Irish-American Interior Design: Family Tree Wall

Now this is a commitment to a family tree!

There’s a trope that shows up now and then in films, and I love it. A scion of an ancient family takes another character for a walk around their house, and they pass picture after picture of ancestors while the scion recites the family history, and usually it is grim and strange. There is one in “Grand Budapest Hotel” and there is an astonishing collection of bullfighter portraits in “Book of Life,” and we should all be able to point at our own weird history upon our walls and tell our grim stories. Especially we Irish-Americans, who can claim a history as peculiar as anybody’s.

I’d like to start by suggesting that you just go ahead and get portraits painted of your ancestors and dedicate a wall to them, or even an entire wing of your house. Just find an artist, or several artists, whose work you like and commission them, although this can be a pricey affair — a commissioned portrait can cost anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the artist. Of course, if you want to do it on the cheap, there are tricks as well — like big corporations, you can outsource your portraits to foreign artists, who can often turn an image around quickly and for just a few dollars.

But I’m not here to tell you how to exploit foreign labor, but instead how to represent your Irish family tree best. And there are a lot of options here.

The simplest is to just purchase a blank family tree and have someone who knows calligraphy to write in the names of your family members. There are a lot of options for this sort of family tree, and below are a few I especially like.

This is one of a number of Family Tree templates offered by FamilyTreeCMG on Etsy; they will add your family information for you.

This one, from RaymonTroup, is a literal tree. If you’re going to have somebody add the names in calligraphy, I would recommend tracking down someone who knows how to do the Irish uncial alphabet or a variation — you know the sort, as it will look something like this:

I’ve been seeing a lit of family tree picture frames lately, and they’re nice, but if you have photos of old family members, plus a few things that belonged to them, I think we can go one step better. I give you shadow boxes of family members. Here is a nice example:

This is for the craftier person, but coupling images with physical objects will offer a fuller portrait of your ancestors than just photos alone. If you don’t have any items they left behind, you may have to do some digging, but if you know anything about your ancestor’s life, there is probably something you can find. For instance, one of my biological grandfathers was a salesman for an industrial cleanser called Gunk. Turns out their old containers were terrifically well designed and easy to find on auction sites. And so, should I want to put together a letterbox for that grandfather, I have a starting point.

Once you have some portraits, or photos, or letterboxes, you may now want to really make a wall out of it. There are dozens of tree-like wall decals intended just for this purpose, and they are visually striking:

Of course, a tree is just one way to represent your family line. There’s also a design called the bow tie, where each of your ancestors branch away from you horizontally — here’s an example of this being done with photographs:

Sooner or later, your family tree is going to get back to Ireland, and here you may want to make use of motifs representing your heritage. Many family names have crests or coats of arms associated with them, although this steers into nonsense — unless you know for a fact that your family is the one given the coat of arms by the Irish College of Heralds, even if you share the name on the coat of arms, it isn’t really yours to use.

Perhaps a better choice would be regional flags, symbols, and coats of arms. The various counties in Ireland all have their own coats of arms, and it would be completely appropriate to pair these with family members who came from those area. I have ancestors from Meath, as an example, and they have a marvelous coat of arm featuring a fish, a crown, and what looks to be a hypno-wheel, and who wouldn’t want that on their wall?

However you choose to represent it, the family tree is many Irish-Americans’ most direct connection with Ireland, telling them who came from where, and when and why. There are a lot of ways to represent it, and there is enormous room for creativity here, but, in the end, they all tell the same story: It’s your piece of the tale of a massive movement of people from one place to another, and the development of a diaspora. It’s how you fit into the story. It’s a map of your part of history.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.