Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book Review: A Twisted Root by Patricia Craig

A Twisted Root - Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland  is by Belfast author Patricia Craig, critic, anthologist and newspaper and journal contributor. The book traces the stories of her ancestors through Irish history and the title hints of some of the complicated stories that the reader is about to learn. The cover design of a bare tree with its roots reaching down below makes us think of the hidden stories that have a habit of emerging unbidden, enforced by the Paul Muldoon line of poetry on the opening page, 'For history's a twisted root...'
In these days of ancestry websites, we have all become more interested in our past, and Craig provides her own family tree impressively reaching back to 1585. What Craig claims to have wanted from this book is to show how interlocked everyone is in Ireland, whatever their religious persuasion, indeed if any; not a family history, but a blend of history and family, autobiography and social comment  whilst discovering her lineage to be a heterogeneous one.
Belfast has a sectarian history, that's no news to anyone, in its literature and in its social history- some more obvious than others. "Wear Kelly's Boots to Trample the Papists", the shoemaker's advert ran, with the name Kelly being the thing that interested Craig more, the changes of allegiance down through history-the twisted root. Starting out with Katherine Rose, born in 1585 in Stratford Upon Avon, the same year as Shakespeare's daughter, it is her journey that brings the family to Ulster. Early disruption of settlers is illustrated with a contemporary print of settlers being massacred in Portadown, the caption of which reads 'Driving men, women and children by hand: reds upon the briges(sic) and casting them into rivers, who drowned not were killed with poles and shot with muskets' and Craig tells us that the deposition, even allowing for exaggeration makes for a harrowing read.

Reference is made to the Scullabogue atrocity and her family, accompanied by a still horrifying drawing dating from 1845. 1870 brings Craig's ancestors to Dublin and employment as coachman and governess to the Lord Chief Justice. But it is the tragedy of a death through misdiagnosis that seems to really bring Craig into contact with her dead relatives in an emotional way, as we have so often seen when sad news is revealed despite the distance of years on TV's Who Do You Think You Are?, "I blamed the doctor for Lily's death...leaving a ruptured and grieving household behind her."
A photograph of the author's aunt in her ankle-length manly coat and hat from the 1920s show her to be a tough no-nonsense countrywoman and through her German-Palatine surname gives an insight into another twist in the root. To further add to her confusion, Craig reveals that not one of her four great-grandmothers had an Irish name; getting to the bottom of this reveals several interesting domestic complications. Craig's mother was in the minority of women who attended Queen's in Belfast, graduating in 1937 and working in the censorship office during the war. The Troubles could not be skipped over. Craig states that bad times began in earnest in 1969 having simmered away for five decades, Rev. Ian Paisley reared his head and civil rights marches took place.
 1969 Civil Rights marches
With her family Craig manages to walk us through many of the major events of Irish history as well as interspersing it with references to Irish literature. There are family photographs, and these serve to humanise the sometime distant historical characters. This book and research that obviously accompanied it is Craig's journey to decide her own identity; "I haven't always been so dismissive of the Orange Order" she states, "before I knew any better...perched on my father's shoulders, I'd have waved a flag as merrily as any Shankill Billy-Boy."
This book is hard to categorise; Craig's approach to her subject is indicative of her scholarly writing for literary publications. It has a somewhat academic style to it which does not make it light reading despite the interweaving of her own family history but it will be of great interest to anyone with a passion for Irish history, biography, social history or genealogy. It is despite its depth a very rewarding read as we follow Craig's own journey into the discovery of her family, their twists in their identities and how they fit into the Irish historical pattern.

Published by The Blackstaff Press

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