Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Dear Reader,

There's been (at least from my limited prospective) a recent upsurge in interest in genealogy. Ten years ago I couldn't have imagined seeing television ads for websites that specialize in family trees. Now you see them all the time, common looking people touting how they didn't know great granddad lived next door to the famous Mr. X or that great-great grandma had a fascinating career as a secret agent spying on the Confederates and passing the info on to Grant in the form of coded tatting. They're very persuasive commercials, offering the possibility that the viewer springs from uncommon stock - that you are special because someone you are related to was special. That in this world of conformity and ever contracting borders, there might be someone in your family tree who struck out into the wilderness, tamed the unknown, tested themselves against the world and came out with more than a six-figure paycheck to show for their efforts.

I'm not knocking genealogy. My mother spent hours behind a humming electric typewriter, carefully recording information she found in the dusty back rooms of various libraries. Women of the 19th century told their story in quilting and mom told hers in leaf-thin pages of type held together in scavenged three-ring binders. For all of mom's typing and researching, I don't have a single spy or famous neighbor to talk about. Oh there are a few scoundrels (bootleggers and petty criminals including my grandfather who's been accused in family lore of 'borrowing' automobiles from alleyways as well as cooling pies off windowsills) but there are many more average folks running stores, planting corn, and working in factories.

The truth is that most of us spring from 'common' folk who lived simple lives. Consider that in 1910, a little over a hundred years ago (a couple of generations), the most common occupations were farmer and farm laborer. People either owned land that they tilled or tilled land that someone else owned. They worked hard to support their families, scratching a living out of the land and living by its rhythms; heroic in its own right without the necessity for famous neighbors.

Still, in spite of the heroism of the common man and woman, the desire to be special remains. I feel it every time I see one of the commercials I mentioned earlier. I feel it even more in March due to St. Patrick's Day and my family's (at least purported) Irish lineage. So, I did a little searching and came up with the following hopeful tidbit:

"Recorded as Madain, Madden, Maddin, Madigan and MacAvaddy, this is a famous Irish surname. It derives from the pre 10th century Old Gaelic name O'Madain, translating as the descendant of the son of the hound. The hound is famous in Gaelic heraldry having the virtues of speed, endurance, and loyalty. Most Irish surnames originate from a chief's nickname. O'Kennedy, for instance means the male descendant of the ugly headed one! The O'Madain's originated from lands on the River Shannon in County Galway, at one time holding over 25,000 acres. Even today name holders are still numerous in that part of Ireland. The Madigan branch of the clan are regarded as almost exclusively a Clare-Limerick family, although a branch are to be found in Counties Antrim and Derry in Ulster. Richard Madden, (1798 - 1886) was the author of the book 'The United Irishman', whilst many name holders emigrated to either America or England during the infamous 'Potato Famine' of 1846. Walter Madden, his wife Mary and their children Richard aged five and Alice, a baby sailed from Galway, bound for New York on the ship 'Junius ' on May 1st 1846. The first recorded spelling of the family name is believed to be that of Dermot O'Madadhain. This was dated circa 1100 a.d. He was chief of the Ui Maine, Connacht, during the reign of King Henry 1st of England, known as 'The Just", 1100 - 1135."

Being an aspiring writer, the bit about Richard Madden struck me most. There, of course, is no concrete connection between myself and the doctor, writer, abolitionist, and historian of the United Irishmen however the romantic in me would like to concoct one. One writer bridging himself to another writer, a writer who penned works 123 years ago during a time of turmoil and change. That's the sort of thing that can either inspire you or make the fiction you compose seem tawdry and pointless! Maybe I shouldn't go looking too hard for the ancestral wellspring from whence my literary desire flows. Maybe I'll find Niagara Falls and be so intimidated as to turn back to the shallow, current-less lagoons of a tamer life. That possibility is doubtful. I've never found comfort in fitting in (come to think I've never fit in) so under the glassy surface of the familial harbor lay sharp reefs on which to flounder. Better to point myself toward the horizon and all the unknown wonders it holds.

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