Escape Hatch

During the last Bush administration, at a point where I didn't think that things could get worse (how young and naive we were!) I discovered by accident that I might be eligible to get an Irish passport.  They have a law that says that if one had an Irish parent or grandparent one can claim Irish citizenship if one can clearly trace one's ancestry back to that person and prove they were born in Ireland.  Irish citizenship, of course, also confers citizenship in the European Union.

The idea was appealing because it seemed to offer a bolt hole for me if things got too wacky in the US.  The US is, shall we say, neutral to the idea of dual citizenship.  It is not illegal, but it is not liked.  If one has dual citizenship, one cannot get certain levels of security clearance for example.  On the other hand, the government reasonably warns that other countries don't recognize dual citizenship and that if one is a citizen of those countries, one might be liable for unpleasant things like military service.

But Ireland is not one of those countries.  So I decided to go for it.

I needed to get my Irish grandmother's birth, marriage, and death certificates, my late mother's birth, marriage, and death certificates, any my own birth certificate.  My grandmother's documents proved hard to get and it took me about three years to gather them all.  As I searched for where exactly she was born, the genealogical records that I found from both sides of my family revealed that much of what I had been told about their pasts was not true.  

But I should not have been surprised.  Climb up the family tree and shake the branches and the most interesting things fall out.

My grandmother was born and grew up in a small village near Cork that no longer exists.  Her generation was the first one that could read and write and the first one that was not brought up with Gaelic.  I also discovered that her mother had been Protestant, and one who had married pretty far down when she married my cobbler great-grandfather.  My grandmother had left Ireland rather suddenly and we hadn't been told why, but only that she had taken the boat ticket already bought and paid for by her sister. I discovered that she had apparently been pregnant.  And the father seems to have been a British soldier stationed near Cork named Harry. When she went to America, he kept in touch with my grandmother, and they had plans to meet again.  But then he was sent to serve in what is now Pakistan and there he died a young sergeant during the Great Influenza Epidemic after World War I.  When my grandmother died, while I was helping my family clean out her possessions, I found a bundle of letters from him.  I showed the bundle to my mother, and she immediately took them from me and burned them in the apartment house furnace.  I do have two letters about him.  One was from his sister in England and the other was from the nursing sister who took care of him.  Both of these letters came in envelopes edged in black, which must have been a terrible thing to see in the mail.

My grandmother moved in with a sister in Boston.  There was no family record of her baby, but by the strangest coincidence, her sister found a baby left on her doorstep, which grew up to be a dead ringer for my grandmother.  I don't believe that this woman was ever told who her real mother was.  My grandmother trained as a maid and worked in several New England cities until she met my grandfather in a boarding house and shortly after they married.  It could have been a whirlwind courtship, but I have a small notebook that was owned by my grandfather at the time and there is an entry in it that says, simply (and sadly) "Baby Died".  So perhaps…

My grandparents eventually moved out to Chicago to live with my grandfather's mother.  She owned a rooming house and there are lots of stories about her.  She was from Ireland, and the family story was that when she had divorced by drunkard great-grandfather in Boston, he had owned (but drank away) several coal yards.  In fact, my great-grandparents had both been peasants in Ireland and had worked as farm hands when they first came over until they found some kind of menial urban employment.  My grandfather supposedly had had a beautiful older sister who had died in her early twenties.  But I could find no record of her in the census reports that do list my grandfather.  Who knows what that was about?

My big problem was locating my grandmother's birth certificate, because she had not told me the truth about where exactly she had been born.  The central records office in Dublin had been burned during the civil war there and without a "townland" name (and there are lots and lots of these townlands) I was out of luck.  Also, I thought that I just didn't know the name of the village, but it turned out that I also didn't know her birthday and the year she was born.  She had been lying about it all to us (including my grandfather) all of her life.

Why did she do this?  I finally found her township by locating the church she had been baptized at.  This was mildly easier (it only took me a year) since there are fewer churches than townships.  I inquired with about a dozen churches.  Some were polite and some not so much.  The current pastor of her baptismal church didn't reply to me for almost a year and then one day there her baptismal certificate was in the mail.  She was three years older than she claimed and was several days off from her birthday.  Having found the church, I could now narrow down the townships and it took me several months and the services of an Irish genealogist to finally get the birth certificate. 

The birth certificate was several months off from her birthdate according to the birth certificate.  If I went with the birth certificate, she was somehow baptized about three months before she was born.  This gap was perplexing, because all of her subsequent documents had her born in a different year as well.  I thought that I could easily explain why she lied about the year.  She had been older than my grandfather.  In those days, in her circle, it was not good for the wife to be older than her husband.  So she had lied about it and my grandfather and everyone else had believed her.

The birthdate problem, though, I had to do a little digging to uncover.  The birth certificate was signed by two witnesses; two illiterate Irish peasants who simply drew their X.  Britain owned Ireland at the time and it turned out that there was a fine for late birth registrations.  I can picture these two peasants showing up at the office a month or more late and being told that they were going to have to pay the penalty.  I can see them looking at each other for a moment, then swearing to the clerk that my grandmother was born three months later than she was.  Then they drew their mark and headed off to the pub.

Having collected these documents that didn't quite match up, I wrote up a story for the Irish consulate, trying to keep it as entertaining yet businesslike as possible.  One thing in my favor was that my grandmother's mother had an extremely unusual maiden name and this name appears on her birth certificate.  It also helped that one of the peasants who brought in the report was her godfather (as shown on her baptismal certificate).  I sent in the package with my documents and photos and having not heard from them for several weeks I called.  I was told it would take months to process (and why not; what do they care about handing out citizenship to strange Americans).  I spoke to the woman who would eventually process the stuff and told her briefly about my problems with the documents.  She reassured me that my problem was by no means uncommon with documents from that period.  Several months later, there was knock at the door and standing there was a FedEx driver asking for me to sign for a package.  I was in.

I've used the passport a couple of times to take the short EU line at immigration.  I've been waived through with hardly a glance each time, unlike the damn foreigners from American I was traveling with.  And I keep the passport tucked away in a place I won't tell you about, just in case.  It makes me happy to have it and I smile a bit when I read about Trump's latest tweet.




unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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