You are a unique human being! Unless you have an identical twin, no other human being carries a set of genes that matches yours exactly. While the modern remix and ordering of those genes make up a unique you, they have been passed down to you from earlier generations; clues of your family’s past embedded in your every cell, manifested in the color of your own eyes or the square of your adult son’s jaw. How wondrous it is to look like both of your grandfathers at once, with the chin of one and the forehead of the other. You may be unique, but you are not original.
Through the study of your genetic make-up, scientists can discover more about your ethnicity and genealogy than the national archive or a dusty parish register from the old world. With just a quick swab of the inside of your mouth, a laboratory technician can trace your distant ancestry more accurately than the family Bible your great grandmother plans to pass on to you.
While mail-order genetic tests are novel and exciting for those who do not know from which family tree they branched off from, for those who can trace their family history for more than two hundred years, the test results can seem both obvious and vague. The information the laboratory technicians can provide you about your family’s origins are just about as exact as your great grandmother’s memory. To truly uncover exactly where your family line started, to find the proverbial “family farm”, it takes careful research on location, a patient, listening ear and being willing to lose one of your good shoes in the mud while trespassing on private property.
While I know that I am a mash-up of genetic material from the British Isles, Holland and Germany, my family name is neither English nor Dutch. My extended family tree spreads its branches tall and wide over many countries, but I carry a specific family name, passed down from father to son for generations, which originates from a tiny, misty island suspended in the Irish Sea between Ireland and England, but is neither Irish nor English.
To find the exact origin of the family name that my father gave me, and I gave to my son, the three of us set out on a tri-generational treasure hunt to the Isle of Man, equipped with only the baptismal record of the grandfather of my father’s great-great grandfather, to discover what we had yet to learn using a computer and microfilms from across the sea: the exact spot that the first known Karrens called home.
Part One: Old Kirk Braddan
From the dates and names in the records of our three known Manx grandfathers, Thomas, Thomas Jr. and Thomas the third (who was the first to leave the island, first for England and then the new world), we searched the countryside for a village called Kirk Braddan. As all three men had been born there, we felt that there would be old clues left behind in that eighteenth century village to help us further with our quest. But search as we might we could not find it
We scoured road maps or road signs in the area where we were convinced it should be. We drove each narrow country road that lead out of the seaside capital city, Douglas, into the sheep-covered, rolling green holms and back again with no luck.
With a day wasted of fruitlessly crisscrossing the east side of the island, we finally sought help from the library in the national archives. Even there, in a register of old villages we could not find a mention of the town of Kirk Braddan. Frustrated and losing hope that our quest had come to a premature dead-end and unsure of what other resources we could view in the records library, I asked the consultant directly if he maybe knew where the old village of Kirk Braddan had been located.
“Kirk Braddan is not a village. It is an historic parish chapel on the outskirts of Douglas,” he revealed to us.
With our road map marked by the librarian’s pen, we were back on the road in a matter or minutes heading back in time; twelve hundred years to be exact. Old Kirk Braddan is an ancient Christian heritage site dating not from this millennium nor the last. It was founded when years were still counted in only hundreds from the year of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
Leaving the rental car a stone’s throw away, we approached the walled churchyard slowly, with a sense of awe and reverence. The ancient Manx had been coming here to worship even before the construction of the Christian chapel that now stands over the original Viking keeills, where the Earth and the gods of Nature were honored. Celtic and Norse stone crosses present for millennia on this site, once shunned as symbols of a pagan past, now stand inside the church to protect them from further erosion. After spending more than a thousand years exposed to the island’s wind and rain, the rough edges have been washed smooth, but the relief of the braided stone still visibly twists and rolls in thick strands of fossilized rope.
From inside the chapel, Old Kirk Braddan, in form, felt like an Italian church, transplanted somehow from Umbria but void of murals or frescoes of the saints and the Virgin. The new priest, sent maybe from Italy or France, in 800 A.D. drew stone from the same quarry the Vikings used for their crosses, to carve a primitive basin for a baby no older than eight days; an ancient washbasin for the sins of the guiltless. There was no relief nor gold leafing on the font, like the ones in Pisa or Florence. These were simple Christian farmers. The records witness that our grandfathers were baptized here. Was it in this same rough hewn font?
Gravity felt heavier standing at the altar as I turned to face the empty congregation, imagining Thomas, newly married, smiling and nervous. Heavy stone walls worked hard to keep the roof from falling in on us after more than a thousand years of pushing upwards. The walls looked ready to buckle, like my grandfather’s knees as he assumed his new marital duties.
We knew that the new couple didn’t move too far away, as their first son and first grandson were also baptized here, but the cold stones told us that the living had long deserted this ancient house of worship. Only headstones were sprouting in the churchyard anymore. This was where we searched for our kin.
With smudged ink impressed on folded paper we searched for names and dates chiseled into granite, once thought to be eternal.
Lichens had fused with the gravestones, slowly leaching and digesting the minerals of the rock; even the gravestones will turn to dust one day. Many markers no longer bore the names of those buried under them; the slate shattered and splintered by the elements.
If only we could wake the dead for a roll call, we thought, but the congregation at the New Kirk Braddan made off with the bell three hundred years ago. Grass and small flowers sprouted between the crumbling slate and grainy mortar all the way up the tower, even as high as the empty belfry.
We are Karren. Two hundred years ago our family spelled the name as Karran. Before that, a parish priest spelled it as Carran, which brought us a step closer to our true Manx name; Cairn. We were blacksmiths, named after our occupation. In the anglicized communities of Man, you might call us Smith, but more accurately we would the Black family. There is another language to be discovered in our history.
Unable to locate the resting places of any dead Karrens, Karrans or Carrans in the graveyard of Old Kirk Braddan, we felt impressed to seek out the living. We dialed at random from the listings of any spelling of our name from the phone book in a nearby public phone booth. We hoped to speak to anybody who could direct us down the right path and closer to discovering our family folklore. To our surprise, Stanley Karran answered his home telephone and invited us to come for a visit with him that same Sunday afternoon in his home, in the historic village of Cregneash.
To be continued…
Did you enjoy this story? Watch for it and others like it in V M Karren’s new short story anthology: The Tales of a Fly-By-Night, coming soon, as well as his second novel in The Deceit of Riches Series: From the Rooftops. Learn more at www.flybynightpress.com.