In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Looking for Me: An Unfinished Story
It was a shock; not the sort of shock which follows sudden death or divorce, but a shock nevertheless. No, nothing quite so dramatic, but it affected me and was to have further effects on my life in later years. I examined the paper more closely. The handwriting was quite good and easy enough to read. My father’s birth certificate lay on the table in front of me. The name was clearly shown, ‘Patrick James McTeer,” born Lisburn. All the other details, date and place of birth and parents’ names were correct. No doubts then, this was my Dad and we had different surnames. My birth certificate said ‘Matier’, in 1938, and his said ‘McTeer’ in 1907. Somewhere between the two dates, the name was changed. Why?
My father died in 1987, two years after my mother. At the time, he was the last of his family to go, so there was no one to whom I could turn for advice on the events in his life. On sorting through his papers I came across another ‘short’ version of the birth certificate, dated 1977, on which the Registrar had noted ‘name now recorded as Matier’. This was for passport purposes. At that time the dimly remembered words of my Aunt Edna came back to me. She had been a somewhat cynical Lancashire Protestant, who regarded religious wriggling in Ireland with an amused eye. “Your Grandfather was a Protestant and changed his religion and his name to marry your grandmother. Your Dad changed it back after your Grandad died.” This was to take me down a very long road, and, as I was to find out eventually, in the wrong direction.
Well, good for him, I thought. However, at the time I was married, with two children to rear, feed and educate. Additionally, my personal life was subsiding in a swamp of marital difficulties. So, it was 2005 before I was able to consider the situation fully. For nearly twenty years I had had a picture of myself, and my possible Huguenot roots. I did a lot of research on the Internet and found some excellent web sites. These were primarily devoted to studies of the Huguenots and genealogy in general. I found a number of references to Matiers, the earliest being the birth of Hugh in 1780. Hugh married Elizabeth Bateman. I hope they were happy. I also found that the name Matier was almost certainly centred in Ulster, and specifically in the two counties of Antrim and Down, and in the city of Belfast. At last, however, I began looking in the place where I should have looked in the beginning, Public Records.
Northern Ireland, although part of the United Kingdom, has always been different. Prior to the Partition of Ireland in 1922, all Public Records had been held in the Four Courts in Dublin. The building was destroyed in the Irish Civil War along with some 90% of the paper records it housed. It was without much hope that I turned to the Records Archives in Belfast. I was wrong to doubt. They were, and are, magnificent. After some toing and froing, I found my Grandfather’s death certificate. He died from cancer of the lower jaw in 1930, aged 44. The poor man. His name was neither Matier nor McTeer, but MATEER. What I had held to be true for twenty years was proven wrong in an instance.
I had three names now with which to juggle. In the next nine months I became something like a forensic scientist, or jigsaw addict. I kept finding little scraps of evidence, or jigsaw pieces. These I would examine, looking at them from every angle and trying to fit them into the overall picture. After following a red herring for so long, I was anxious not to go astray again. I checked the birth certificates of my uncle and two aunts. I found two, both born as MATEER in 1909 and 1917. My uncle, Gerry, had been a professional footballer and one of his clubs, Blackburn Rovers. was very helpful with details of his career. In 1932 he was using the MATIER version of the surname. What happened between 1917 and 1932?
Then I had a breakthrough. My Aunt Annie, always called Cissie, had a child outside marriage in 1929 when she was nineteen. His surname was recorded as MATIER. This was not a spelling error as from then on the name was used by everyone. Well, that isn’t quite true. My Grandad died in 1930 and his name was recorded as MATEER. I checked the Court records from 1923 to 1938, but the change was never formalised legally. As far as I know, there is nothing stopping Katie Melua calling herself, let’s say, Jane Baker.
Last month I visited Northern Ireland for a week and became a nuisance to the Government Records Office and the Public Records Office. I tramped cemeteries where the long grass was soaking wet with overnight dew, but I could find no headstones for my family, even when church records said they were buried there. We were not a rich family, and couldn’t afford headstones. Uncharitably I thought that at least my brother and two sisters had raised a memorial to our parents. I recognise that this is probably an unChristian thought.
Why had the change occurred? Who made the decision for all the family to accept? I don’t know. I believe that my Grandmother, Kate, who was a devout Catholic, decided that the present spelling was somewhat more Catholic than MATEER, which she perceived as Protestant. After all, the father of Cissie’s little boy had been Protestant. His parents insisted on marriage in one of their churches. Gran insisted it must be Catholic. There was no marriage.
The ironic fact is that my research shows that both versions of the name are probably Protestant and probably descended from the brave Huguenots who settled in Lisburn in the late 17th century. My own Catholicism was only one generation old and the roots too shallow to survive.
The story is not finished. I will keep looking for my roots, ties of blood and not faith.
Written by BM