World History Blog

Some Anglo-Irish ancestors

March 10, 2015 Posted by Peter Britton Some Anglo-Irish ancestors

Last week my brother and I started going through the family papers and other items which my Mum, who died recently, has left. One thing we came across was a book about the history of one side of my Dad’s family. I had known vaguely that this book existed but actually reading it has been a real treat.

One thing that rather alarmed me about the family was how frequently they married first cousins. The family concerned was called the Harveys, and they were country gentry living in the northernmost tip of Ireland, on the peninsula of Inishowen, in County Donegal. They lived at Malin Hall, in the township of Malin. The gentry of the neighbouring townships were the Harts, the Gages and the Youngs. Over the generations these families repeatedly intermarried amongst themselves.

I was aware that members of royal families (in Europe, at least) frequently married first cousins, as did members of the nobility. In this little corner of Ireland exactly the same thing was going on.

You would have thought there would be some insanity in these ancestors of mine, wouldn’t you. So far as I am aware there is none in the family (though my wife has some doubts!). 

In fact, I suspect that all human beings are products of such marriages at some time in our family histories. Given how small and isolated many communities were before the onset of railways, telephones and other forms of modern communication, it must have been the case that close relatives married one another on a regular basis. In parts of the Middle East (according to the article on cousin marriages in Wikipedia) as many as half of all marriages are between first cousins, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was true in many parts of the pre-modern world.

In the case of my ancestors, the Harveys and their neighbours, they lived in a corner of Ireland almost cut off from the outside world by its geography. These gentry families were also cut off from the majority of the population by religion (they were Anglicans, most of the population were Catholics), language (they spoke English, most spoke Gaelic), culture and social rank (in those days an important factor in life). The families clearly had a great deal of trust in and affection for one another: when some of the members of this group were abroad on military, government or missionary service, they entrusted the looking after of their children to each other.

I feel slightly uncomfortable about this ancestry of mine: these were people who belonged fair and square to an alien ruling class lording it over a colonised population. But there’s not a lot I can do about that now; and in any case, they’re not the only ones - I also have slave-owning plantation owners amongst my ancestors (and also slaves too). However, reading this book gave me a strong sense that these Anglo-Irish genrtyfolk were, at a personal level, good and kind people. Reading it has made me long to go to the Inishowen peninsula. I’m sure it would give me an insight into their lives which would otherwise be impossible to acquire. I intend to go.

Repeated marriages between cousins within a group of gentry families in Northern Ireland makes for uncomfortable reading for their descendant (me)!

Peter Britton

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