Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Just a family story or the absolute truth?

In doing genealogy we often hear that we are to look askance at those family stories grandmother told us. More myth than truth, we've been told. So look to the records and turn our backs on the stories, was the advice. Hmmm. Bad advice.

I was thinking about this today when I was reading about the Irish story teller or seanachie. Story telling is a long tradition in Ireland and other Celtic areas. It's more than just a tradition, it's an art, really. There was no written record of the stories of each clan so it was the oral tradition that kept the very life and history of each clan alive. Additionally, bards were paid by the chieftain to tell the clan stories for education as well as to make up new stories for entertainment.

I know in my own family lines where the Irish tradition was kept and held dear, the family story had an honored place. Grandmothers were the tellers of stories and did it with pride and passion. They instructed the children of each generation with a serious intent that they all learn and remember the stories, the better to know who they were and who they came from. The stories helped define us as a clan in the New World.

Now I have a better grasp of which generations could read and write and had the option to make a written documentation of the family stories. Yet, they didn't do that. The written word was for the bible and legal matters, not family stories. Family stories were like a special treat, told only if you were good and sat quietly and listened. We loved the vast supply of stories told for entertainment and still retell them even today. Only now am I sorting out which stories were meant to educate us.

On my Mom's side, my 2nd great grandmother was born in Ireland and came here as a young girl. Mary Elizabeth Farrell was born 22 November 1835 and migrated with her parents and young sister, Catherine. They came in the years just before the Irish Famine, and we wonder if they saw the handwriting on the walls and got out. Or were they residents in one of the harsh Alms Houses and offered passage to get them off the government's rolls. We have yet to check the records in Ireland in any serious way, but we have a clue about where to look given to us by Mary Catherine herself!

My grandmother was Emma (Whetstone) Williams (1897 - 1956). She loved family and was proud to be first a Whetstone and then a Williams, two families with proud histories in the Western Maryland area where she lived. Her own grandmother was Mary Elizabeth (Farrell) House (1835 - 1919), who came from Ireland, and told the children stories she wanted them to remember. Mary Elizabeth told Emma that they came from the place in Ireland where St. Patrick drove out the snakes.

Yeah, I can hear the skeptics who dismiss such stories as bunk. I hear you loud and clear. But this is not just any family legend of made up stuff spun together out of the shadows from a fire on a winter's night. This is different.

It's an Irish origins story. Let me break it down for you. It's Irish. There are drinking stories and infant stories and fairie tales, and harvest stories, and summer horse race stories and more, much more. We are very particular about the type of stories we're telling. So this story of our family coming from the place in Ireland where St. Patrick drove out the snakes is a family story that conveys family history. And it's an origins story. You don't mess with origin stories especially family origin story. You can mess with drinking stories all you want, and are encouraged to do so. But do not mess with the family origin story.

And look what Mary Elizabeth did there! She wanted her descendants to remember where their people had come from so she put it out in the most memorable way possible. She said, where St. Patrick, the very patron saint of the land, did the most flamboyant (at least to my mind) act of his life. The very place where he drove the snakes out. Supposedly. But you see it doesn't matter if he did or didn't. This isn't about St Patrick or what he did. It's about remembering an important aspect of one family's story and putting emphasis on it in such a way that it is remembered.

See what I mean? So don't go and dismiss that family story outright because some guy with a blog says you should. Ask yourself what kind of a story-telling tradition your people came from. Are there different kinds of family stories? Then ask if your story is a frivolous one that entertains or a big import one about who your family was and what happened to them. And remember it might not be the best, most riveting full-blown epic story. It might simply be a short description of something that happened to your people, some time, some place. A bit of a fragment might be all that's left of that epic saga of the history of your clan. Is this a story for education or entertainment? That's a big clue.

My advice to you is to treasure that family story because it very possibly is the real deal.

The URL for this post is: http://nutsfromthefamilytree.blogspot.com/2014/12/just-family-story-or-absolute-truth.html 

No comments:

Post a Comment