I don’t know for sure who made that botanical assertion (Johnny Hart, maybe, and it was at least 40 years ago), but it’s apropos to today’s topic: Characters’ family backgrounds. (Another blogger also has made some observations on this subject.)
In Irish Firebrands, main female character Lana Pedersen is “over 50.” She’s been divorced; her children are Beth, Drew and Nick, aged 28, 25 and 22, and her daughter gets married during the story; she knew at least one of her grandfathers; and she’s familiar with journal entries about how her grandfather’s grandparents met.
Main male character Micheál Dillon Carroll, son of Micheál Carroll and Nora Donovan, was born on May 8, 1945; his father had died during Operation Market-Garden; he was orphaned at birth; his grandparents Séamas and Lucy Carroll raised him; he has no children; and Lana estimates that he’s at least 10 years older than she is. Dillon was married for 15 years; his wife, Mairéad, daughter of Alan Regan and Alice O’Connor, died in 1995; she had no siblings, but she had cousins; her mother predeceased her, and her father died about a year after she did.
Among secondary and supporting characters, Frank Halligan’s birthday is September 1, and Lana estimates that he may be about five years younger than Dillon. Frank is single; his father is dead; he had an elder brother named Stephen (who died when he was 16 and Frank was 14); and his younger siblings are Annie, Patsy, Paula (who’s 10 years younger than Frank), Kate, Jimmy and Trevor (one brother is aged 49). All of Frank’s siblings are married, with kids, four of whom are named: Conn, Aengus, Saoirse and Ian Francis, who is Paula’s eldest of five children (her husband is Declan Barron). John and Anne Sweeney have a son named Colm, and a daughter who has a baby. Lana’s friend Eilish McManus is divorced, and her only daughter, Medb, has her 18th birthday during the story.
Dillon’s family tradition is that he is descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, the first Irishman who claimed to be the High King of Ireland. Irish families may have better reasons to hold such beliefs, than do many others, because most indigenous Irish surnames are patronymic (passed down by men), and DNA and blood-type studies provide supporting evidence for some Irish family histories, although matronymic names and the practice of fosterage could have had a confounding effect.
Lana was accustomed to hearing family traditions that claimed an illustrious ancestor – usually European royalty or nobility. These apocryphal accounts generally involved an undocumented disinherited son cast off in disgrace – or an illicit love affair – or an encounter with a lord of the manor demanding the mythical ‘right of first night’. She knew that these traditions were just wishful thinking, and that if a family shared the name of a famous feudal aristocrat, it was probably because their contemporaneous ancestor was a serf of the fiefdom, who simply adopted the big man’s name when surnames became required by law. ~ Irish Firebrands, Chapter 7. ©2012-2014 by Christine Plouvier. All Rights Reserved.
Early European royalty and nobility were notorious for manufacturing pedigrees that claimed to go back to Adam and Eve, as a way of justifying their divine right to rule, but what they didn’t know was that Biblical genealogies were incomplete and unverifiable (considering the known history of the Bible, this is just common sense: the “begats” have no bearing on its revelatory value). Having famous ancestors, or even just “respectability” have nothing to do with the worth of a family’s history.
As with writing at Camp NaNoWriMo, anybody who has an interest in genealogy can do it, and can do it their own way. For example, if, like Dillon, you were raised by your grandparents, you can start with them. But although a genetically reliable family history can be medically desirable, genealogy doesn’t have to be biological: Adoptees can justifiably document as their own the families that they joined.
Like real trees, family trees can be missing branches. Some have branches that don’t fork much. Others have lots of shoots from the trunk, or suckers arising from the roots. Now and then they’ve been pruned badly, leaving short limbs sprouting sparse, small branches from the stubs. Many were grafted onto a different variety of strong, compatible rootstock.
Trees can have a twisted grain that is almost impossible to split, or weak wood that breaks easily. They can be damaged, have defects like knots, or develop deforming diseases like burls. But it’s worth remembering that weaker wood can be strengthened with the addition of plies, or it can be shaved into a veneer that beautifies another surface; wounded trees always try to heal themselves with scar tissue; “knotty pine” is a popular decorative wood; and burls can be turned into sturdy, handsome bowls.
In life, trees give us breath, feed us, protect us with their cooling shade, and they’re pleasant to look at. In death, they keep on serving us, as shelter and furniture, dishes and spoons, bibelots and books; they help us communicate; warm us with fires of their wood, or when they’re fossilized into coal; their petrochemical derivatives fuel our transportation, and take many shapes as synthetic products; and often they accompany our bodies to the grave.
Families play similar roles in the lives of their members. That’s why I think it’s important to document family trees.