Tuesday 3 July 2007

The Fall

Until recently I was full sure that I was McGuinness, or MacAonghusa, and therefore descended from one of the ancient Ulster clans from Co Down. Son of Aonghus, or in old Irish, Óengus - the young God. Now, for you mere mortals, I'll have you know that it's rather reassuring to know that one's lineage is not merely noble, but divine!

After a chat with my father about how several grand uncles found their way to America, I decided to do some research on the family tree. My first inquiries with family elders revealed what was to be a disturbing fact: our name had been "McGinney" until about two generations back. If this were to be confirmed, I would have to cede my place among the deities.

The story ran like this: a parish priest advised a great grand parent at the christening of her first child that the name McGinney was inccorrect. McGinney, he contended, just didn't sound right; it was a vulgar colloqualism forMcGuinness, the proper form of the name. The priest insisted that child be given the correct version of the name. My great granny gave in. Surely the parish priest couldn't be wrong. A local schoolteacher confirmed that the priest was right: the name was McGuinness.

In the world of my dear old ancestor, the priest and the teacher were wells of wisdom where the submissive peasant would come to drink. And so it was that old Mrs McGinney surrendered her own name in deference to those with learning.

The implications of this were so great - I would be merely human again - that I contended that it was no more than a family myth. All families have their mythology, their tall stories, their heroes and their victims. The Great Name Change was one of ours.

But a visit to the National Archives was to confirm my worst fears. Microfilm IP46 shattered the pleasing and romantic notion that the blood in my veins was that of an Ulster Chief of the twelfth century. It contained the birth and marriage certs of my ancestors - the McGinnys. I was no longer a God! I wasn't even royal. No, my pedigree was lower still. My real name, McGinney, or MacGéibheannaigh, means 'son of the incarcerated'.

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