Louise Gouge here, wearin' the green and celebrating St. Patrick's Day a wee bit early in honor of the Irish in me.
Here in the United States, many of us grow up hearing older relatives relate family lore about when our ancestors came to these shores and where they came from. As with many families, my maternal grandmother told us a tale of a royal ancestor, which in our case was an Irish prince who was kidnapped and sold as an indentured servant to a colonial master.
On the surface, that sounds rather romantic, although maybe a bit far-fetched. After all, we can’t all be descended from royalty or nobility. It was the common people who sold themselves into indentured service to earn their fare to this new land, where they worked as servants for seven years, then were granted the right to begin their own lives in freedom. But nevertheless, those tales of noble descent are delightful to pass on to the next generation.
While I always loved the idea of having a princely ancestor, as I grew up I began to question our particular story. After all, wouldn’t a prince be well-guarded, surrounded by knights and such? Or, if indeed he was kidnapped, wouldn’t his family buy his freedom, send his return fare, and welcome him back into their loving arms? And anyway, since when were the Irish kidnapped and sold as slaves? Isn’t slavery for the denizens of what we now call Third World countries?
Then I happened upon a book entitled Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl, by Kate McCafferty (New York: Viking, 2002). What an eye-opener! Although her story is fiction, it is based upon harsh reality. A ten-year-old girl is kidnapped off the streets of Galway, Ireland, and transported to Barbados in the West Indies, there to be sold to a British plantation owner. Her life is hard, her master’s--and especially her mistress’s--treatment is cruel, but her spirit is indomitable. I highly recommend this book for both an enthralling story and the historical truths it exposes. In the preface to Testimony, the author states that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some fifty to eighty thousand “Irish men, women, and children were shipped to Barbados as indentured servants” by the rulers of the British Empire from Elizabeth I to James II.
I could not help but think that if these ill-fated Irish folks were sent to the islands, perhaps some of them were also sold to plantation owners in the mainland colonies to the north. Maybe when the cruel man-stealers – snatching up innocent people off the streets and out of their beds – learned of my ancestor’s royal blood, they sold him into “easier” servanthood than the horrible conditions of the island indigo and cotton plantations.
Perhaps his manners and bearing made him valuable as a house servant, perhaps in the Carolinas or Virginia. (Obviously, I’m guessing here. I do hope to uncover some actual research on it one day.) With these bits of history and a bunch of speculation, my family story begins to take on rich shades of truth.
Family myths and lore aside, I do know for sure that I can claim an Irish connection. A close female relative on my mother’s side participated in a DNA study and learned that Irish blood predominates in our matrilineal veins. No wonder I have such a love of all things Irish. No wonder I love the “wearin’ of the green” and feel the need to display shamrocks
every March 17.
And yes, I love corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes.
While I may never know whether my first Irish ancestor who reached these shores was a prince, I am proud to name the Emerald Isle as one of my ancestral homelands. One day I may even get to travel there.
Television documentaries only tease at the beauties to behold there.
In the next few months, I’ll be discussing my other ancestral connections, including some of those empire-building English, a brave Scot or two, and a few poetic Welshmen. I hope you’ll come back to see what I’ve learned.
Award-winning Florida author Louise M. Gouge writes historical fiction for Harlequin's Love Inspired imprint. In addition to numerous other awards, Louise is the recipient of the prestigious Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award for her 2005 novel, Hannah Rose. Her latest release from Harlequin is A Suitable Wife, a Love Inspired Regency novel. Her 2011 Regency novella, The Gentleman Takes a Bride, won second place in the Inspirational Readers Choice Awards.