X, His Mark

By Martin Malone

An uncle of mine is big into genealogy and has thus far unearthed a plethora of information concerning our ancestors. Many people are fascinated with the past. Some, like my uncle Eddie, are eager to trace a lineage, seeing it as a jigsaw puzzle, in search of the missing tiles. Or the following of a length of string until it runs out into the far gone age, where time veils the past with its impenetrable mist.

When the paper trail runs out, DNA steps in, modern technology brings us a stage further. Also, detectorists shadow the land with their detectors, others prefer to collect antiques, some have a nostalgia for decades just past – retro world. And it often seems too, that the past is reaching out a hand to us, telling us that it has secrets to share. That the past has more secrets than the present and future together.

Gurus advise us to live in the now: the past has gone; the future is not here; there is only the present. Of course, this is a truism…but the past will rightly or wrongly always have a hold, because the past has made us who we are. Because Dickens got it right when he wrote of his ghosts of past, present and future…Time haunts – the lack of it, too much of it, rarely is there just the right amount of it.


In my uncle’s collection, there to see, read and study are birth and death certs, military records and letters. He has painstakingly salvaged from the time obscured depths, the intricate pattern of the family’s past. From a George Malone, who died a the battle of Gorey on 4 June, 1798, to those who had fought the Empire in far flung India.

There is an interesting mix of names caused by the weavings of marriages – the ladies of the clan coming in as Behan, Kelly, McGrath Guidera and others – births, deaths and marriages, a thin paper trail leads the way back to a part of the past.

A couple of documents intrigue me. And it’s not that on 6 February, 1898, Joseph Malone was born to one Thomas Malone and Keasie Malone (née Behan) or that on the 23 October, 1868, Daniel Malone was born to George Malone and Judy Malone (née McGrath)….interesting snippets of information granted, certainly enough to fire the imagination…enough to reason that the dates suggest that the parents of Joseph and Daniel, especially the latter, had a living memory of had heard eyewitness accounts of the bloody 1798 rising in Wexford, where the origins of the family lie. They had also survived the two famines that plagued the country.

Harsh truth

What intrigues me is this: on the birth certs mentioned above are two signatures by the males – they read ‘x his mark’ – the his mark was written by the registrar. This tells me a couple of things, both easily discernible: that a little over hundred years ago my ancestors did not know how to read and write; that the women of that day didn’t figure when it came to the matter of signing forms. I was aware of this fact, of course, but seeing the truth up close is often a harsh reminder. Historians will argue that not many were able to read and write in that time period – and I would argue that this refers mainly to the labourer cast.

Curiously, these official birth certs are now in English and Irish – but these were men who could neither read nor write the commercial everyday language that was English, nor their native Irish, long lost to their own tongue.

You see, I’m looking at these old birth certs on a computer screen. I see those stark Xs, feel the pinch of shame they must have felt at not being able to write their own names. I think of their wives, who had no voice, were restricted to a very limited presence in a male dominated world…and then surge of I don’t know, pride, satisfaction steals into my veins…. I can read and write, extracting great please from both.

I am of their stock, a published author of 11 books, radio and stage plays. I doubt if they ever stopped to consider that a possibility for a descendant – I imagine that they were too busy in the now of surviving to think that a day would ever come when an X would no longer have to serve as our signature.