In her new book ATwisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland, Belfast author Patricia Craig aims to explode the myth that the north is populated by two mutually exclusive 'tribes'. She spoke to David Roy about using 400 years of her often surprising family history as anti-sectarian ammunition
THE question "so, what are you?" will be uncomfortably familiar to most people living in Northern Ireland who've had the misfortune to encounter diehard advocates of a particular religious and/or political dogma.
However, were such inquisitive types to submit themselves to the same line of inquiry with any degree of probity, they might be surprised at what's lurking just a few branches beneath them on the family tree.
It's entirely possible that at least a few of their ancestors in the dim and not so distant past chose to align themselves with the dreaded 'other side'.
Despite Protestant family on her father's side, Belfast author and critic Patricia Craig grew up in the post-war, pre-Troubles north as a Catholic and feeling Irish to the core.
In her teens, she eagerly embraced a romantic republican-tinged view of Ireland.
And why not? Her great uncles Frank, Matt, Gerry and Jimmy Tipping were all celebrated IRA men in the 1920s.
However, along with details of their anti-British escapades, in A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland, Craig uncovers the kind of ideologically inconvenient family connections that would have turned her teenaged self crimson with shame and embarrassment.
Along with her staunchly sectarian Protestant forebearer William Blacker, who founded the Orange Order in 1795,
there's a fair smattering of English Protestant planters and Protestant Irish (not to mention at least one Cromwellian soldier) lurking further back in Craig's lineage, who were subjected to brutal sectarian violence by the indigenous populace during historically significant bloodbaths at Lisburn, Portadown and Scullabogue.
The author eagerly embraces all strands of her ancestry in densely written work that weaves historical fact together with relevant literary commentary, family anecdotes and occasional flights of fictional fancy - the latter cannily employed where the limits of historical record fail to do justice to a particular person of interest.
"I wanted to take a new look at Irish history and northern Irish history in particular, to try and make a good story out of it and to try to make it readable," explains Craig of her reasons for writing the genre-busting book.
"I certainly didn't want to write family history, I didn't want to write an academic history. It was meant to be a sort of an anecdotal, conversational history. "Also, because I'm a literary critic, I couldn't help that side of things creeping in. I wanted to have literary reinforcement for some of the points I was making and to have a way of looking at other people's mixed backgrounds.
"That's why I quote Seamus Heaney, whose great-grandmother was a convert to Catholicism, Glenn Patterson [whose grandparents' mixed marriage inspired his historical novel, Once Upon A Hill] and Ciaran Carson, who was from the Falls Road with an Orangeman from Ballymena among his ancestors kept up his sleeve."
Appropriately, the book's title is derived from a line penned by Co Tyrone poet Paul Muldoon: "for history's a twisted root."
Following her 2002 biography of Brian Moore, Craig's last book was the controversial Asking For Trouble, a prophetically titled tome centred on her expulsion from a convent school in west Belfast as a teenager.
Published in 2007, it sowed the seeds for A Twisted Root.
"During the course of writing that I looked into my own ancestry," she says.
"Because it was kind of mixed up, I just thought that there would be a case for writing a whole book about that.
"It's supposed to be anti-sectarian.
"That was the basic drive that really got me going on it."
Her mammoth task of picking apart 400 years of family history was made much easier thanks to papers and data - already collected by her cousins Harry Tipping and George Hinds.
"They had already done a lot of research, but I made some discoveries myself as well," comments Craig.
"Although I basically knew what my own ancestral situation was, I found out a lot of things that I didn't really know about it. It turned out to be a lot more complicated than even I had thought, which was all very interesting.
"In a way, it was all about putting the particular into the general, or inferring the general from the particular - showing how intertwined we all are."
It was this attitude that helped Craig weather even the most startling of discoveries during her research.
"As a young girl I would have been horrified to discover I was related to someone like William Blacker," chuckles the author of her fiercely Protestant and enthusiastically sectarian ancestor. "I would have kept very quiet about that. But I find it intriguing now.
"In fact, I was always aware of the Protestant side of the family. There are some frightful cases of people reaching the age of 20 or so and having never spoken to a person of the other religion. At least I didn't have that.
"It's easy to give your complete allegiance to one side or the other, but I do think that if people did go back even a few generations they might find something that would surprise them or get them to think about things a little more clearly."
Indeed, given the ongoing furore over the removal of the Union flag from Belfast city hall, this avidly anti-sectarian work couldn't have been published at a more appropriate moment in Northern Ireland's complex history.
"Although a lot of us were educated separately and we have different traditions and everything else, that was beginning to be a bit eroded in the last generation," says Craig.
"But then you get things like the flag protests. You just wonder if things are going to slip back again into the terrible situation that we had in the past.
"I don't think it will happen, but I did write this book to contribute to the intergrationalist ideal in whatever small way that I can."
Craig left Belfast for London when she was 20. She eventually returned to live in the north with her Welsh husband, Geoffrey, in 1999.
She believes that watching the Troubles erupt from the other side of the Irish Sea helped her to get a grip on the turmoil engulfing her homeland.
"In a way it was quite good for me to live in England for a long time, because it did give me a certain perspective on the whole situation," says Craig.
"Of course, I've since come back. But I think in a way it would be good thing if everyone in Northern Ireland went away for a time."
Failing that, they should have a go at reading her book.
■ A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland is out now, published by Blackstaff Press.