Of Family Trees and Famous Ancestors



Adventures in identification

In his autobiography ‘Dear Me’ Peter Ustinov says:

I remember with pleasure and a shudder a reflection of that great advocate Clarence Darrow in his memoirs. He always regarded the chapter of accidents which led back from his birth into pre-history as utterly extraordinary, and therefore had the same feelings about his presence in the world as though he had won a lottery against staggering odds, and moreover added, not without an element of self-pity, that if any one of thousands of people had been late for an appointment with destiny, he would not have been born at all. I have at least as much cause as Clarence Darrow to entertain such a thought, without having the originality to conceive of such a terrifying speculation. [2]

My own attitude to the possibility of such non-existence is more laid-back; it seems to me to require a certain ‘great man’ complex to take the whole thing that seriously. After all one could simply have been someone else and what, ultimately, would be the problem with that? In fact one may well, according to some sources, have been an infinite variety of other ‘me’s, whose happiness depends less on outward circumstance than we have been led to think.

Ustinov goes on to point out that each one of us has no less than 16 great-great-grandfathers and presumably, in these days of gender equality, the same number of great-great-grandmothers. An astonishing fact to one who has never had more than one grandparent in her life and then only briefly, which leads one to speculate about that certain point in history when the planet was populated entirely by ones own ancestors.

Here is my family tree as far back as I can reconstruct it at present, but leaving room for expansion in either direction

As a descendant of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne [3]I think it only fitting to start with him.

Charlemagne c. 742 – 28 January 814), also known as Charles the Great (Latin: Carolus Magnus or Karolus Magnus), was King of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans (Imperator Romanorum) from 800 to his death in 814.He expanded the Frankish kingdom into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. During his reign, he conquered Italy and was crowned Imperator Augustus by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800.His rule is also associated with the Carolingian Renaissance, a revival of art, religion, and culture through the medium of the Catholic Church. [4]

We don’t have much in the way of family mementos of him except for this coin which shows a rather chubby looking fellow not unlike my Uncle Des, Mum’s brother.



Another of my illustrious ancestors.

Katherine FitzGerald was the daughter of Sir John FitzGerald, second Lord of Decies in Waterford, and Ellen Fitzgibbon. She was probably born at Dromana, in County Waterford. In 1529, she married, becoming the second wife of Thomas FitzGerald, 12th Earl of Desmond (1454-1534), “her cousin german once removed.”[6]

Katherine’s main claim to fame was in the length of her life and the manner of her death. Family tradition puts her longevity down to a determination to outlive Sir Walter Raleigh to prevent him getting his hands on Inchiquin Castle and its lands in which she had only a life interest.

She died at around 120 years of age falling from a neighbour’s apple tree stealing fruit. The only memento we have of her is this 1806 engraving[6] of an earlier portrait.


She looks as though she’d rather be out climbing trees, than stuck indoors getting painted, don’t you think?

According to Lord Bacon she had something of a miraculous way with teeth: in his Sylva Sylvarum of 1627 he writes that she did “dentire twice or thrice, casting her old teeth and others coming in their place.”[5]

I hadn’t realised until now that I was upholding a family tradition when I chose a man to father my child who had the same surname as I do, although he spells it the modern way with the small ‘g’, whereas mine has had the large ‘G’ since my father changed it in boyhood.

Despite the difference in the spelling, I decided the choice would ensure an intelligent child – I can’t exactly remember the rationale – and my naive stab at eugenics seems to have worked, although she has complained of not having longer legs. I tell her that at least she got her nice big lips from his side, and lips will get a girl further than legs any day.

My brother has since gone even further and embraced the two-seperate-words-version ‘Fitz Gerald’. I get the impression that this is something of a tradition too: messing with the spelling of the name. My sister, who has no children of her own has threatened: “No one with the small ‘g’ will inherit my fortune.”

Over time my family has rather ‘come down in the world’  – we no longer have to stay indoors when we don’t want to. For a start we got out of castles and, after some considerable time, moved to a better climate. But, of that, more later.

More about family trees.

Have you ever tried to draw one? It’s quite tricky.

For a start it took me three or four goes to work out that you have to have a very large piece of paper and start at the bottom with the last generation. And then: how much of those tricky sideways bits do you put in? And do you include children adopted with now estranged partners who say they never felt part of the family? No big deal really, neither did I a lot of the time.

For reasons of diplomacy,  I ended up considering one of those cute family trees with photos of just the nuclear family stuck up in the branches of an apple tree and then I thought why not just stick with that early photo for now? No one can get cross about that.


So here we are. Us kids. One sister still unborn. The photo is from very shortly after we arrived in Australia. I am the one on the right looking like she’d rather be outside…?

I have always had an ambivalence about photographs and at one stage, when my daughter was about six I guess, I threw all the photographs I had in my possession into the rubbish bin. Later in the day I changed my mind and rushed home only to find the rubbish had been collected and my photos were gone forever. My daughter, who featured largely in the collection is naturally resentful of my strange behaviour.

But I can understand what I did – it has something to do with the fact that photographs steal the present moment and embalm it as a dead thing – and I have never been all that good at recognising the consequences of my actions until they punch me in the nose.

Susan Sontag appears to have had a similar distrust of the photographic process and in an attempt to redeem myself for behaviour which still, periodically, demands acts of contrition I appeal to her for justification:

“The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in ones own.

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.

“Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” [7]

My Life and Other Constructions


  1. Tree graphic is adapted from free clip-art by Phillip Martin.
  2. Ustinov, Peter (1983) Dear Me, Penguin Books UK
  3. Quite Interesting, Synopsis of Series G – Greats (Topic three)
    http://www.comedy.co.uk/guide/tv/qi/episodes/7/10/(accessed 22.01.12, 13:36)
  4. Wikepedia. Charlemagne.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlemagne (accessed 22.01.12, 16:15)
  5.  Wiseman, Nicholas Patrick. The Dublin review, Volume 51 (page 51)(Google eBook)
    http://books.google.co.uk/books?vid=05Yjnroz9rr3sL7hhv&id=xWnqaPtA0AoC&pg=PA51&printsec=4&dq=%22dublin+review%22&as_brr=1#v=onepage&q=%22dublin%20review%22&f=false (accessed 22.01.12, 16:36)
  6. Wikepedia. Katherine FitzGerald, Countess of Desmond
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_FitzGerald,_Countess_of_Desmond (accessed 22.01.12, 17:10)
  7. Sontag, Susan, On Photography (1977) Picador, USA

2 thoughts on “Of Family Trees and Famous Ancestors”

  1. Oonagh FitzGerald said:

    Hi Rupa I love this ! Well done ! And what a fabulous picture of you ! Can’t see anything in there that would offend ! Lots of love
    Baby Sister (the one not in the photograph) but not offended by that either !0x0

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