Rebecca Boyd

Exploring the universe, one frame at a time.

In Spite of It All

Posted Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
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I suspect that most families have stories that are told over and over again, year after year, at holiday dinners.  When I was a kid, we heard about great great grandpa Boyd every Christmas.  How he came over from Ireland.  How he fought for the Union during the Civil War.  How he married the Confederate nurse who tended his wounds after the Battle of Stones River.  How her Irish Catholic family could never have approved of him, given that he was from the “wrong” part of Ireland (Northern), the “wrong” side of the war (Union) and the “wrong” religious tradition (Presbyterian).  The picture of him at right hung on the wall in my grandparents’ house.  His story was part of the mental furniture of my upbringing, but not something I was ever particularly interested in.  Until…

One night early in 2012, I was sitting on my couch watching Who Do You Think You Are?, and I began to think about family history in a way that I hadn’t before.  I went on Ancestry.com and set the goal of getting all the family lines I could traced back to “the old country”, wherever that happened to be for each particular branch of the family.  But mostly I was interested in tracing the Boyd line back to Scotland, as I’ve been fixated on Scottish things for years – the accents, the misty landscapes, the standing stones, the men in kilts – and I knew that Boyds originally came from there before spreading to Ireland and the Americas and everywhere else.  

What I found, though, when I started poking around Ancestry.com, was that great great grandpa Boyd arrived in New York at the age of 10 without his parents. That’s a detail that we never heard at the Christmas dinner table.  I don’t think anybody knew.  And after nearly two years of research, I still don’t know why his parents were not on the ship with him.  There are a number of possibilities, of course.  Was he an orphan?  Did his parents come to America first and then send for him once they had a life established here?  I don’t know.  And I may not ever know.  There don’t seem to be any records.  So, not only did I fail to trace the family back to Scotland, I couldn’t even get them back beyond the port of Belfast in 1850.

Coming up empty handed on the line I was most interested in, however, sent me looking closer at lines I would have otherwise overlooked.  And, in doing that, I learned a huge amount about great great grandma Boyd’s family.  Or…  Well…  No, I didn’t.  But I learned a lot about Irish Catholic potato famine immigrants in general.  And, wow.  Potato famine immigrants had it bad.

Economic inequality was staggering in Ireland at the time of the famine.  Irish estates were typically owned by British Protestants (among them, some Boyds), and Catholics were largely tenant farmers.  The rents kept rising, and the Catholics just barely squeezed out a living on potatoes.  When the potato blight struck, they had nothing.  They didn’t own their land, they couldn’t pay their rent, and they had no food.  Mind you, there actually were plenty of other crops being produced in Ireland at that time, but they were being shipped out by the land owners to be sold elsewhere in Europe.  The saying you’ll encounter over and over again as you read about the Great Famine is “God brought the blight, but the English brought the famine.”

So, evicted Irish Catholics piled onto crowded, rat and flea infested ships and sailed for America.  Those who were still alive when they got here (30% died in the crossing) were greeted with signs in business windows saying “No Irish Need Apply”; and, in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, Americans would pay more to hire a donkey than to hire an Irishman.  The Irish took the hardest, lowest paying, most dangerous jobs there were.  They built our railroads.  They fought our Civil War.  They lived in the worst neighborhoods.  They endured mistrust and prejudice and sometimes outright violence at the hands of Americans.  And yet, they survived.

So, I was inspired.  And I began writing.  The result is In Spite of It All, which was described by the BlueCat Screenplay Competition as “particularly interesting in its exploration of the fragmented Irish identity”  and “rich with extraordinary detail and references to great Hollywood epics.”

It also made the finals in the 2015 Nashville Film Festival and the quarterfinals in the 2015 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship Competition!  Here’s a smattering of the feedback it received from Nicholl readers:

    • “lively dialogue that sparkles with wit”
    • “a thoroughly enjoyable, charming love story just brimming with Irish wit and sass”
    • “the most playful and lighthearted Civil War story I’ve ever read”
    • “a sweet, well-crafted romance, with a totally unique setup”
    • “a compelling and believable romance that feels fun and sincere”
    • “a very sweet concept for a love story”
    • “alternately funny and horrifying, all while not feeling overdone”
    • “countless great one-liners and exchange that keep the tone afloat”
    • “well crafted and fascinating”
    • “succeeds in making history feel personal”
    • “There’s something magical about the interplay between the characters set in the period and location of the story.”

I have loved writing the script, but now I’m ready for it to be a movie.  Are you game?  If so, shoot me an email (see “Contact” on the right side of the page), and let’s talk.