Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Ancestral Shame

The harshest thing I can ever remember someone saying to me was, “If you were on fire, I wouldn’t piss on you to put you out.” The guy had had a few too many, and he was Irish, and I’m English, mostly. A few stray Scots and Germans and Swiss are hanging on the branches of my family tree, but the trunk and main branches are English and Anglican. My Irish friend—the brother of a friend, actually—was making a point about my ancestry.

Being married to a woman of 100 percent Irish blood, I would have thought I had earned a certain street cred with my Irish friends by now, and having turned Catholic four years ago, I figured the damage, if any, was all undone. But now thanks to a collection of essays by Sigrid Undset and Evelyn Waugh’s biography of martyr St. Edmund Campion (pictured here), I’m up to my eyeballs in the atrocities of the so-called Protestant Reformation in England.

What appalls me most is that, sure, the English did it to the Irish, but they did it to their own. And that in school we were sold a bill of goods about all that—you know, the glories of the Renaissance, the defeat of the Armada, and the Elizabethan era as some sort of peak in Western culture. I mean, Shakespeare, after all.

I told Katie, all of whose grandparents were born in Ireland, that I was suddenly uncomfortable about this family history of mine, which it undeniably is, even if we’re talking distant ancestors. And let’s not forget that I was raised in the Anglican (Episcopal) Church and brought up on the cadences of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, or that I’ve said that giving up those cadences (“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures”) was the hardest thing about becoming Catholic.

Katie said, But you can’t feel guilty about what some English people did four hundred years ago! And I agreed: No, I don’t feel guilty exactly, but if you found out your great-grandfather was a slave owner, wouldn’t you want to know more about all that?

I should have known better, what with “A Man for All Seasons” being my all-time favorite movie. But somehow I thought Thomas More’s was a special case and Henry VIII was a particularly special monster. Now it turns out that his illegitimate daughter Elizabeth was a worse monster, for all that Kate Blanchett and others have tried to make her look interesting.

This post isn’t leading anywhere much, except, I hope, to more serious study of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England. I’ll begin by finishing Waugh’s bio of Campion, then happily accept any reader suggestions of where to turn next.


  1. Yes. I was an English major in college and the fact that Catholic culture was destroyed never was emphasized in all the Brit Lit I took.

    Now I teach Brit Lit to high schoolers. Canterbury Cathedral was Catholic once upon a time, until the Protestant destroyed the shrine of Thomas a Becket - the reason for all those pilgrimages. And Wordsworth could opine about how peaceful Tinturn Abbey was because it had been destroyed in the Reformation and now was an abandoned shell of its former self.

  2. I recently was working on my genealogy and made a very difficult discovery. I am a direct descendent of Richard Rich - the man who's perjury led to the death of St. Thomas Moore. He then went on to a career of dissolving monasteries. Not exactly someone to be particularly proud of.

    I prefer to think of it as the triumph of history that a descendent of Richard Rich (my grandfather) would end up marrying a strong Irish Catholic and converting to Catholicism. No matter what horrible things Rich might have committed hundreds of years ago here we are in 2012 and he has many many Catholic descendents. He may have tried to destroy the Church but clearly he failed.

  3. Are you familiar with the book Supremacy and Survival, by Stephanie Mann? (subtitle: how the Catholics endured the English Reformation) Stephanie has a wonderful website/blog that treats all manner of Reformation topics, English Catholic martyrs, etc:

  4. In addition to my book, "Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation", available from Scepter Publishers, I've been presenting the history of the English Reformation from Henry VIII to the Emancipation of Catholics in 1829 on a radio show. Podcasts are available here:


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