The Godfather: Peter Corris on Viking traces
Many years ago a letter came to me from a firm of solicitors in Cumberland, England. It had originally been addressed to my father, who had died a few years before and was redirected to me as the eldest surviving male relative of my grandfather, Robert Henry Corris. The solicitor wrote that a legacy had been left by a relative to my grandfather, now long dead, and that I was a beneficiary. Like my grandfather, this person had been born on the Isle of Man and had moved to Cumberland and stayed there, unlike my grandfather, who had emigrated to Australia in the early years of the 20th century. The legacy, it had been determined, was to be shared between a couple of cousins on my father’s side and my brother and sister and me. It was very small – a matter of a few English pounds and shillings. Accompanying the letter was a list of the other beneficiaries, one with the surname of Christian.
From the 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty and Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall’s 1932 book of the same name on which the film had been loosely based, I knew about the most famous Manxman in history – Fletcher Christian. It pleased me that there was some connection, however slight, between our two families.
Some years later my daughter Ruth, an archivist, did some genealogical research and discovered evidence of a few Corris/Christian marriages on the Isle of Man in the 18th and 19th centuries.
This connection provided the stimulus for my 2005 novel The Journal of Fletcher Christian, which purported to be the long-lost memoir of the famous mutineer. In the introduction to the book I played up the connection and joked that it was better to have an affiliation with handsome Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson (the actors who have played Christian), than Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard and Anthony Hopkins, who’d all played William Bligh. The line always got a laugh when I gave interviews promoting the book.
Fast forward to 2015. Ruth heard of a study into the genetic heritage of people from the Isle of Man, got in touch and received a kit to test my DNA. In particular, the study was concerned with Scandinavian ingredients in the genetic mix of the Manx . Raids and settlements by Norsemen – Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and others – were an integral part of the early history of England, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. I provided the DNA by scraping the insides of my cheeks with a plastic brush.
As far as I knew, my basic heritage was Irish and Scots, predominantly Irish. However, I remembered that when in Sweden in 1981 I was sometimes asked for directions by people under the impression that I was a local. I was living on the New South Wales coast at the time and very active out of doors, so my hair was bleached by sun and salt water. My sister, fair-haired like me, had a friend who’d seen photographs of Icelanders and remarked on the similarity between them and my sister and myself. This friend’s son visited Iceland and confirmed his mother’s judgement.
What if, I thought, it turns out that there’s a strong Viking strain, that I’m significantly descended from those longship pagans, those horn-helmeted warriors who’d ravaged far and wide all those centuries ago? That would not displease me. (Although I’ve been told by a friend that Viking horned helmets were invented by Wagner and no evidence of them has been found in archaeological digs.)
The result when it came back was mildly disappointing. The basic component of my DNA is described as ‘early Irish; with a strong admixture of Scots and just a sprinkling of Swedish and Norwegian’. Not much, but something, and I like to think it might explain why I’ve always preferred Njal’s Saga to The Song of Roland or Piers Ploughman.