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Short Study of a Transplanted Family in the Seventeenth Century
by Edward MacLysaght


The historian of to-day is at once more scientific and more human than his predecessors. History, therefore, is making an ever increasing appeal to the ordinary man or woman who reads for amusement and relaxation and who is surfeited with detective mysteries and sex fiction. History is no longer confined to dry-as-dust text books: it is alive. Gone is the day of sweeping statements and accusations unsupported by documentary evidence, and if personal prejudice is still allowed to colour the author’s estimate of his heroes and his bêtes-noirs it is as a rule more accurate and more reliable than the political propaganda which masqueraded in the form of historical essays and biographical monographs until quite recent times - a school whose most brilliant exponent perhaps was Macaulay.

Nevertheless it seems to me that the modern treatment of history, in so far as it has become more human, still errs on the side of being too much concerned with the affairs of the greater and more brilliant figures of the past; or where, as in many interesting books on the social conditions of bygone times, the life of the ordinary dweller in town or country is described, often with the greatest industry, the personal note, is too often sacrificed to the desire for accuracy and scientific precision, and the human touch is lacking.

As a boy I was always interested in history, but I never entertained any idea of becoming a historian myself until some years ago my father handed over to me a large bundle of papers and documents relating to our own family. The perusal of these, as I gradually sorted them and brought them into some kind of order, quickened in me a lively interest in the fortune of my ancestors, which were partially revealed to me by the material thus placed at my disposal. At first I was only concerned with tracing back from generation to generation the actual circumstances and careers of the direct line of my own family. This pastime, for such it was at the beginning, roused in me a sort of detective instinct; and my only interest in the matter then was to see how far I could trace back with certainty - not jumping to conclusions or avoiding knotty points, but with documentary proof. This soon led me to consult at first hand as many of the available authorities as I could, for among the family papers were notes and transcriptions from documents in the Irish Public Record Office and elsewhere. Fortunately all this work was finished before the tragic destruction of so many of the records in the Four Courts took place in 1922.

It was not long before I realised that the history of the family was inextricably bound up with the history of the country in which they had lived from time immemorial. To work back through Chancery Bills, Inquisitions, Catholic Encumbrance Rolls, Fiants, etc., to Edmond Macgillysachta, a goldsmith of Limerick city, was a source of satisfaction to me as a reward for my research; but what I had dug up was but dry bones: I must know how did the citizens of Limerick spend their days when this Edmond was born in 1495, how did the Clare clansmen regard their city relative, what did he and they wear and eat, how did they amuse themselves, where stood the goldsmiths in the social structure of the sixteenth century - the answers to these questions would help to supply the flesh and blood needed to bring to life the dead bones I had found. And so from father to son. When Patrick, the great grandson of this Edmond, was driven by Cromwell from his comfortable home in Co. Limerick back across the Shannon to the Co. Clare from which the family originally came, why had he on nearly 1,000 acres of land only 15 cows with a few garrons and pigs, as I learned from the Transplanter’s Certificate of the day. To understand this it was necessary to be familiar with the momentous events of 1641-’52. And so on till the Union, which, in a review of this kind, seems but yesterday. Thus my interest in Irish history, as something more than a background for twentieth century opinions and the prime cause of twentieth century conditions, was rekindled; and as I read again the old books, as well as new ones published since other interests had come to occupy my mind, I realised that the history of Ireland, if by Ireland we mean the ordinary everyday people who have lived in the country, has yet to be told. The lives of kings and chiefs, of statesmen and soldiers, have been written; poets, both peasant and noble, have been the subject of excellent critical work, which has, of course, thrown much light on the times in which they lived; even the humble cottier has not been neglected by our economic historians; but I have found no book whose theme is the story through the centuries of what I may call the average Irishman, and I feel that the history of Ireland might well be approached from this new angle.

Now our family is, and has been, essentially ordinary: its history contains no heroes and no villains, no more prominent figure than the poet “Pleasant Ned” who wrote “The Irish Volunteers” and “ ’Si Cáit mo stór” and no greater criminal than one of our Clare cousins who fell foul of the authorities for selling whiskey at the extortionate price of 6d. a pint. We were merchants and minor gentry, farming our own land in Munster four centuries ago, and to-day in Munster we are much the same. In fact we are and have always been fairly respectable and entirely undistinguished, yet no life during the four hundred odd years within my purview has been uneventful, as indeed is only to be expected having regard to the eventful history of the country.

My aim is an ambitious one. Ní mar a shíltear a bhítear: who knows but that something may happen to prevent me from carrying out my plan fully, for serious historical work is a whole-time job, and I am not yet in a position to give my whole time to it. It seems to me, therefore, that even though I have done very little so far compared with what I hope to accomplish when I have the time available, it would be well to begin writing a short study of this typical middle-class family during the seventeenth century, that being the period to which I have up to now devoted most of my attention. My idea now is to preserve for any MacLysaghts and Lysaghts who may like to know the truth about their forebears the facts which I have already verified; but I hope that even this preliminary sketch will have an interest for a somewhat wider public, as, subject to the rather narrow limits to which I must confine myself, I will add such comments and general information as will help those who are not specially familiar with the conditions of the times in which these people lived to visualize them.

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MacLysaght origins and antecedents