Friday, 6 May
When I was about 12, I had to write a family history. Don't forget, the teacher stipulated, to explain how and why your families ended up in the United States.
Of my four family prongs, three - the McKnight, Ellis and Hastings lines - could be passably traced. The Melvin side, however, was a black hole. All my Canadian father could tell me was that his forebears were poor farmers who had come from Scotland, via Northern Ireland, to Saskatchewan in the 1850s. Perhaps because Melvin was my surname, this lack of detail troubled me, and all I really remember about writing the family history is trying to fill in the gaps, and looking on with envy while my best friend Helen, whose family came over on the Mayflower, flipped through the well-documented pages of her past.
I stared at a map of Scotland and finally decided that if they’d started here, it was probably near Glasgow, the closest city to Northern Ireland (imagine my satisfaction when I first visited in the 1980s and saw signs all over for Melvin’s Garages). Then I combed a map of Northern Ireland, desperate for hints. Finding a Lake Melvin, I latched onto it as the likely point of departure.
But the details didn't add up. Lake Melvin lies mostly in what would become the Republic of Ireland. And why had they left? The Great Famine that had caused mass Irish emigration had occurred a decade too soon, and in any case the potato blight had mostly afflicted the south and west of the country.
The real reason was undoubtedly abject poverty, but that wouldn't have filled up much space or been sufficiently compelling. So I fiddled with time lines and geography to create a credible story.
You could say that the resulting family history was my first work of fiction.
April was the craziest month. Starting with a trip to one rocky island - Corsica - followed by the limited-family Easter at home, it finished with a trip to London, then three days on another rocky island at the other end of Europe, Northern Ireland.
For all that map-gazing and creative writing, this was my first visit to the land of my ancestors. It was triggered by another Covid-fed case of urban exodus: last year son Christopher and his wife Kerry left London for the seaside town of Bangor, on the outskirts of Belfast, where Kerry grew up. He manages to do most of his barrister-ing from a distance, and she has started her own architecture practice, with a focus on environmentally sound building techniques. They traded their tiny three-room flat in Hackney for a sizeable house…
…and the congested city streets for freshly fed air.
For such a small entity, Northern Ireland is a complicated place. As home to Protestants of Scottish origin (like my - and Kerry's - ancestors), it stayed part of the United Kingdom when the rest of Ireland gained independence in 1920. Until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics made it a dangerous place to live. During The Troubles, the 30-year period that preceded the accord, over 3000 people were killed and 50,000 injured in a population of only 1.9 million. Though the two sides can still clash and Brexit has caused renewed border disputes, this detached corner of the UK is mostly peaceful now.
Our visit was certainly tranquil. We had lots of walks in the forest and along the shores.
...mother and sister came to tea.
We'd met them and other family members at the wedding last year in Scotland. Beforehand, I'd worried how the Paris-Bangor contingents would connect. It seemed we'd had such different child- and adulthoods. What would we talk about?But right from the first handshake, conversation flowed and never lagged.
Sometime between the wedding vows and the cutting of the cake, it occurred to me that what stitched us all together - Christopher's father and even step-father are half Scottish too - was the Celtic thread. We got along instinctively, primordially, you might even say.
I imagine that my Melvin ancestors, whoever they were, would be very pleased with the life their descendent Christopher has chosen. He and Kerry are even expecting a baby; late August the next generation will be born on Northern Irish soil.