The family stories, the family myths and Faure’s Requiem

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Spent last night at Merton College, Oxford, for a beautifully performed memorial service, with Faure’s Requiem. The annual service for Mertonians who had died in the past year. My father and both of his brothers had gone to Merton – and two of them had died this year. The choir and musicians were wonderful – and the setting far more intimate, making the Faure Requiem more beautiful, than earlier this year at Westminster Cathedral, although that was more memorable and personal in its own way.

Amongst others, I seem to be acquiring various documents and pictures of the family record (much of it due to Bernard, who died last Autumn, and his painstaking research). Just skimming the material thus far has been illuminating – and on more than one occasion has disrupted my own sense of identity and heritage.

The story I’d always understood from my grandfather was of the Quinlans coming over from Ireland in the generation immediately before his. (I’ll admit I didn’t always pay attention to family history until recently, so may have received some of this wrongly, but it appears I wasn’t the only one to have this or a similar impression.) Giving me a faintly romantic Irish heritage, helped by the “interesting” family crests he brought back (different each time) along with the family motto (also different. “Slow to anger, quick to retaliate, loyal to friends” was my favourite for its combination of oddness.)

Bernard’s research showed us instead to have been living in London for considerably longer than originally thought – and that my grandfather was, in Bernard’s generous words, “mistaken” in some of his professed roots. The headlines are interesting in their way – wine coopers, ancestors dying in Charing Cross and recorded as “paupers”, etc. Turns out we were extras in Dickens’ novels, not romantic celtic sons of the turf.

But a brief glance through the papers shows more interesting elements in the past couple of generations – little letters from one member to another, diary entries for the week before deaths, trivialities and banalities that paint a far more vivid picture than the headlines. And, throughout, an assumption that these things are of no interest to others or other generations. I disagree, it’s in the little letters, the words passed from one to another, that I’m learning about my forebears.

Although, in fine narrate tradition, even where the stories have turned out not to be supported by the facts, the stories tell me about the people that told them…

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