Who Do I Think I Am…Part Two (Maternal Side)

For generations…centuries even…. Irish families have lived along either side of invisible county borders….Sligo/Mayo, Armagh/Down, Meath/Dublin. Necessarily each one of the thirty two counties has a border with at least one other county.
These lines never split families and family farms until the creation of an international frontier between the Republic of Ireland and the “United Kingdom” and it brought in a new world of “approved cross-border roads”, customs posts, concession roads and the issuing of permits for residents of the Republic to live or be employed in the North of Ireland. It was of course a form of discrimination, a way for Norn Iron unionists to ensure there was no mass migration of economic Catholic migrants …and future nationalist voters…..coming over from the Republic.
There was no such legislation in England, Wales and Scotland. It was easier to travel or migrate from Galway to London than to travel or migrate from Lifford to Strabane (one mile away).
The “customs posts” and the restricted movement of people into the north did not end until both Ireland and Britain became members of the Common Market in 1973. Yet …ironically the British presence at the border was much increased in the 1970s and 1980s because of the Troubles.
Only since 1998 has there been total free movement.

One such “border family” was my mothers. Family and farm land on either side of a county line which in 1922, radically changed their way of life, which had remained much the same since James (my great grandfather) married Rose in 1858.
His son John married Catherine and they would have eleven children, the youngest my mother who was born in 1912 but as she always insisted AFTER the Titanic had sank.
John, a part-time tenant farmer would die in a work-related accident thirty years before I was born.
As I have said elsewhere, those post-Famine years and early 20th century were all about Respectability. ….Religion, hard work, total abstinence from alcohol…china cups and saucers at Sunday tea. And politics…mainstream nationalism all the way, avoid controversy as the menfolk were steered clear of militant republicanism and anything remotely “British”.
My granny Catherine died (aged 84) when I was just 4 years old…and thank GOD, I remember her.
She could be proud of the Respectability. Grandchildren who became priests, nuns, teachers and nurses.

And …land.
Land was important to the farmers.
When my mother married my Belfast father, her family bought a house for them in West Belfast. A Dowry. It may not have been much of a house …in fact it was a slum in West Belfast but the point is that my parents owned it.
My parents, my uncles and aunts are all dead now.
It would have been nice to ask them about Magdalene Laundries, orphanages, and the rest but while my generation can be forgiven for saying that we knew nothing, surely the older generation must have known something.
It is History…why suppress it?


So two weeks ago. …a phone call. Would I like to go to a funeral…or rather the dedication of a plaque on a grave, over one hundred years after the death…in the maternal home village.
Turns out my mother had a paternal cousin who died as a result of wounds sustained during the First World War.
Instantly, I said yes…but almost immediately found myself wondering.
I am after all Irish…the whole “Royal” British Legion and the English imperialism is not my cup of tea. I despise all that militarism, poppies and old soldiers parading their British heroism and wrapping it up in all that “at the going down of the sun….we will remember them”.
That might seem hard on the concept of veterans, who stormed the Normandy beaches or parachuted a bridge too far. But increasingly there are few of those veterans and in Norn Iron, a local “Royal” British Legion member is more likely to have served in Norn Iron during the Troubles. I cant seriously respect them.
Whatever…no person who ever served in the British Army can have done so in the interests of the Irish nation.
Their “service” and their “sacrifice” in WW2 or later in Kenya, Cyprus, Malaya, Aden….Norn Iron….Afghanistan, Iraq….is not part of my nations ethos.
The best they can expect from me is …Indifference.
The worst they can expect is …Contempt.

I did not know what to expect on Sunday. The short Catholic Church service, attended by a representative of the Queen of England and a handful of those blazered and bereted British Legion men and women. And my maternal cousins and their children.
And then out to the graveside…and the dedication of a marker on the grave. The British Legion piper, the British Legion bugler and standard bearer. And the Silence and all that “going down of the sun…..” stuff.
“They” stood in a neat line on the path…and “We” stood clustered together.
And afterwards a few polite words were exchanged.

and a cup of tea and sandwiches in the village hall.
I am glad I was there. My cousins were glad also.
To be there was not any comment on what my mothers cousin had done.
Family is Family.
Even after a century.

Of course what did he actually do? Left his widowed father and joined the British Army and they educated him and seven years later, he was in France fighting in World War One. And only six weeks into the war (September 1914) , he was hit in the head by a shell and he lost his right eye, most of his teeth and tongue. And he came “home” to this small village to recover.
At my grandparents house, where my mother was still a baby.

And in January 1915, he collapsed in my grandparents house and died in a local hospital. Cause of death…his wounds, menangitis and a coma. The motorised hearse making the seven mile journey from hospital to Catholic graveside must have been very high profile.
And his widow in England was doubly bereaved, losing their only child two months after his death.

But the Corporal quickly disappeared from history….BIG History and SMALL History. The grave was a family grave but there was no indication that he was in it. His name is not on the headstone.
And none of the family who attended last weeks dedication had ever heard of the Corporal. While my mother was just two years old, she must have known in later life. My older uncles and aunts who were children and young adults at the time,must have been aware.
Maybe the Corporal was a victim of the fast moving historical time in which he lived and died. Joining a “peace time” British Army in 1907 was no big deal. Dying in 1915 when unionist and nationalist volunteers were in France for very different reasons, was more problematic.
And of course after 1916, the problem became greater and bigger still after 1922 when it was apparent that the nationalists in British uniforms had lost and the unionists in British uniforms had won.

So the Corporal was airbrushed out of family history.
But also airbrushed out of his Regiment’s history. Researchers “discovered” his records a couple of years ago and entered into discussions with surviving family and the local church.
Getting an official “British” marker was in itself a problem as there was some obstacle that the cause of death was directly related to the War.
The “Corporal” is now an official casualty of the First World War.

Certainly two weeks ago, I knew nothing about this.
How do I feel? Do I feel “different”.
I will not be wearing a poppy and lamenting a soldiers death or by extension any soldier who died in British uniform.
Nothing to do with MY ethos….or the ethos of MY nation.

“Oh had they died by Pearse’s side
Or fought with Cathal Brugha
Their names we would keep
Where the Fenians sleep
Neath the shroud of the Foggy Dew”
(Canon Charles O’Neill “The Foggy Dew”)

It is all about Family. And during the course of my lifetime….and I lived my first 17 years in peace….Family and Friends and Neighbours made decisions that I did not make. And it never stopped me attending a funeral.

I am conscious that people honour veterans…either in great public displays (including lip service) at Remembrance Sunday in Britain or Veterans Day in USA…or in private ways thru helping the survivors of war deal with the trauma…poverty, addictions, homelessness, stress, physical pain or mental illness that is often a consequence of service. My mothers cousin was a veteran for just a few months and his widow may have survived him for decades.

But Norn Iron is a divided society and I suspect the Corporals memory would have been better served if he had died as a member of the Dublin Fusiliers or Connught (sic) Rangers where Time has healed. But Norn Iron is a divided community and the chomparison is best made with United States and in border States like Kentucky or (West) Virginia in the century beteeen 1861 and 1961. Possibly loyal American citizens were told about graves of ancestors who died in Confederate regiments at Shiloh and Gettysburg.

The comparison is maybe with country churchyards near Louisvillle Kentucky and Wheeler, West Virginia in 1861 and the  Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy alongside surprised relatives.

I dont suppose the Corporal joined up for any cause beyond three square meals a day and maybe he found  a degree of companionship that he did not find with his birth family. I am glad that he died “at home” with his uncle (my grandfather).

Terry Pratchett, the author who died earlier this year stated Death does not really begin until a persons life ceases to have an impact.I hope he is wrong. I am not comfortable with the thought that Oliver Cromwell can “outlive” harmless, childless people or that my parents life will not really resonate beyond my life and that their birthdays and anniversaries will mean little. In fifty years time, my birthday will mean nothing to my great grandchildren.

Death should be more…egalitarian.

There was nothing fair about the Corporals life, death or memory.




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SDLP Leadership Contest

Deja vu? When this Blog started, the SDLP was having a Leadership Contest following the resignatin of Margaret Ritchie after poor results in 2011 Assembly contest. This was in August 2011 and while I supported Patsy McGlone, I was pretty happy with the result …Alasdair McDonnell won.

Alasdair may not be popular with Norn Iron’s metrotextual blogger-bubble (Slugger O’Toole passim) and he has a solid rump of maybe 30 per cent of SDLP members against him but I think he has done pretty well in his four years in charge of the Party.

Basically Alasdair set out the challenges at a conference on 10th March 2012. He pledged to re-organise the Party and this has been largely achieved. There have been good conferences on Tourism, Victims, Health, Agriculture, Education etc…I have attended most of them and reported on many in this Blog. New Blood….Fearghal McKinney, Roisín Lynch, Daniel McCrossan, Justin McNulty, Margaret Anne McKillop and Stephanie Quigley to name just a few.

Election results…well …actually we are doing ok. While Sinn Féin lost ten council seats in 2014 and Alliance lost two (from a smaller base than SDLP), the SDLP lost just one seat. Likewise in the Westminster elections in May, Sinn Féin lost one seat and Alliance lost Saint Naomi….and SDLP held its three seats.

Importantly the Leadership seemed settled. Conall McDevitt was the heir apparent from 2011 thru to his shock resignation in August 2013. I think that was a period of relative calm.

Double-Jobbing meant Alasdair gave up his Assembly seat earlier in the summer and Claire Hanna is already making an impact as his replacement. Obviously she is personally ambitious but she is also doing a lot of good for SDLP.

Alasdair McDonnell holds the view that there is no reason why a SDLP Leader should not be a Westminster MP (Al is one of three SDLP MPs) and does not agree that the SDLP Leader should be based at Stormont (where the Party has 14 MLAs). It is a perfectly legitimate view…as is the alternative view.

For the record, I believe that the Leader should be based at Stormont. Alasdair has weakened his own position as Party Leader by not resigning or at least signalling his exit after the Assembly Election in May.


For the record, Alasdair McDonnell has been unfailingly decent to me since I started this blog and joined the SDLP. Maybe if I had remained a member after 1982 and not been away from SDLP for thirty years, I would understand or even give a damn about the personal issues involved.

I dont do factions.

Colum Eastwood was thought to be considering a run against Dolores Kelly for Deputy Leader last year so his endorsement by Brid Rodgers, who is close to Dolores seems a suprise. Is it possible that Dolores has decided to stand down as Deputy Leader, which would clear the way for….oh lets see….Claire Hanna, who is a new MLA but has vast experience and much admired by that whole “progressive”, cross-party metrotextuals crowd. And Claire has endorsed Colum.

Colum, on the other hand is regarded as on the nationalist wing of SDLP. A political balance. a gender balance and of course an East-West balance and with Derry and South Belfast carrying a lot of weight in SDLP…which added to the “Anyone But Alasdair” faction…might be enough.

I think the pairing is the one that SDLP want. The Dream Ticket. They will re-vitalise the Party.

Colum has talked about the post-Good Friday Agreement generation. Maybe its time. But I think this transition could be better handled and I still hope that it is.

Alasdair is simply a better man than any of his detractors inside and outside SDLP.

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250,000…And One

Overnight, “Keeping An Eye On The Czar of Russia” passed 250,000 Views.


I am kinda pleased. This blog was set up four years ago and has now been seen on a quarter of a million occasions. But I have been blogging and/or posting on other message boards (notably Slugger O’Toole) for at least ten years.

Blogging can be empowering but a constant reminder of just how pathetic it all is. The title of this blog references the grandiose statement of the Editor of the Skibbereen Eagle. I daresay this morning there are thousands of bloggers who are typing out their opinions of Czar Putin’s air strikes on Syria.

Because thats what bloggers are. Rather pathetic individuals who think our opinions actually matter. We are all keeping an eye on the Czar of Russia or Jeremy Corbyn or Donald Trump.

I dont really know what cyber-archaeologists will make of the ramblings of Mick Fealty, Jamie Bryson or FitzjamesHorse. Not a lot, if they have any sense.

I certainly did not take blogging seriously in 2011. The whole concept of “citizen journalists” is rendered risible by bloggers making exaggerated claims for its value. It works best when it is just a bit of craic.

The odd thing is that Blogs are not made serious because of the author. The readers make a Blog…I did not seek Gravitas. I had Gravitas thrust upon me. And in a way a Blogger has to be respectful of the compliment that readers pay the Blog by reading or commenting.

And the greatest compliment was getting to Texas to explain my thinking to post-grad students.

I have certainly lost some enthusiasm. What can any Blogger say about a dead child washed up on  a beach in Turkey? What can really be said about Donald Trump? Or DUP ministers? Or the failure of the Good Friday Agreement? Or NAMA? Or the hangers on hoping for an appointment to a local Quango? We have more unaccountable fixers than we have accountable politicians.

It is all a Silent Scream.

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Who Do I Think I Am…Part One (Paternal Side)

Most people will be familiar with the BBC Show “Who Do You Think You Are?” . In each series, famous people are guided along researching their family tree. It throws up surprises. BBC journalist is a direct descendent of William the Conquerer, Irish comedian Brendan O’Carroll had a great uncle shot dead by a British murder gang in the War of Independence. In the American version of the show, actor Kelsey Grammar discovers that his ancestors were early pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

There is of course a point where it is pointless to trace back too far. We are all each others cousins in some way.

The Irish seem to have a unique approach to Genealogy. How many homes have we visited where there is a coat of arms bearing a family crest? Yes…I have one at the door. And I have a coat of arms on my key ring and on the coaster on which I set my mug of tea….although I have never actually used the mug that I bought on the Aran Islands last year. If you are Irish and reading this, there is a fifty per cent chance that you have such trinkets. And you will know that there are not exactly authentic. It gives us a sense of “nobility”.

Of course if your name is O’Connor, O’Brien, O’Neill, you might well be a form of nobility. Mrs FJH likes to remind me that her ancestors ruled a lot of land in the Mourne Mountains, while my somewhat humble ancestors had a single field in County Offaly. Of course it is nice to be an O’Malley who had castles in County Mayo or a McCarthy who had castles in County Cork.

But the reality is that since Plantation and Conquest, we ceased to have any aspirations to nobility except for those chieftains who accepted English “re-granted” titles. But effectively we were dispersed to Hell or Connacht or more likely as peasant labour and tenat farmers to the New Order.

With our Religion banned, limitations on land ownership and limitations on education, the Irish became undocumented aliens in our own country.

Of course those who are descended from convicts transported to Botany Bay and those descended from the coffin ships that made it to New York harbour visit Ireland…to buy the key rings with the coat  of arms.

And Catholic Emancipation (1829), free education, census results makes us documented but it doesnt end the sense of degradation. We migh be documented…in prison records, ship manifests to USA and Famine workhouses.

For those really interested in the old family tree, it is best known that we are only six or seven generations away from Degradation.

Uncle Jackie (my father’s brother) warned me years ago. In every Irish family tree, there is someone hanging from a rope. He did not like questions and while my father was more approachable, they died within seven weeks of each other (and my father in a virtual coma for more than a week).

But the one historic thing that I knew was that they both claimed a connexion to the Wild Geese, which seemed unlikely and effectively disproved when I had access to the Wild Geese Database of every Franco-Irish soldier from 1692-1793 …and just one of us shows up, hopelessly under-represented and strangely proving my family’s aversion to any kind of heroism.

History and Family History has a way of inter-acting. So that my great-grandfather, born in County Monaghan joined the “Royal Irish Constabulary” ending up a sergeant before retiring around 1900. He had two sons (my grandfather Jack and his brother Bob) and he disowned them both. They married “below” their social standing….not befitting the local RIC sergeant, who was born before the Famine and had achieved Respectability.

As I only discovered three years ago, Bob married a Belfast Protestant and had a family and went to USA where he worked alongside James Larkin. Bobs wife died in USA and he came back to Ireland on the same ship as Larkin. The children were raised by their Protestant relatives and Bob went to live in Dublin where he met his second wife…romantically on a picket line during a strike by cinema and theatre usherettes. And he had a second family.

So Great Uncle Bob and his wife Kathleen were socialists. Geography and eventually Death separated Bob and my grandfather, Jack.

My grandfather died when I was 6 years old and my granny when I was 8 years old. Few but treasured memories …under-scored by repeated assertions of their kindness to everyone. Maybe my granny was in fact making the world a better place. She had been raised in the worst kind of late Victorian poverty.

The only connexion I have to my RIC Sergeant Grandfather is a glass pen with his name on it. I have no paternal cousins so the sketchy nature of the family history irritates me.

The story of all Irish Catholic families…whether in Belfast, Liverpool, Melbourne or Chicago is…the search for Respectability…and maintaining Respectability…wiping out all memory of starvation, workhouses, prisons, orphanages, illegitimacy, disease……its the story of young women, being educated by nuns to do needlework and cook….and tame the railroad workers, dock labourers thru marriage and educate their children into a better life. It is the story of tea in china cups and triangle shaped sandwiches when relatives visit on a Sunday.

Suppressing the memory for new generations was a community effort.

I cant say that I cared too much about family history in the 1960s. When I started asking questions, Uncle Jackie told me that I didnt need to know about the ones with the nooses around their necks. My father was more fortcoming …that someday we would talk about it all.

But Uncle Jackie and my father died either side of Christmas 1982.

So finally a few months ago, I put together the last few pieces of the jigsaw. The RIC sergeant comes out of this badly. His sons ….shock horror…..married ….shock horror…Protestants. And he disowned them. And in the case of my granny, a young woman who the census records was the only person in her house who could read and write.

Was that really worth suppressing?

There is an irony. And if Uncle Jackie was alive today he would “laugh his leg off”.

Thru the Wild Geese database, I established there is no family connexion to the Wild Geese.


I spent most of my time at Queens University looking at Wild Geese history, even though it was not part of any module.

Books that list the fate of every man captured in the aftermath of Culloden, including the Wild Geese Franco-Irish regiments….and sight of the State papers that lists the Wild Geese prisoners captured at sea in 1745 and 1746. …and details of their interrogation by a broadly sympathetic Captain Eyre (of Eyrecourt and who was familiar with Irish Jacobite thinking).

Eyre would have known that the prisoners were all lying thru their teeth….they claimed to be born in France, or joined the French army before the war had begun, or had been visiting relatives in France when pressed into the French Army…and as Eyre was really after Irish recruiters rather than “French” soldiers who would all be exchanged anyway….they all named people already dead as the people who had sent them off to France. In his notes, Eyre expresses amused irritation that one such recruiter from Kings County (Offaly) had been hanged for treason, for sending men off to France, including at least one who became a trooper in the cavalry regiment….Fitzjames Horse.

I smiled when I saw the name of the Wild Geese recruiter.



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Constituency Offices…#27 Paula Bradley MLA

Paula Bradley is one of three DUP MLAs in North Belfast. Nelson McCausland and William Humphreys have higher profiles. It might be difficult for DUP to retain all three seats against a challenge from a revived UUP. There is even a growing Alliance and Green threat as well as Workers Party, anti-austerity candidates and republican dissiidents threatening Sinn Féin and SDLP.


The office is situated in a small street off Carnmoney Road in Glengormley, where three offices are clustered at the boundary of North Belfast and South Antrim. SDLP and Alliance Leader, David Ford have the other offices.

Note the local Electoral Office is next door.

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Green Party Pop Up Shop…Dublin

The Green Party  have a “pop up” shop at Great Georges Street in Dublin. Lots of trendy stuff for trendy politicos. The Greens have been staging a mini-revival in Dublin although they fully deserved the kicking they got from the Irish electorate in 2011.


There is a Green Party Constituency office nearby in Suffolk Street but unfortunately the photograph I took did not turn out well.

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Who Is David McCann?

I cant help notice that David McCann has posted a piece on Slugger O’Toole entitled “Who Is Colum Eastwood?”

Colum is SDLP MLA for Foyle and a few years ago, he was the Mayor of the City of Derry when he was only 27 years old. He is now challenging Alasdair McDonnell MP for Leadership of the Party.

But who is David McCann. Well he is Deputy Editor of Slugger O’Toole. Two years ago, he told us that Claire Hanna would probably defeat Fearghal McKinney to be co-opted as SDLP MLA for South Belfast. That was the day before Fearghal won by 113 votes to 69 votes.

David also facilitated the East Belfast “selective” hustings featuring just two candidates, Naomi Long (Alliance) and Gavin Robinson (DUP). He also reads out loud …reviewing the local newspapers, every so often on UTV.

SDLP members will be familiar with David mooching about with a laptop at most SDLP events. He should not be confused with me…as I also mooch about at SDLP events….but I use an ipad.

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