Inherited ancestral trauma from forced migration
I live in Anglezarke in Lancashire, and my home overlooks the edge of the West Pennine Moors. Up on Anglezarke Moor, there are the ruins of about twenty farmsteads. Many of the houses are still visible. You can make out the rooms, look through the windows, walk through the doors and in some still see the fireplace mantlepiece.
I like to sit in amongst these ruins and let my mind take me back a few hundred years to imagine what it was like living out here. I gaze down to where the flames of the fire would have been, my eyes fixing on the same point families would huddle together night after night, generation after generation. I expect stories were told of Strider, the big black dog with one foot in this world and one foot in the Other. He would roam Anglezarke Moor at dusk. If you came across him, it meant one of two things: he would either guide you home to safety or devour you.
I can imagine the faces of the wide-eyed children listening to their grandparents tell all the old tales of the moorland. These were stories passed down from their grandparents that were, in turn, passed down from their grandparents, and so on, back to the first people who settled on this land.
These piles of stones and rotting wooden lintels are all that is left of what was called the Anglezarke Clearances of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Local farmers were cleared from the land during the time of the Industrial Revolution to make way for reservoirs to collect water for the city of Liverpool. There is a haunting beauty about these places. I wonder how these people felt about having to leave their homes and what they spoke about on the last evening around that fireside. I am curious as to whether they took a final glance over their shoulder as they made the long walk towards the black smoking chimneys of the mills on the horizon.
The first time I saw abandoned villages, I was trekking in the Scottish Highlands. I came across clutches of ruined homes every few miles or so and started to question why there was no one living in them. It awoke a curiosity within me. Sleeping overnight in one of these cleared villages, I felt a sadness entering my dreams. It was a haunting presence. This was someone’s home. I could still feel their presence and the distress they felt when they left. It stayed with me. Several years later, I was to find that my ancestors were cleared from the land, leaving homes just like these, not in Scotland but England and Ireland.
There is such sorrow carried in the Clearance stories. Here in Anglezarke there were cases of people taking their own lives rather than moving from the moor to work in the mills of the surrounding towns. In Scotland there are harrowing accounts of people choosing to remain and starve rather than emigrate on the ships to America.
It was many years after my time walking and sleeping in amongst the croft ruins of the Scottish Highlands that I discovered that many of my ancestors suffered the same fate. They migrated from rural areas into the cities of Industrial England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I started to write stories about them, drawing on social history research. The terribly hard conditions that they raised families in were hard to comprehend. They moved from the countryside into overcrowded slums and endured a life of extreme poverty. Parents were dying young and leaving young children without mothers and fathers. The elderly were dying alone in workhouses. These were tough times indeed.
Then I uncovered one story that claimed me: the story of my Irish great-great-great grandmother Catherine. She fled the Great Famine of 1845-52, more widely known as the Potato Famine, and came to England in her late twenties to carve out a life on the streets of Westminster.
I discovered Catherine’s story whilst researching my family history. Catherine was the last of my great-great-great parents’ names that I found, and it took me eight years to track down her records. Catherine’s story is just one story, one that has been pulled up to the light from the dusty pages of archival records laid hidden for one hundred and fifty years. It is heart-wrenchingly sad. She suffered huge trauma throughout her adult life, beyond what most people can comprehend in today's western world.
It got me asking questions. What happens to someone when they are removed from their land? What wound might they carry with them? Why is the life someone lived two hundred years ago relevant now? How can the life an ancestor lives many generations ago possibly impact descendants alive now?
Finding answers to these questions has been a fascinating journey and an important part of my spiritual path. It has led me to write my first book, The Path to Forgotten Freedom: Healing Unresolved Ancestral Trauma. I am launching my book at the end of this month, on 30th and 31st October 2022.
In this blog, I talk about how trauma experienced by an ancestor can get passed down the family line to future descendants. To do this, I use the example of the trauma that can be experienced when someone is forcibly removed from their land. I have chosen this as it is one of the key themes arising in my new book.
I believe the forced migration that occurred in the lead-up to and during the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is the root cause of many inherited traumas that people are still struggling with in today’s modern world.
‘Severance’ is the first of a trilogy of blogs. In the second, I share how this ancestral trauma has played out in my life. In the third blog, I offer several solutions I have drawn on to heal the trauma and re-write the story, so it no longer holds me back from what I want to achieve in life.
Inherited trauma & recoding our DNA
Relatively recently, scientists have discovered that trauma experienced by our ancestors can be passed down in the DNA to their descendants. In other words, it is possible to inherit ancestral trauma through our genes down multiple generations. This science is called epigenetics. I’ll just spend a few moments introducing epigenetics to anyone who hasn’t heard of it and likes to read about the science.
We humans inherit our physical characteristics from our parents through DNA, such as eye colour, hair type, facial expressions, and mannerisms. During genetic studies, scientists were surprised to find that physical characteristics contributed to only 2 per cent of a person’s DNA. It was assumed that the remaining 98 per cent was blank, and it was labelled ‘noncoding DNA’, or ‘junk DNA’. Recent scientific evidence has revealed that this is not the case. The junk DNA is now known to hold genetic memory about inherited emotions, behaviour and personality.
The types of things that affect this noncoding DNA are environmental conditions, such as exposure to toxins or poor nutrition, and stress. To me, this research makes sense as this is how animals can pass down information to help their offspring survive. Through this evolutionary process, an animal can teach offspring what is dangerous and a threat to their survival. With this in mind, if our ancestors experienced a traumatic incident and they hadn’t the opportunity to process this trauma, it was coded into their genes and passed on.
When I look at the stories of my ancestors, I can see there are all kinds of events that would have resulted in trauma. For example, the circumstances under which someone leaves behind a community and a way of life, the death of a child, the death of a husband leaving the family destitute, the withdrawal of a mother’s attention, and forbidden love. All of these experiences would have had the effect of diminishing support and restricting the flow of love in a family, resulting in trauma. There is the potential that some of these traumas were left unresolved.
However, it stands to reason that if this noncoding DNA can be altered in one way, it can be modified the other way too. Through the science of epigenetics, we now know that these inherited emotional traits that are in our DNA can be changed. We can literally recode our DNA. This means that we are born with the ability to heal ourselves and re-write that which we inherited. This is empowering, as once we have the origin of these traumas in view, we can finally lay long-standing family patterns to rest.
Trauma from forced migration
The period of the Industrial Revolution was a time of change arguably greater in scale and speed than has ever been experienced by humanity. It was a time of significant progress with incredible achievements and wealth. But, it was also a time of insurmountable difficulty for many. A change in access to common land known as the ‘Enclosures’ meant that here in England, for the first time ever, people did not have a right to land in order to feed themselves.
Enclosures aren’t often spoken of. If they are taught in history at school, they are presented as a great achievement of efficiency, productivity and wealth. At least that was my experience when I learnt about them at school. But this is one story, the story of those in power. What about the powerless, those who had no say? The landless.
The Enclosures left millions of people with no choice but to move to the cities to find work. They left their communities and all they had ever known, their rural traditions and social support structure. On arriving in the slums, these people provided the much-needed workforce for the growing industries, but the infrastructures of cities couldn’t cope. Housing was of very poor standard, and sanitation was virtually non-existent. The drinking water was dirty, and disease would spread quickly. The working hours were long, and the food was expensive. Life expectancy was short. In just one generation, people went from living a life in a close-knit rural community where their family had lived for generations sustaining themselves, to living in slum tenement housing with strangers in a city of hundreds of thousands of other migrants.
When I look into my genealogy and study the social history of this period in history, I find all kinds of stories that would mean that my ancestors suffered trauma as a result of being severed from their land. My ancestor Catherine’s story, is representative of many of my ancestors, albeit arguably, her story is perhaps the most harrowing.
The cities were already overcrowded when the Irish underwent mass migration into Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century. People from Ireland had been emigrating for many years before the Great Famine. But, between 1845 and 1852, the number doubled in just a few years.
The Irish migration during the Great Famine wasn’t a result of the ‘Enclosures’ like in England, in that common land wasn’t taken off the people. The reasons behind the Great Famine are complex and multi-layered, and I touch on some of them in my book.
To look at what caused the Great Famine, we need to go back in time, long before the first potatoes turned black. People foresaw death coming eight hundred years before when so-called nobility reached Ireland's shores, grasping their golden cups and fine clothes that stretched over their plump bellies. Red faces home to greedy eyes, conquering a land and people who were not theirs to conquer. It took some time, but over time the land was seized from the people, guarded by invisible walls, and fenced in with hedges and stone. The people had no say in what they grew, how they farmed, and what sustained them. This choice was taken from the people and given to the noble ones, five steps removed from the earth, many of whom had never crossed the Irish sea. Disaster would come, and death was inevitable. It was only a matter of time.
When the potato crop failed in successive years between 1845 and 1852, the English and Irish landlords saw their chance to change the structure of farming in Ireland. They were seeking ways to make their land more profitable, and the famine provided a useful means to clear the poorer farmers from their land. The cottiers, who were the poorest of the farmers, could no longer feed themselves, as the potato had been their predominant and, in some cases, only food source. The failure of the potato harvest led to widespread starvation and disease. Those who could afford to left for Britain and America. Many of the remaining, unable to pay their rent due to a downturn in the economy and lack of employment were evicted and left to their fate on the roadside. Many of them died.
I believe an ancestral memory of the Irish and the Great Famine, the English with the Enclosures and the Scottish with the Highland Clearances is one of the reasons why the plight of indigenous people today speaks to so many of us. One of the most recent of these conflicts that reached the mainstream media was Black Rock and the Native Americas. History is full of these stories where the native people have to fight for their land. Some have happy endings, but many don’t. In England, many of these stories have been forgotten. The Enclosures isn’t widely known, and yet they forced millions of people, our ancestors, into extreme poverty. History is written by the victorious, and the stories of the poor, the downtrodden, are not told. They get hidden, buried underground, but they are not gone forever, not necessarily. They are there waiting to be uncovered, revealed, for those who are called to seek them out.
Finding the stories of the forgotten ones
I wonder, as you are still with me reading this far down this blog, whether you are one of those people. Do you feel that there is an ancestor story waiting to be uncovered? It doesn’t need to go back as far as the Industrial Revolution, but it may well do. It doesn’t need to be related to the trauma someone might experience being severed from their land, but it might do.
Many people are drawn to finding their roots, finding the stories of their ancestors and learning about their lives. I believe they are drawn to it because there is healing to be had there.
Often the initial question that someone has is: ‘I want to trace my Irish roots’, I want to learn about my fathers fathers side, as we know nothing about them’ or, I have a sense that the healing I am working on goes back much further than me’. Often the question is driven by a family secret, something that isn’t spoken about or a fragmented story that has been passed down but with aspects omitted. I have found in this work, that it is the secrets that have the loudest voices.
Ancestral healing is taking a front seat now. Many people who have been working on their own healing for many years are reasoning that there is something deeper going on. They have been peeling away the layers, and finding that they aren’t getting to the root cause of their patterns. This is because the wound goes deeper than their lives: it is something they have inherited.
I am a firm believer that there is healing in the story that a person is seeking to uncover.
In my book, I talk about ways to uncover the story, beginning with gathering as much information as possible from any elderly relatives and then building up the family tree through online genealogy research. There are so many records available online now that it can be quite a simple exercise and one that can be done without leaving home. It might be like me, a person needs to explore other avenues if they come to a dead end or extend their genealogy skills so they can uncover other documents that lead them to where they want to be.
But what can be done when a story is found? How does someone go about healing an ancestral wound?
This is the focus of my next blog 'Non-stop: the inherited work ethic'. Here I use the example of the key ancestral wound I have inherited through the trauma experienced by my great-great-great grandmother Catherine when she was forced to leave her homeland.
Post blog update
The launch event
Over the festival of Samhain we held an online event to launch my new book, The Path to Forgotten Freedom: Healing Unresolved Ancestral Trauma. Click here to watch the replay.
Order your copy
Click here to read more about The Path to Forgotten Freedom: Healing Unresolved Ancestral Trauma and order your copy.