At my grandfathers funeral, someone suggested we try to find the grave of his grandfather, the original Gillingham patriarch Solomon Gillingham. My first thought was Solomon Gillingham? Am I Jew-Irish? And is that even a thing? (Its not and I'm not which is too bad because again, the Jewish section of the cemetery is clearly primo real-estate!) Long story short, I heard a couple of rumours about the man, googled to see if I could corroborate any of that and ended up finding a story* better than I could have dared hope for.
So at first the only thing I knew about my great-great-grandfather was that he was a pretty successful guy with a big house and his own carriage and he owned a bakery here in Pretoria. Except the successful part was kinda weird because according to family legend his baking was incredibly shitty**. How shitty? Well it was so shitty that even the president allegedly commented on how terrible his bread was.
So life was pretty sweet, selling crappy baked goods and rallying support and funds for the Irish Republican Brotherhood but then they discovered gold in the Transvaal. Actually they discovered ALL THE GOLD. Seriously, there was like a million cubic fucktons of the stuff and then Brittain was all, "ooooh that's shiny, we'll take it" and the Transvaal was all like, "Oh like hell you will" and Britain was all like, "Fine, we invade countries all the damn time, we'll just come and take your gold" and the Transvaal was like, "Oh it's on! It's on like Donkey Kong!"*** So the Anglo-Boer war broke out.
This is where Solomon stepped up. He started going around to all the Irish immigrants saying, "Hey, you know how England totally sucks right? Well now they're coming here to suck right in our faces and that's not cool. They think they can just come over here and fuck shit up and take the gold and that is messed up man. Seriously, fuck those guys! Lets go punch them right in the fucking dick" And all the Irishmen were like "Dude, you had me at hello. Lets do this. Lets go punch those Brits in the dick." So they did. They formed their own commando unit to help the Boere and pretty soon they were joined by some other Irish guys from America who had exactly the same dick punching ideas****. So Solomon was the organizer and his friend John MacBride was the guy who actually led the commando.
So the fight actually goes pretty well for the home team for a while at least. Solomon sends this letter to his friend and Fenian chief in Ireland saying how awesome they are and how they are just fucking up the English wherever they go and how the Boere are just cheering them everytime they see them and how they just wanted to make him a colonel right on the spot because he was so awesome. So his friend reads this and goes "Holy shit, this is awesome! The people of Ireland need to hear this!" so he publishes it in the Irish press and the Irish just lose their shit. They think its awesome, Irish people dickpunching the English is just the best thing since whiskey as far as they're concerned so this gets circulated far and wide.
So eventually Solomon finds out this got published and he freaks the fuck out because he made up a whole lot of shit in that letter. There were hundreds of Irish fighting, not thousands and while they did a good job they weren't actually the toast of the Transvaal army. So he writes to his buddy MacBride saying "Heeeeey Broseph, don't know if you heard those horrible rumours about a letter I allegedly wrote that talked all this smack but I just wanted to let you know right now that was a hoax. Don't know by who, I'm as baffled as you are! Wasn't me though. I totally wouldn't bullshit people like that. C'mon, you know me!" I'm not sure if MacBride responded but I assume there was some dramatic eye rolling involved...
Anyway, pissing off his bro on the front lines was only half the problem! The bigger problem was that now the British knew about him and what he was doing since that letter was published with his full name. And he was right to be worried because once the British finally won the war they hunted him down. Now lucky for him the Boere were all like "Hey, you know we don't like people who speak the English but you Irish guys are OK" so they made the Irish commandos citizens. So now they couldn't hang him as a traitor so they had to treat him as a POW. So they did.
They caught him and sent him to Ceylon - which is now Sri Lanka but used to be Ceylon, where our tea comes from - to serve time in a POW camp. You know how they say someone was a model prisoner? What is the opposite of that? Because it turned out Solomon Gillingham was the opposite of a model prisoner. He just gave his captors hell 24-7. Eventually the British were like "Hey Solomon Gillingham, you've been a huge fizzy douche and we don't like you so we're going to keep you here as long as possible" and he was like "Ha ha, the joke's on you! I met this lady here and we've been going at it like rabbits so I don't mind staying here!" So he was one of the very last people to be released back to South Africa.
So he came back and was like "Sup mofos! War hero in the house!" and his wife was like "So what's this I hear about you starting a second family in Ceylon? I want a divorce!" So she makes legal history by not only getting a divorce in like 190-something but the judge was like "Yeah I see what you mean, this guy is a massive asshole" so he sided with her 100% Meanwhile Solomon was like "Whatever losers, I smuggled these rubies from Ceylon and this hot chick I met there followed me here so we're going to keep going at it like catholic bunnies" Which they did. And that's how I ended up being from a peaceful pentecostal Irish family instead of a radical militant catholic Irish family.
So yeah, as major douchebags tend to do, he totally landed on his feet. He eventually had 9 kids with his new wife so YEAH THAT'S RIGHT I have part Sri Lankan family somewhere out there! As dark family secrets go, this is pretty brilliant! I think the last time he got recorded doing something was when he chaired an Irish Sinn Fein meeting in Pretoria and posing under a bullet riddled Transvaal flag for the Irish press. Like a boss.
So here's to you great great grandfather! You were clearly a huge tool but at least you were interesting! For all my snark I doubt anyone will be writing about my life in a hundred years! I mean you pissed off everyone everywhere you went but you were also kind of a badass who fought for your beliefs and I can respect that. I'm not done with my life but it's a pretty good bet that no historian anywhere will be using any sexy adverbs to describe me one day so don't mind my snark. Sláinte!
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------*Found a book in Google books called "Forgotten Protest: Ireland and the Anglo-Boer War" by Donal P. McCracken. It had a bunch of stuff on my great-great-grandfather so I tracked down the author, a professor who specializes in the history of the Irish in South Africa and through our correspondence I learned some more. Before long the rest of the family were adding to the conversation and that's how I learned what I wrote here. If you'd like a more factual account, I suggest reading the book!
**I would like to go on record saying that this is not genetic. My baking is fantastic. Anyone who has had my chocolate cake with mocha frosting can confirm that my baking will make you cry tears of joy.
***No one actually said any of this, I'm paraphrasing.
**** It was pretty much a worldwide open forum for every young man with a yearning to punch the British right the nuts. Americans, Russians, Germans, they all came over here to fight.