Something I enjoy about the early months each year is the return of the BBC series Call the Midwife. It’s fascinating to see the progress of time, with world events set against the backdrop of London’s working-class Poplar district. I particularly appreciate the ‘goodness’ of the main characters, dealing with others without judgment. One of these characters is Dr Turner, played by Stephen McGann.
I’m not a follower of celebrities, and I knew nothing about Stephen McGann’s background, but when I learned a few months ago that he was a keen genealogist and had written a book about his family’s history, I decided to read it. The original title is Flesh and Blood: a history of my family in seven maladies. For some reason, in the paperback version the last words have been amended to seven sicknesses. My assumption was that, through the generations, successive family members had met their end as a result of contracting one or other of the same seven illnesses, and that since manner of death is often linked to work and living conditions, this aided his understanding of how his ancestors lived. I also assumed that in setting out his family’s history within this framework McGann was giving a nod to the role he’s best known for – the kind doctor in Call the Midwife. Well, I wasn’t entirely right, and it wasn’t until the final few pages that I fully understood why he used this framework. It was also not entirely a book about family history, in the sense that the final three chapters are autobiographical – and to tell the truth I wouldn’t normally read an autobiography. Nevertheless, this was a book that made me think a lot about my own ancestry; and it’s for that reason that I’m reviewing it here.
Stephen McGann’s family history overlaps with my own in a number of ways, but primarily in that we’re both descended on one line from great great grandparents who fled Ireland because of the Potato Famine, or ‘The Great Hunger’ as it’s remembered in Ireland. This famine, brought on by successive years of total failure of the potato crop caused by a fungal disease known as the potato blight, brought Ireland to its knees between 1845 and around 1852. During this time, one million people starved to death and a further one and a half million left the country. Predictably, then, the malady dealt with in the first chapter is ‘Hunger’. It’s a very good, accessible introduction to the events, and to the terrible attitude of the landlords in Ireland and the government in the United Kingdom which made a horrifyingly tragic situation even worse. Stephen McGann’s ancestors, Owen and Susan McGann, fled Roscommon. My own ancestors fled neighbouring Mayo but probably didn’t meet until they reached Leeds.
Yet the starvation that killed so many back in Ireland continued to haunt those who fled, since when they reached their destinations they were hungry, destitute, clothed in rags and without work or shelter. Relief for the poor wasn’t available through the ordinary channels, since Poor Law Relief in England was based upon residency rights within the parish. Many of course would have disembarked at Liverpool. Those who remained there, like Stephen McGann’s great great grandparents, would find shelter, as many as thirty to a room, in stinking, unsanitary hovels alongside the docks. And the coroners began to record case after case of death by malnutrition.
If they were strong and worked hard, the men and older boys would find work at the docks. By the 1870s, nine tenths of the ships arriving in Liverpool Docks would be unloaded and reloaded by the Irish; and some had even risen to positions such as stevedore gang leader or warehouseman. With the reasonably regular income, a family would be able to rent a single room in the buildings arranged over three floors around courtyards called ‘courts’ – an infinitely better habitation but nevertheless breeding grounds for those diseases that go hand in hand with poverty and overcrowding in squalid conditions. The second chapter of McGann’s family history is therefore called ‘Pestilence’. There is, however, an interesting dual use of the word: firstly, meaning an infectious, virulent epidemic disease; and secondly meaning ‘an entity that is morally destructive or pernicious’. Here, the reference is to ‘the Liverpool-Irish’. It’s clear that from the very beginning Irish migrants were held responsible for the situation they found themselves in, as if somehow the poverty was brought about by their own moral shortcomings: ‘paupers [not only] by circumstance, but by social propensity.’ This theme continues throughout the book, and is well illustrated, no more so than in the events surrounding the Hillsborough Disaster of 15th April 1989. McGann was actually there. He writes: ‘In order to deflect blame, [police] officers had deliberately leaked misinformation to the press. They claimed that Liverpool fans had caused the tragedy by their own drunken behaviour and actions – even accusing these fans of urinating on police officers and picking the pockets of their own dead.’ And since these untruths resonated with the wider public view about the moral character of the Liverpool fans – specifically the Liverpool-Irish – initially the wider public lapped it all up. It shocked me that I had never quite made that connection: that the ‘problem’ with the Liverpool supporters was that in the wider public perception they remained the lazy, ‘morally corrupt’ hordes who lived in filth when they first arrived and didn’t seem to mind.
I started to think about my own Irish roots. The same four generations separate me from my Irish ancestors, and yet my experience has been so different. Why? Was it because of the surname? Stephen McGann has a direct paternal line to these great great grandparents; mine are the maternal grandparents of my paternal grandfather: the surname was lost three generations back. Was it because of religion? Even though the McGann men didn’t marry Irish girls, they did all marry Roman Catholics. That religious connection was lost within my family when my Leeds-born great grandmother – having married a likely godless Englishman within the Roman Catholic church then died young, leaving no-one to keep the faith alive. When their son, my grandfather, married within the Church of England this, presumably, finally severed ties with our Irish ancestry, about which little is known. Even in the early days, although my great great grandparents lived in the poorest part of Leeds, their neighbours were local people and Jews as well as Irish, which probably accelerated assimilation. Without the massive population of Liverpool’s dockside, perhaps the identification with Irish culture died out with the original migrants. Certainly this is something I’d now like to explore for my Irish family in this area of Leeds.
The further I progressed with this book the more certain I was that I would not have arranged it around a framework of maladies. I’d have used a wider framework of social policy, social change and injustice. And then I realised that this was the point: that we are the ones left to tell the story, and we can only do that through our own filters. We will each focus on what seems to us interesting or noteworthy, and omit the rest, and what leaps out as noteworthy to Stephen McGann, to you or to me will not always coincide. In this sense, then, any family history is on some level a kind of autobiography, even if our own life’s stories form no part of it.
The ancestors Stephen McGann writes about are ordinary people, just like most of mine, and probably most of yours. Yet the story of a nation, of an era, of a major event – they would be nothing without the individual stories of the many thousands of ordinary people who played their part. It’s true, though, that some of our ancestors have more interesting tales to tell; and one story, about a great uncle, took my breath away. All but forgotten in his family prior to McGann’s research, his testimony following a major tragedy at sea could have changed history’s view of an aspect of that event, had he been sufficiently less ‘ordinary’ – sufficiently less Liverpool-Irish, you might say – to be invited to give evidence. You’ll have to read the book to find out more!
This book is well written and accessible. McGann supports his arguments with excerpts from original sources that you could follow up if you need to know more. For the benefit of readers who don’t know how genealogy works, he explains how he used the various family history documents such as civil BMDs and census records to find out more about his ancestors. It goes without saying that it would appeal to Stephen McGann fans, and avid autobiography readers; but it may also be of interest to any British descendants of the Irish diaspora, whether your ancestors settled in Liverpool or elsewhere. Clearly, the Liverpool history is a big part of this book, and for me it served as a sort of companion to the excellent BBC series A House Through Time., which at the time of writing is available via BBC iPlayer. Finally, I think it would be of interest to anyone thinking of writing up their own family history and thinking through ways of setting down the information.