Thursday, December 31, 2009

Gods, deserters and other representative Irish lives

The new Dictionary of Irish Biography is a monumental work, seeking to provide brief lives of “those names which seem most likely to be the objects of enquiry in the twenty-first century.” It was my Christmas present from Patricia. I plan to read it all the way through, roughly 27 pages a day for a year.

According to family legend, a Dillon forbear was made pregnant a long while back by her employer, a Duke of Leinster. (I’ve yet to find any corroboration for this story, but a surprising number of Dillon family legends have turned out to be true.) So, I’m possibly related – by rape, maybe – to what used to be called “the quality”. Which, thanks to the writing of Irish lives, turns out to involve a kind of apotheosis.

The Dukes of Leinster are FitzGeralds, who came to Ireland as Norman invaders in the late 12th century. They believed themselves – maybe still believe – to be related to the Gherardini of Tuscany (and therefore scions of the Mona Lisa, among other dignitaries). The Gherardini in turn allowed themselves to be persuaded by ancient flatterers that they were descended from Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome. Perhaps out of Christian tact, they passed lightly over Aeneas’ own lineage, in direct descent from the god Zeus. (“A pagan god. I might have known,” my devout great uncle Brendan Dillon sniffed when I gave him the news.)

Another relative, on the McCormack side, is said to have distinguished himself during the  Easter Rising of 1916. He was a deserter, or so it’s claimed, having failed to turn out for the Irish Volunteers when ordered, although it has to be said that the conflicting military instructions that week seem to have bamboozled loftier personages than my great-great uncle. Whatever the reason, he deemed it prudent to depart the country shortly afterwards, using the name of his brother, who obtained a laissez-passer from the military authorities based in Trinity College and gave it to his combat-shy sibling.

As far as I can tell, none of my relatives is in the DIB. They were not the kind of people who become “objects of enquiry”: tram conductors, rent collectors, marine engineers, dentists, travelling salesmen, waiters and the like. But even my obscure Dillon and McCormack ancestors can claim some connection to great persons and great events. The lives of representative – if not necessarily exemplary – Irishmen and women are in that sense the lives of us all. As a demigod, I understand these things.

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