Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: The fact Meghan Markle is one of us proves our story is more complex than simple stereotype

The life of Duchess of Sussex's Belfast-born ancestor illustrates the mark we have left on world, says Gail Walker

The Duchess of Sussex
The Duchess of Sussex
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

It's reasonably well-known now that Patrick Prunty migrated to England from Rathfriland in 1802 at the age of 25 and went on to become the father of the famous Bronte sisters. While acting as a chaplain to one of the several railway companies pushing tracks across common land and bringing new technology to rural England, he was once attacked by labourers opposed to the railways.

In response, he purchased a shotgun and made a point of firing it out of his bedroom window every morning for the rest of his life to warn his neighbours and the townsfolk that he wasn't a man to be messed with.

Given that example of our unexpected impact on world culture, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Meghan Markle (to her own name, as we say in these parts, now the Duchess of Sussex) should have Belfast roots and that there could be dozens of distant relatives walking our city streets.

Indeed, given her father's antics in the days prior to her wedding, it won't come as a surprise to discover that the Markle's Belfast connection should be down his side of the family. Experience tells us that you can always trust an Ulsterman to be the awkward cuss at the most inappropriate moments.

Perhaps, too, the temperamental side explains his rather blunt criticism of the royals. He claimed at the weekend, in yet another embarrassing interview, that Meghan is "terrified" of her new royal role and criticised the "outdated" royal family: "My thing about my daughter right now is that I think she is terrified. I see it in her eyes, I see it in her face and I see it in her smile. I've seen her smile for years. I know her smile. I don't like the one I'm seeing now."

Spoken like the archetypal Northern Irish father. All that's missing is his assertion that "I was never in favour of the match, he's not good enough for her, she only has to say the word and I'll sort that boy out".

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Nevertheless, whatever about the 'thranness' of her old man, we should be proud that Meghan Markle is - even distantly - one of us. Not because she is a royal or, even, because she is a former TV star.

Rather, because she is a confirmation of the plurality of life, that nothing is ever as it seems, that our story - whoever we are or think we are - is more complex, more thought-provoking, more surprising, than the simplicities of stereotype.

It is a reminder that we have - whatever our cultural hue - the idea of emigration and diaspora built into our DNA. We are not just a rooted people but a people of frontiers, of change, adaptation, transformation.

It turns out, for example, that Meghan's great-great-great-grandmother Mary McCue (McHugh) was a Belfast woman, who married Thomas Bird in Dublin in 1860. He left her a widow six years later.

Mary died in New Hampshire in 1885, only in her 50s, having married a second time, to one William White.

Before you sneer that the great-great-great bit hardly betokens a close family connection, just imagine it the other way round ... if it turned out that your great-gtreat-great grandmother was Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale or Charlotte Bronte, you'd be quick enough to boast of the connection on Who Do You Think You Are?

Well, Mary McCue, in her own right, lived a life in her half-century. Two marriages. Four children. Sojourns in Malta, New Brunswick and New England. A life packed with colour and incident and one that also undermines all the stupid stereotypes. She was a Belfast Catholic who married not one, but two Englishmen, both in the British Army.

Of course, every family here has tales of the relative who moved to new worlds, opening new horizons and leaving their mark on the story of great nations. And every family tree has a story of a wanderer - be it for idealistic reasons, as a result of intolerance or as an escape from poverty. But also, when we look back at family trees, we see that there are no such things as fixed certainties.

Relations married 'the other sort' more frequently than we imagine. Look at the censuses of 1901 and 1911 and marvel at the number of Anglicans, Presbyterians and other Protestant denominations who claim knowledge of Irish. We are often thought of a stolid people, happiest when following the tried and tested path and sticking both literally and metaphorically close to home.

True; but not the whole truth.

Whether it was the Catholic poor beginning again in the crowded streets of Brooklyn or Boston or northern dissenters seeking political equality and religious freedom in Ontario or Nova Scotia, we have played our part in the pageantry of history - often in a fashion more dignified and more vital than the dry litany of presidents and prime ministers or indeed kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, generals and assorted hob-nobs.

In Northern Ireland, we tend to downplay our voyages to the new world or far-flung Commonwealth. Mention Ulster-Scot-rooted Presidents and look on as the eyes roll. Our contribution to the development of American roots music?

Prepare for the onslaught of qualifiers - "you know, it's a very complicated story...". Talk about the navvies that built modern America? Watch the accusations of rank sentimentality fall round your feet like autumn leaves.

Maybe there is an element of cultural cringe here, maybe it does sound like special pleading, talking up what is only a thin if colourful thread in the vast fabric that is United States history in order to beef up our own self-esteem.

There may be truth in that. And yet, there is also evidence all around us. As well as far-flung climes, Ulstermen and women were the bedrock of the industrialisation of Britain, be it in Liverpool, Manchester, Preston, Barrow-in-Furness, Camden Town. And not just as unskilled labourers; they came as engineers, skilled tradesmen and artisans.

These travellers, these emigrants, should be more central to our imagination here. Their story is our story. And they did great things - even in their desperation.

Meghan Markle has been held up as a symbol of a new ethnic and racial diversity in the heart of the British Establishment. And that is only right. But we also shouldn't forget Mary McCue, a Belfast Catholic who would turn out to be the not-that-distant ancestor of a royal.

Heaven knows, with criticism over her hefty clothes bill, alleged etiquette blunders and even wardrobe malfunctions due to apparently wearing the wrong bra, Meghan Markle hardly needs her father's frequent media appearances as well.

But it's clear from the recent interview that Thomas Markle really just wants the lines of communication with his daughter reopened - and alienating him, either deliberately or for want of a decent PR strategy from the Palace, is a big mistake. She might consider, Duchess of Sussex as she is, reaching into her Ulster genes as well for inspiration to find a way to bridge the gulf between herself and her curmudgeonly Da.

Do the unexpected, face him down and talk him down. Stranger things have happened. Check out Mary McCue.

Our history is a strange thing - to paraphrase the poet John Hewitt, it's as crazily tangled as the Book of Kells.

Which, as Meghan saw for herself last week, is a rather beautiful and priceless thing.

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