A Twisted Root

Patricia Craig delves into her mixed Irish ancestry to discover Republican activists and the founder of the Orange Order

Patricia Craig’s latest book, A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland, starts with a tour de force as she convincingly establishes that her ancestor, Katherine Rose, was a school mate of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. Then, in one of many eloquent links between past and present, she recalls her mother’s and her own love of Shakespeare.

This is not, then, a standard family history, as the past constantly illuminates the author’s own contemporary life, and in particular confronts her teenage infatuation with the ‘nonsense’ of an impossibly Irish Ireland.

Discovering yet more of her largely Protestant lineage, Craig asks, ‘Dear God, is there no end to the agitating revelations popping up like hybrid excrescences wherever I peer?’ Thus A Twisted Root becomes a companion volume to the acclaimed autobiographical, Asking for Trouble (2007).

This new history offers a series of vivid cameos of life from the 17th century onwards, in which Craig does well with the facts but fills the gaps with imaginative reconstruction of a high order.

This is true of Katherine Rose and her husband, John Tipping, amongst 51 families from Stratford-on-Avon who joined the Plantation in the Lisburn area. Craig brings to life their struggles and fears lost in an endless forest inhabited by wolves and hostile Irish woodkerne.

Come the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and some are slaughtered. Her teenage devotion to Ethna Carberry’s poem 'Brian Boy Magee' – and its charged recreation of the massacre of Catholics at Islandmagee – recedes in the face her ancestors’ fate.

Some do fine, and one, Thomas Tipping, serves in Cromwell’s army. Craig’s imagined Irish heritage, represented by Walter Macken’s book Seek the Fair Land, is dashed by an ancestor on the wrong side. She hopes that he didn’t actually massacre anyone.

In the Williamite War some ancestors die as they struggle to get to Derry, but another, William Blacker, succeeds and goes on to found the Orange Order. Craig can find little saving grace for an opponent of ‘every egalitarian principle‘. He reached big house status in the fine Carrickblacker House, and of all the crimes Craig describes, one of the greatest was its destruction to make way for Portadown Golf Club.

An 18th century Tipping goes astray and marries Esther O’Neill, a Catholic, which gives Craig a possible claim to a connection with the ‘Great O’Neill’ (the Queen has one too!), or equally with Phelim O’Neill, leader of the 1641 rebellion in which Craig’s actual ancestors were massacred.

This ever expanding tribe makes it way first in the Armagh countryside and then in the sectarian melting-pot of late 19th century Lurgan. They are variously ‘great belligerents’ on the street, British Army recruits and casualties in the First World War, and Republicans. One is implicated in the notorious assassination of District Inspector Swanzy in Lisburn in 1920. Internment and imprisonment follows.

Not so with Craig’s very bright mother, Nora. Because her father died at Gallipoli, she gets a British Legion grant to go to a fee paying convent school, and then gets to attend Queen’s University in Belfast.

Next comes another twist. She marries William Craig, a Protestant of modest background, but, crucially, in terms of Craig’s idealised teenage past, a Wexford one. She liked to imagine her grandmother as ‘a barefoot caíleen in a red cloak on a wild mountainside'.

Instead she finds family victims of the notorious 1798 massacre at Scullabogue. Now Craig tends to view the Wexford rebellion as simply a sectarian bloodbath, and yet she finds yet other ancestors venerated as United Irish supporters.

Craig makes excellent use of contemporary literature. Her mother’s commonplace book is quite a revelation. Alongside the obvious nationalist candidates we find Thomas Hardy and Wilfrid Owen. The family’s song repertoire reflects cultural debilitation: ‘most are pleasant and soporific and supposedly enshrine a devotion to Ireland even if they lack the genuine, austere or plangent note of a complex gaelic folk tradition'.

Craig is also good at fleshing out the experience of children and women, and excellent in dealing with gradations of social status. She defines the difference between a seamstress and her ‘entire condition of female lowliness and ill paid labour’, and the more elevated governess.

Being a governess could not protect you from the assaults of your employers. Such seems to have been the fate of Mathilda Heller, an unlikely German strand in the family. Craig is adept in penetrating the deafening silences that surround illegitimacy.

No wonder that she is transfixed by ‘the complexities and contradictions… in Northern Irish Life’. Perhaps mixed heritage has particularly enriched literary lives, and Craig cites Ciaran Carson, Seamus Heaney and Glenn Patterson. Yet defectors from the tribe too often assimilate to their new home with unthinking zeal.

London exile may have helped Craig achieve perspective. Scullabogue was anathema, but she still reveres the United Irish founder, William Drennan. Her brief courtship with the Peoples Democracy and the Civil Rights movement still has resonances even if hopes were dashed in a welter of violence.

But Craig is no squeaky clean disowner of violence altogether. Those Republican Tippings of the 1920s were engaged in ‘ethical strikes against a hated system’. It all makes for a compelling read.

A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland is out now, published by Blackstaff Press.