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Tombstones Lie

Unravelling family fictions

Tombstones Lie

It was a small collection of four faded photographs of people who I believed had shaped my destiny. Two of them I had never known, except through what I would find was the dishonest narrative of family history. It was my starting point. I set out originally to search for clues to my father’s paternity. To fill in what had been, to him, the shameful blank on his birth certificate, that was, I knew, hidden in a brown envelope in the front drawer of the sideboard between the pools coupons and the Christmas cards.

Through a web of secrets, lies, half-truths and fantasy I would learn, not that elusive name, but so much about two strong, flawed, independent unmarried mothers who had done everything they could, in a judgemental world blighted by poverty and illness, to raise their beloved children and give them a name — just not the name I was looking for.

It was in the blood. Quite literally. I inherited my da’s blood group and passed it on in turn to my daughter. Rare might be too pretentious an adjective, but it’s shared by only around eight per cent of the Irish population. Surely that might narrow the field? DNA sites beckoned.

I was always curious; children love a mystery, a sense of adult secrets, of carelessly dropped clues carefully stored for later examination. Approaching sixty, I realised how viscerally deep runs the need to know who we are, where we come from, what powers our very existence. It was time to make this a priority. And, as is my lifelong habit, to write about it, every stage of the journey — not just the breakthroughs and disappointments, but its emotional impact on me, and, as a third strand, a sociological record of how nineteenth and early twentieth-century Ireland treated its unmarried mothers and their children. I knew it would be grim, but not how grim. And I realised that what had held me back for so long was the fear of what I might find. Or that I might fail.

One of the photos is a studio postcard of a tall, angular, smartly dressed young man with a predominant nose and aquiline features. Our family are small and squat, soft of feature. Tam McCall was my granda — but then again, he wasn’t. Da never called him his father. No one did. He was Tam, usually pronounced with a frown, a scowl, or a casting of the eyes heavenwards. Or could it be that no one wanted him to be their father?

Da was born in 1914. Pregnant, single women had few choices: shotgun weddings; the laundry (and there were, I would find, Church of Ireland, as well as Catholic, laundries, operating on the same dehumanised principles); ‘self-harm’, as suicide was euphemistically called, so as to ensure a Christian burial; the living lie of having the child raised as a ‘wee late one’ by her own parents, as she, the birth mother, was often disappeared from society, if finances allowed: England; America; Holy Orders; anywhere.

All through his life as a schoolmaster, Da fought the corner of the illegitimate, insisting they knew their ‘right’ names: ‘He’s down as x on the register but should be y, you know.’ Because he had been an x. What he used as his third Christian name was, in fact, his mother’s surname – Millar – the name she went by until she married Tam, an ill-fated and intermittent union that concluded only with her untimely death. Sometime before World War II, Da began using both surnames in a misguided and belated attempt, perhaps, to protect the reputation of the vulnerable, broken woman that was his mother. Or had the guise been necessary for professional respectability? He had, as they said, ‘made something of himself.’

My elder sister was curious. She wouldn’t undertake a search herself – she is far away – but she was keen to know. She imagined doomed love across the class system, the Irish Sea, the Atlantic; secret trysts and plans thwarted by fate. I looked for suggestions of sexual abuse or incest, poverty and desperation. This says more about the differences between my sister and me than anything else.

And I had my natural journalistic curiosity, my researcher’s experience.

These were my resources, along with my honest witnesses: the internet, the General Register Office of Northern Ireland and a small folder of four photographs.

The photographs: sepia, blurred, creased. I spread them out in front of me.

Da, the fair-haired boy, in a ridiculously incongruous starched sailor suit with button boots, standing beside an ornate rocking horse. Taken in a Belfast studio.

Maggie, an older woman whom he referred to as Granny, ‘but wasn’t really my granny’. She was his champion, his refuge, his rock.

Jinny, his mother, outside the house in The Row where they all lived, in neighbouring damp and dilapidated terrace houses, her beloved fair-haired boy clinging to her leg.

Tam, Jinny’s latecomer husband, his expression one of bravado and arrogance, his eyes cold and distant.

I scrutinise them under the magnifying glass, yearning for a trace of the likeness that isn’t there.

After months of dismantling the legends woven about Da’s troubled upbringing, of pointless wanders through overgrown graveyards, speculative purchases of birth, marriage and death certificates of people who were no genetic connection whatsoever, a kindly researcher in the Government Records Office handed over a copy of the document that had been hidden from us in his lifetime — Da’s original birth certificate, the father’s name a blank. Then she gently interrupted my concentration.

‘Would you like to see your granny’s birth certificate?’

Even as I was repeating the family legend that she didn’t have one, or it had been lost forever, it was being placed in my hand.

My Granny Jinny was one of a big family. She was herself illegitimate, father unknown. And her mother was Maggie, the older woman who had been Da’s saviour and a refuge for his troubled mother, without ever being free to claim them for what they were — her daughter and grandson.

What kind of courage does that take, to hold out against adoption only to watch your own flesh and blood grow up nearby but forever unacknowledged? Maggie, I salute you. I know I couldn’t do it.

More was to come. Da’s half-brother, who drowned in mysterious circumstances as a child, had also been registered as illegitimate. He was conceived while Jinny’s husband Tam was away fighting in WW1. The returning POW had made it his business to have this recorded officially. Unusual for the time, I asked? ‘Very unusual.’ Could that little dead boy have been my full uncle?

Eventually, I found granny Jinny’s grave. Dying in near poverty, she was given the gift of a shared plot and rests under the surname of that family.

Tombstones lie.

That was the title I gave my imagined memoir, written for my daughter and generations unborn. I wanted to do what I have tried to do as a journalist — to record history as honestly as I can. I shared sections of the work in progress at writers’ events and was surprised and humbled by the reaction it got. So many identified with it. We were not alone. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland agreed it merited a wider audience and supported me professionally and financially in its publication. The stories of single mothers’ strength, courage and determination that were told during discussions on its tour were as chilling as they were life-affirming.

My grandfather’s name remains unrecorded. In a final quirk of fate, after publication, and through a DNA site and the generosity of another genetic outcast of the same man, I received a copy of the family tree with the name of our shared great-grandfather. It made sense. I have no desire to intrude on this family, nor does she.

I am heart sore for my granny and great granny. I am angry for them. I am overwhelmed by love.

Above all, I am proud, proud to be another daughter in a tradition of strong-minded, often unconventional, flawed, working women. I am born of mill-girl stock. I am a Millar. Rest in peace, Maggie and Jinny. And thank you.

Felicity McCall was a BBC radio and television news journalist covering twenty years of the Conflict in the north of Ireland. She is the author of more than twenty books, twelve plays for professional stage, and four screenplays.

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