The tree of life and the Ombú Tree

Watson and Crick did outstanding service to the sciences of genetics and medicine, but their contribution to television crime drama is considerable also. It seems that like the snail, we leave a trail behind us, a trail of DNA, a trail that leads inevitably,to the guilty party. There is no need for pipe-smoking sleuths,tough maverick gumshoes with divorces and drink problems, or preternaturally sagacious Belgian detectives. Old spinsters on high-nelly bikes may go back to their knitting. The Yard no longer needs their help. Inspector This or That can go back down t’pub. (Why do these brilliant detectives never rise above the rank of Inspector? Why are their senior officers invariably poltroons? It is one of the mysteries of the genre. Why, for that matter, do Musketeers never use muskets?)
Detection is now accomplished by fast-talking men and good-looking young women with instruments and different coloured lamps, to highlight the DNA slime trail of the culprit and get that vital confession.

There is a great interest nowadays in tracing one’s family tree. Perhaps I can simplify the process. We are all descended from people. I have exactly the same number of ancestors as you have. Go back a few generations and we all share the same ancestors, kings and paupers, heroes and villains, saints and the inevitable sinners. Which of them would you highlight with your magic lamp? Whose genes would you admit to and whose would you willingly deny? The sinners are often the most interesting. (Go back a few hundred thousand generations and you will find a small arboreal primate scampering in your family tree.)

Margaret looked at The Griffith Valuation 1848-1853, a treasure trove of information, in search of John Larkin who farmed near Balscadden in north Fingal. She found 31 John Larkins in the vicinity.(She is descended from the good-looking one. The DNA never lies.)

On the same Valuation I found the house of Tom Doyle, beside Tacumshane Lake in Wexford. (“When you stop here,” the farmer’s wife said, “I know you’re lost.”) Tom’s daughter, Catherine eloped at the age of 17 with young John Cardiff. The wind carried them, like thistledown, to Uruguay on the far side of the world. How it must have broken the hearts of Tom and his good wife, Dorothy! I followed them, not with ultra-violet or infra-red lamps, but through the oral tradition in my family, my mother’s stories and those of her siblings. They were more interesting than the sturdy farmers, publicans, clerks, seafarers, doctors, teachers, spinsters, wasters and seamstresses, not to mention kings and nobles just like yours’, who perch in the family tree. My mother’s story was a moral tale: “I don’t want you to turn out like John Cardiff.”

I tracked them, through the magic lantern of the Internet, to Santa Catalina in Uruguay. I knew the place from the stories. I just didn’t know where it was. Our children sent us there in 2001. Roles were reversed.They were anxious. It is no small thing to send your parents out into the great, wide world. ‘Mind your money. Mind your tickets. Be careful crossing the street. Phone home.’ We did however, talk to strangers. Everything fell into place. The book was the result. A film is in prospect. There is a Calle Catherine Cardiff in that small South American village. That means a lot.

The ombú is a strange plant, not a tree but a giant polk weed. Cattle won’t browse the leaves. It occurs often in isolation in the vast emptiness of the pampas. Its seeds have drifted or have been carried by birds or ships, as far as the Canaries and Africa. There are superstitions surrounding it.
It sheltered my great-grandparents during their early years in Uruguay. My grandchildren have climbed in it branches. It is a precious family tree.It continues to sprout new leaves.

“They came out into open, undulating grassland. Cattle coughed in the darkness. Birds whirred away at their approach. Waterfowl slapped and splashed as the horses forded a small river and climbed a long grassy slope. They saw a light under the straggling silhouette of an ombú grove. Their guide hailed the ‘rancho’,as he called it. She saw that it was no more than a low hut with a flimsy awning in front of the door. Smoke, white in the moonlight, swirled through a hole in the roof. A figure appeared in the doorway and conversed with their guide in heavily accented Spanish. They seemed to have reached some understanding.
John dismounted and flexed his legs. He walked stiffly. He groaned at the returning circulation. He lifted her down and unloaded the pack-horse. He hitched his rifle on his shoulder, touching it repeatedly, as if for reassurance.
“So this is it,” he murmured. “Stay close to me.”

In the Shadow of the Ombú Tree. Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Chaos Press 2005
Available from and ebook fromAmazon/Kindle


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