Last week, I learned something interesting and unexpected about myself. Ancestry.com announced that they had refined their ability to determine the ethnic affiliations in DNA. I logged into the site, and learned that I apparently hit the jackpot at conception. According to their research, I have every kind of Celtic blood: Irish, Scottish, and Welsh.
Some backstory would help put this in perspective. I knew about my Irish ancestors long before I spit into a tube and sent the results off to be analyzed. Someone in my mother’s family discovered that her family name, Ward, originally came from Ireland with the bards who carried it. I had also been told about some Irish blood in my father’s family, although they could trace their arrival on American soil back much farther than could my mother’s relatives, who were mostly working-class English.
My grandma on my father’s side told me about Mrs. O’Leary, whose cow supposedly kicked over a lantern in a barn in 1871, thereby causing the Great Chicago Fire. (Chicago seems to have been less urban then than it became later.) I was told that she was Irish and distantly related to me, though I would have preferred to be descended from someone more heroic or at least romantic: Maud Gonne or Dierdre of the Sorrows.
What I was innocently unaware of at the time is the way prejudice discourages people from admitting their “roots” until time and a changing zeitgeist make it more acceptable to identify as some flavour other than white-bread.
Classes in U.S. history don’t usually explain the intensity of anti-Irish prejudice, especially as the starving Irish came to New York and Boston in the 1850s, wearing what little they had. They were guilty of being poor, and most were Catholic, bringing crucifixes into a predominantly-Protestant country in which schoolchildren were encouraged to revere the “Pilgrim Fathers” (exiled English Puritans of the 1600s). In the mid-nineteenth century, Irish accents were not considered cute. They were the speech defect you had to overcome to get a decent job.
Were other Celts more acceptable? Not really.
My mother was born about two weeks before the Armistice that ended the Great War in 1918. She and her mother were both successfully isolated from the flu pandemic of the time, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the town with the biggest Welsh population outside of Wales. Scranton was coal-mining country, and I’ve been told that some of my mother’s earliest memories were of hearing Welsh coal miners singing in four-part harmony on their way to the mine at dawn. Singing was an expression of their hwl, (hool? Hoyle?), a hard-to-translate word that means soul or creativity.
My mother was descended from dour coal-miners from the north of England who apparently kept to themselves and didn’t sing, except maybe in the Methodist church they attended every Sunday.
Sometime after the Armistice, a predictable scandal happened: Thelma, my mother’s youngest aunt, began sneaking out with a Welshman named David Evans (of course). Thelma’s family, the Ainsleys, disapproved of this alliance with the wild, the disreputable, the non-English.
So David and Thelma eloped. To this day, there is a family line of at least four generations of descendants from this original “mixed” couple. Presumably, all those Evanses could have inherited some hwl, but since I’m not in that line, I’ve always felt deprived of it.
I’m the granddaughter of Blanche, Thelma Ainsley’s older sister. Just to clarify how she felt about Celtic types, consider this. I had heard Grandma, known in her youth for her flaming red hair, mention her Geordie ancestors. These were people from Newcastle, near the Scottish border. I asked her once if anyone in her family could have been Scottish. “No!” she said firmly.
Possibly not, I thought, but that reaction seemed uncomfortably similar to the way white Americans have traditionally responded to any suggestion that they might have a drop of African or Indigenous blood.
So apparently now the secret of my family is out. Not only Irish, but also Welsh AND Scottish! I could have hwl mixed with blarney, balanced by some Scottish stalwartness and general northern practicality. And that doesn’t even include various ingredients from outside the British Isles.
It seems that the forces of bigotry have never been enough to keep human beings neatly within rigid categories, and this tickles me. I like to think that lust is stronger than disapproval and ignorance. I know that mass rape during invasions also accounts for a lot of “racial” mixing, but please humour me while I’m on a roll. I prefer to imagine the romance of lovers like Thelma and Dave as a model for social change.
If I inherited a trace of hwl, that means I’ve always had it. I have no guarantee that any of this information is reliable, but in this unsettled time, I keep my antenna out for any good news I can get.
Whatever was passed down to any of us through microscopic eggs and wriggling sperm cells is exactly what we need to keep ourselves going and leave some little sign on this earth.