?

I wasn’t shocked that my grandmother had lied about her birthplace. But I was a little surprised. As my brother asked skeptically: why would any English person claim to be Irish? I couldn’t answer him at the time, but I think I know now. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned through researching my family’s history is that everybody’s story has a slant, and what people are claiming to be is always an improvement on what they actually are. I’ve also learned that you have to understand the context to understand one individual’s apparently inexplicable behaviour.

What really shocked me were my Dad’s childhood memories. How could he have believed his mother to be Irish and himself to be half-Irish? How could he have remembered visiting “the Irish mob” as he called them -- his relatives in Paddington -- as a child? These people would have been his mother’s brothers and sisters, all of whom were born in London, as well as his London-born grandmother. They would have spoken with London accents. Yet my father believed them to be Irish. The fact that this part of my family still identified as Irish after living nearly 100 years in England is a testament to the strength of the Irish identity.

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