You know at family gatherings, when the fire is dying, it’s stupid o’clock and everyone is on the sentimental side of merry, even the teetotallers; that’s when thousands of years of racial memory kicks in and the storytelling starts. Do you remember?
We all have those moments the myths passed down as gospel, no matter how far-fetched.
De Valera stole the family bike in 1916 and never returned it. Nana saw Nelson’s Pillar blown up and kept a piece of the debris. A several-times-Great Grandfather married an Asian lady in Hong Kong and brought her home on his sailing ship… As children we are captivated by the excitement and romance, certain of truth.
As we become adults scepticism creeps in.
I want to believe, but I needed to be convinced. I wanted to put names and faces to characters, to make them real and relevant. Seeking answers I joined a Dublin’s Culture Connects project Out of the Box and was introduced to the National Archives of Ireland. My focus was the fabled Asian lady, my one claim to exotica. We were always told we had inherited our lack of height (I’m 5 foot nothing, black hair, dark almond shaped eyes and small feet – size 3) from this distant Chinese Great Grandmother. We knew nothing about her, not even her name. I wanted to be sure she had actually existed.
To date though I’m no nearer to finding her, as I’ve been seduced away by ‘Sarah the Slut’. Yes, I can hear the gasps of dismay from here. Inappropriate and disrespectful, tut tut. To be fair, the nickname is inaccurate and my daughters started it, not me, in order to differentiate several women with the same name. Sarah is my Grandmother’s Grandmother. My great great…well someone called Sarah is, and this is where the trap was sprung.
Sarah is a mystery. The Sarah named on Baptism Certificates for the children has a different surname to the Sarah named in the church records as marrying my Great Great Grandfather. I’ve spent weeks trawling through barely legible Parish papers and Census forms trying to find her. I’ve gone off on tangents, sidetracked by interesting names, and gotten lost in crowded tenements. Family lore said Sarah had been married before, but I couldn’t find a Baptism Cert for her maiden name, only one for her supposed married one. At this stage I was starting to think that there were two Sarah’s and that Great Great Grandfather James was the one who had in fact been married twice.
Under advisement from the very patient lady in the Archive, I found my way to the General Register Office where I requested the Marriage Certificate for Sarah and James. And there she was, Sarah the Slut, who really should be called Sarah the Splendid. A widow; a mother; a butcher by trade, she had managed a life for herself and her son after the death of her first husband. There was no social welfare to aid her, only her skills and her family. I’m a little in love with Sarah. I admire her spirit and courage.
I’m happy to have found her. The connection I feel to her is very real, yet totally unexpected. This woman lived in a very different Dublin than I, yet her struggles and needs are the same ones I identify with today.
I’m still looking for my mystery Asian lady but even if I never find her, it doesn’t matter. This link I found to my ancestors humanises them as people with real lives and difficulties similar to our own. We will remember them with love.
by Victoria Ní Bhraoin6