The things you learn when you look into your family tree

Or … the duty of a bard

This week, I thought I’d write a little bit about genealogy.  I’m not going to post any of my family trees (I have three, though they’re incomplete and slightly out of date) … I’m just going to write about the wonderful things you can learn when you do a bit of digging.

The first is this: genealogy is one of the duties of the bard.

Whether you think of a bard as a bard, or filidh, or ollamh, a bard wasn’t just a collector of tales, a memorizer of songs and poems, but they also held the responsibility to guard the family history and bloodlines.  They were scholars, doctors, law-givers, and just darned cool, and as a writer, I feel that I have some connection to that tradition, and some responsibility for the history of my family.

I’m a Celtophile, and unabashedly so (hence the interest in filidh and ollamhs), but the family I can trace is Finnish.  Yes, Marttila is a Finnish name.  You can generally tell because of the three consonants together.  That, or the double vowels (e.g. Saarinen) are pretty clear give-aways.

The larger family name in my genealogy is Wiirtanen.  There is a large Finnish community in the Sudbury area, many of them coming from the Long Lake area of town and the Pennala subdivision there.  That’s where the Wiirtanens settled.

One of my Wiirtanen relatives still lives out at Beaver Lake, a bit of a drive out of town.  He’s a trapper and owns a farm.  Other Finnish families moved into town around Lake Nepawin (Maki Avenue was named after one of them) and there have been a few books published on the Finnish roots of Sudbury.

A number of years ago, a genealogist visited me out of the blue.  I sat with him for a few hours in an afternoon and he taught me a few things about my family, which happened to be part of his family tree, which is why he looked me up.

In Finland, at the beginning of the last century (give or take a few years) families gave up their names, and took on the names of the farms or cities where they worked.

There’s a city in Finland called Marttila.  My uncle Walter and aunt Margaret visited it years ago.  Here’s a wee map and the city’s crest from their Web site:

Notice the image on the crest: It’s St. Martin of Tours cutting his cloak in half to give to a beggar.  So Marttila roughly translates to St. Martin, not a particularly Finnish icon, but at least I know where my family name comes from.

So I started keeping a few files on my family tree.

Something else I did was to look into the kalevala, the national epic poem of Finland.  It’s a creation myth, set of legends, and features magicians and the mystical sampo, which could be, among other things, an analogy for an instrument that could track the precession of the stars.

It’s no wonder I’m into the fantasy 🙂

My mother was adopted and has no interest in looking into her family, so I’m kind of stumped there, though she tells me that she was Irish, something my grandfather liked to tease her with.  So maybe there’s a reason, I’m so enamoured of all things gaelic.

Have you delved into your genealogy?  What did you discover?

3 thoughts on “The things you learn when you look into your family tree

  1. So cool to be reminded of Sudbury–Maki Avenue was the first place I lived, with Paul Derro and Linda and their son Jordan, who was about four at the time. My family tree: decidedly deciduous. Leaves turned, fell off, new leaves grew with no memory of the old ones. Sister Debbie has climbed some of the branches and gotten as far as grandparents on Dad’s side. Beyond that–rumor only. Roots rot when traversing oceans, apparently. But turning a new leaf is always fun–how many Dobras, Leshkos, and Stebnitskys can there be that are not somehow entwined? Loved to hear of your old growth forest.


    • Thanks Susan! Yes, us crazy Finns left our marks all over Sudz 🙂
      The name-change thing happened in a lot of European cultures and so there’s not much further that many of us descendants can go than the city or farm our great- great- greats used to live in or work on, if we get that far.
      Do you remember Kim Fahner? She’s blogging now too, and about to have her second collection of poetry published. You should look her up: Kim’s in Ireland on holiday (where else?) and her latest post features Yeats and Heaney 🙂
      Thanks again for commenting.


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