Tuesday, April 17, 2012

'I beg your pardon sir, but the Marquis isn't yours, and the Mayoress isn't mine': Irish False Pedigrees

Today I am revisiting a post I wrote last summer which was originally inspired by a tweet from Leslie Ann, of Ancestors Live Here, to a site about false pedigrees. The subject has re-emerged for me this year after I was contacted by a man who says he is connected to me through the Ball line, and we are in turn connected to Blessed Margaret Ball, the martyr and 16th century mayoress of Dublin. More about this later.

Some of you may be familiar with the practices of 'pedigree pedlars'.  They represented themselves as professional genealogists, engaged in questionable research practices, and produced false pedigrees.  The most creative among them even produced fake documents to support their spurious claims. If you worry that some of your surnames appear on these pedigrees, such thoughts may make you want to bury your head in the sand, but before you do that, head over to FamilySearch.org and peruse this page. It lists the names of those best known to have engaged in the practice of creating false pedigrees, along with details of publications about them.

Perusing the list of 'pedigree pedlars' got me thinking about the possibility that false pedigrees may be produced unwittingly, by even the most well-intentioned family history researcher. A researcher may worry about disappointing someone, particularly if the outcome of their work proves that a long standing family tale is false. Also, many of us are familiar with hitting the proverbial 'brick wall', that moment when the document trail goes cold, and we are left with nothing but questions.  Unfortunately, instead of presenting family members with a 'brick wall', a well-meaning researcher might grease that wall a little and swing themselves up over it, all the while believing they will break those bricks eventually. I suppose I must also include those who make a false claim simply because a connection to someone famous, or infamous, is very appealing.

The problem is: False pedigrees do more harm than good.

Consider the case of actor John Hurt (star of The Elephant Man, and Mr. Ollivander to Harry Potter Fans).  On the summer 2010 U.K. version of "WDYTYA?", the actor was very disappointed to discover that his family is not connected to Ireland.  Throughout his life he had been told by his mother, and other family members, that they were descended from the Marquis of Sligo. The connection was borne out of the belief that his great-grandmother, Emma Stafford, was the illegitimate daughter of the Marquis. Hurt described how he had always believed Ireland was his ancestral home, given his great-grandmother's paternity.  Because of this belief, he held a special place for Ireland in his heart.

Ultimately, John Hurt discovered that, although his great-grandmother was indeed illegitimate, her father was not the Marquis of Sligo.  Further information provided by his family purported that it was her husband, Walter Lord Browne, who was descended from the Marquis; however, this also proved to be untrue.  The interesting thing is, it appears that Browne was the source of this false pedigree, as well as many other rumours about his own parentage, which falsely connected him to the Marquis.  In fact, Browne's father was a lowly clerk who ended up in debtor's prison.  In the end, researchers were able to uncover no connection of any kind to Ireland.  The truth seemed to cut through John Hurt; his disappointment over these lies was palpable. Unfortunately, claims of connections to the rich and famous often emerge from false pedigrees.

On the grounds of St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral Dublin,
Blessed Margaret Ball & Blessed Francis Taylor,
both imprisoned (in different time periods)
for refusing to renounce their faith.
As far as a possible connection from me to Blessed Margaret Ball, at this point I remain unconvinced. Margaret Ball was born Margaret Bermingham in County Meath Ireland sometime around 1515, although there is no evidence of her exact birth date. She married Bartholomew Ball of Balrothery, who eventually became Mayor of Dublin. As his wife, Margaret became Mayoress. She died in the dungeons of Dublin Castle sometime around 1584, having been imprisoned there by her own son Walter, then Lord Mayor of Dublin. In addition to refusing to renounce her Catholic faith, Mrs. Ball's crimes consisted of providing refuge for Catholic priests, and allowing them to say Mass in her home, at a time when the Catholic faith was outlawed by the throne.

Blessed Margaret Ball has been in the news a bit lately because she is one of the patron saints of the 50th Eucharistic Congress which will take place in Dublin in June of this year. My email friend says the surname Ball proves our connection; however, with respect to such connections, having the same surname is proof of nothing. I have not yet been able to reach back to the 16th century Ball line, either via documents or historical evidence of any kind, so I cannot confirm the connection. Mrs. Ball did have ten children, of whom four allegedly survived to adulthood, but I have found no evidence connecting me to them. In my opinion, as disappointing as it may be to my friend, at this point to connect myself to Blessed Margaret Ball purely on the basis of a surname would be to create a false connection.

Beyond avoiding feelings of deep disappointment, to claim a false connection means that the real connections may be ignored or even buried.  In my own family tree, I have connections to some persons who had a degree of fame in their day, but do I view them as more worthy of remembrance than others who languished in anonymity?  Would I give up my maternal great-grandfather Francis Ball, who died in a workhouse infirmary, in favour of someone rich and famous? Not a chance.

So, once again thank you Leslie Ann for pointing out these pedigree pedlars.  It reminds us of the need to be accurate, to use primary source documents where possible, to use only reliable resources, and to document and cite those resources. The further we move away from the original documentary history, the more malleable that history becomes.

Click on photograph to view larger version.
Thank You to The Graphics Fairy for the crown image.


  1. Interesting post, Jennifer. My grandmother claimed she was a descendant of the missionary Robert Moffat, whose daughter married Dr Livingstone. I've never found any evidence, and think it's unlikely, but she was convinced. I think someone told her when she was a child and she never questioned it. Question everything!

    1. Hi Jo,

      Thanks for your comments; they are always much appreciated. You've stated the perfect research catch-phrase, "Question everything".

      I find it really interesting when people are convinced of such connections. It makes me wonder about who first told them about the connection. Whoever it was, they must have shared a compelling story.

      In my own family, on the paternal side, there have been connections claimed to the Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley, and to St. Laurence O'Toole. Our O'Malleys and O'Tooles are from the correct geographic region, but so far there is no evidence in support of a claim to either one of them. A pirate and a saint would certainly make interesting additions to our tree.



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Cheers, Jennifer

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