My English roots
After my father died in 1980, my eldest brother began to research our family history, particularly on my father’s side. We come from quite humble backgrounds, of working class and farming stock, in the English Midland counties of Derbyshire and Staffordshire.
Through his shrewd and determined genealogical detective work, Martin has been able to trace the BULL line (my paternal grandmother’s family) directly back to the 1480s, some 18 generations if I have interpreted his data correctly. But for several of the branches of the ‘Jackson’ family tree (JACKSON specifically, TIPPER, and HOLLOWAY) he’s also been able to trace back our ancestry to the 17th and 18th centuries. Surprisingly, it’s only a few generations back to the 18th century, to my great-great-great grandfather John Jackson, born in 1793. And, as someone with a keen – if amateur – interest in history, I find it fascinating to try and understand events contemporaneous with my family’s ancestry.
The Irish connection
My mother’s family came from Ireland, but making genealogical progress for this side of the family seems much more problematical. Even before the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, the Irish had already begun to move away from the island of their birth in the hope of finding a better life elsewhere. Emigration accelerated dramatically as a consequence of the Famine, but the everyday politics and economics of life in Ireland had their effects as well. So finding where everyone might have ended up would take some serious genealogical research – if indeed it is possible.
My English teacher at high school, Frank Byrne, had family from Co. Roscommon, and on the syllabus the year I took my exams was the poetry of Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats. Mr Byrne brought this poetry alive, with tales of Irish kings, and patriots and literati, friends of Yeats, such as Maud Gonne, John Macbride, and Lady Gregory, among others.
I’ve often delved into Irish history, and most recently finished reading Story of Ireland – In Search of a New National Memory, by Neil Hegarty that accompanied a series on the BBC in 2011 (I’m not sure how I came to miss that at the time). It’s a well-written, easy read that takes you through the ages of Irish history: the ravages and early impact of the Viking raids and settlements; the shenanigans of the Plantagenets and Tudors; the brutality of the Oliver Cromwell years; the ‘Glorious Revolution’, King James II and the Battle of the Boyne; the advent of Presbyterianism and rise of sectarian politics and intolerance in the north; the aspirations of many generations for Home Rule; and the incompetence of successive British governments during the 19th and early 20th centuries in addressing and managing the Irish question, sometimes simply neglect, that ultimately led to the rise of nationalism and its consequences.
My Irish grandparents, Martin Healy and Ellen née Lenane, hailed from Co. Kilkenny and Co. Waterford, respectively. Like many young Irishmen, my grandfather – at the age of almost 16 it seems – joined the British Army (controversially, as seen through nationalist eyes), serving in the Royal Irish Regiment for 12 years, seeing service in India (in the North West Frontier) from 1894-99, and also in South Africa during the Boer War for almost three years from November 1899. He took part in the Defence of Ladysmith in Natal Province. What is particular ironic is that he probably faced fellow Irishmen, members of an Irish Brigade, fighting on the side of the Boers. Still legally ‘British citizens’ they risked being shot as traitors if captured. However, they were offered Boer nationality at the outset of the campaign.
After military service, my grandfather moved to London and joined the Metropolitan Police, marrying my grandmother in 1905. She was living in southwest London – in Wimbledon – at the time of their marriage, and had probably moved to England some time before looking for work. Her father was a farmer.
While serving with the police, my grandparents lived in London’s East End in Stepney, where my mother was born in 1908. Granddad took part (so my mother once told me) in the ‘Battle of Stepney’ gunfight in 1911 (also known as the Siege of Sidney Street). He left the police force in 1928, and retired to Epsom in Surrey; he died in 1954. My grandmother died two years earlier.
Making sense of the Healy-Lenane family tree (including the PHELAN and FITZGERALD lines) will be a challenge, although my brother has made some progress. My grandfather, born in 1876, was the fourth child of seven, and my grandmother (born in 1878), eighth of nine (I’m not sure how many survived childhood). And no doubt their parents had many siblings who joined the diaspora in waves to find new lives in the USA, Canada and the Antipodes, as well as mainland Britain.
But through the horrors of the Famine, the various disturbances related to the Home Rule campaigns culminating in the Easter Rising of 1916 and its aftermath, and the founding of the Irish Free State, I do wonder how my Healy-Lenane family fared, which side they supported during the year-long civil war of the early 1920s, whether they joined the IRA, and if they suffered violence at the hands of the Black and Tans? And how did my grandparents, living in England, view the events taking place in their native Ireland at this time?
I was born a little over 100 years after the Irish Potato Famine had ravaged the Irish countryside, bringing untold miseries to hundreds of thousands of the rural poor. Redcliffe Salaman recounted harrowing tales of the Famine in his seminal The History and Social Influence of the Potato (originally published in 1949). For 20 years from 1971 my own research focused on the potato. I had opportunity to see for myself the immense damage caused by potato blight (Phytophthora infestans), researching new sources of genetic resistance to this devastating fungal disease. Perhaps my Irish ancestry predisposed me to work on potatoes.
When we moved to Leek in 1956 we became very close with one Irish family in particular who came from Youghal, near where my grandmother was born. But there were several other families of Irish origin who sent children to the same Catholic primary school; and at high school (run by Irish Christian Brothers) in Stoke-on-Trent, I encountered even more.
In recent months I’ve tried to understand more about the recent history of the island of Ireland, and what were the circumstances and origins of the Troubles that blighted our country for more than three decades from the late 1960s. Irish history is complex and convoluted. Memories are long, and wounds take a long time to heal. Uncovering how my family played a part in this story is the beginning of a long voyage of discovery.