I never knew the origin of my own surname. It’s not a common surname, it stands out and it’s a question which confounded me for years. It’s trivial of course, yet always interesting to know. Sometimes people would ask me and I simply didn’t know. Why this is important? A surname reveals heritage, its an inseparable part of who we are and more importantly, a part of where we came from. It poses meaning for us. Whilst family history may seem boring, it is the aspect of personal discovery which made it so interesting, not least because the name Fowdy is completely unknown and most “surname” sources don’t cite it. Nevertheless, through some astute research of my own family I am happy to say that I have unearthed the meaning of this peculiar name and where it came from.
From what I knew first hand, the name Fowdy is from my mother’s fraternal line. However, our connection to that family was severed as my grandparents separated in the 1970s. My grandfather’s father was a miner who died in an accident Monkwearmouth Colliery in the 1950s. But of course, this told me nothing about the origin of the surname. But, to kindle my curiousity there were some telling clues. My great grandfather’s name was Patrick and the Fowdy’s were in fact a Roman Catholic family. Of course you can easily point out this is not alone to draw solid conclusions from, research would soon confirm these assumptions.
Using census records, the rarity of the name allowed individuals to be picked out very quickly and without error. I discovered myself that Patrick had a father called Patrick. Patrick Fowdy sr. was born in Innistymon, County Clare, Ireland in 1882. He would move to Sunderland, England at some point in the early 20th century, marrying Margaret Pinkney in 1908, who appears to have been a local. In line with this, Patrick jr. was born in 1909, allowing the link to be solidified. Given his tragic fate, both Patrick and Margaret would outlive their son, having both passed away of old age in the 1960s. Little did we know that the sr. Fowdy’s are buried together in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery, a quick look at burial records allowed me to confirm that location. A family grave we never even knew existed.
On this grounds, the Fowdy name is indeed of Irish origin. Given it is anglicized and the spellings of names are not always consistent going back in time, it may have been known in Irish language as “Faudaigh” or something similar. Innistymon is but a small village, but it is also famous. Several scenes of Father Ted were filmed directly there, including the episode “The Mainland”. Not to mention that maybe is the famous “Parochial house” itself.
But likewise, what does the story of Patrick Fowdy Sr. teach us about British history at the time, and not least the history of North East England? The late 19th century was the height of the British Empire, Pax Britannia. What is now the Republic of Ireland at the time was incorporated as part of the country, much to the disdain of locals. Yet for many, the opportunity to leave what was then a very impoverished country and work in the booming industrial hubs of Northern England, was a dream ticket. Sunderland in this era was heralded “the largest shipbuilding town in the world”, the global naval presence of the British Empire created a Victorian boomtown which attracted all kinds of migrant communities. The Irish were but one of them. Nevertheless in this era, their numbers would constitute up to 8% of the town’s population and in other parts of the North East, even greater numbers (Middlesbrough was 25%).
We associate migration to be a modern thing, but it isn’t. Our ancestors move to a place, the family goes on several generations and then suddenly they forget their own heritage, looking at the newcomers as outsiders with less entitlement. It is easy to get warped into that mentality, I have tested those waters and there is nothing good that can come of it. However, when the insight into one’s own family history reveals a migrant heritage it then solidifies your own urge to think differently. For all the Irish seem similar to the British, it is worth remembering that the early 20th century world Patrick Fowdy Sr. lived in was one that openly branded Irish people as backwards, inferior, distrustworthy and subordinate. The role of “Irish jokes” in modern English culture is not an accident or harmeless fun, but it is a legacy of an Imperial past and a politicized racial hierarchy.
So what are the lessons from this? Your own surname’s history might surprise you, it might also hold for you some valuable moral lessons in how you view the world or others around you.