My first 75 years: my Celtic and Italian forbears

by Robert Ronald

I am descended from several branches of humanity which eventually settled in Europe, specifically the British Isles and the Italian Peninsula.
As being of both Scottish and Irish descent, the ancestors on my father’s side were mainly Celts with a few Vikings or Norsemen thrown in as well.  The Celts were a powerful group of Iron Age tribes speaking Indo-European dialects first found in Southwest Germany and Southern France in the early part of the second millennium B.C. They were warriors who often made excursions into neighboring and distant lands.  They lived in fortified settlements. Their chieftains wielded the power of kings and the Druids the power of the priestly caste to control the forces of nature and educate the youth to keep traditions alive.  By the 4th century B.C. the Celts were being forced out of northern Europe or assimilated by the rise of the Germanic tribes, but their power continued to flourish in Ireland, Scotland and Great Britain though the Celts were eventually pushed out of England by the Anglo-Saxons.

The island of Ireland was separated from the rest of Europe after the last Ice Age. According to tradition it was successively invaded by four Celtic groups, first the Filbolgs and Fomers, then the Tautha De Danann (People of the Goddess Dana) who brought skilled artisans in all the then known arts, and finally around 1000, B.C. the Milesians, who became the ancestors of the present Irish people. It is said the Milesians came from Spain and before that from the Middle East, but neither claim has been proven.
Until the 8th century A.D. when Ireland was invaded by Norsemen, the Irish enjoyed independence from foreign incursion and a rich culture and literary tradition developed there especially after the conversion of the whole island to Christianity by St. Patrick in the 5th century. The Romans never reached Ireland and this isolation from the rest of Europe meant that the Dark Ages, which descended upon Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, never touched Ireland.

It is said that after the victory of the Milesians two brothers, Eber and Eremon, divided most of the island, Eber taking the south and Eremon the north. When the wife of Eber coveted a beautiful hill that had been given to the wife of Eremon, war broke out, which Eber lost, so that the north became the dominant power.  Irish genealogies trace two main royal lines, that of Eremon and that of Eber. My Rodgers ancestors were descended from the Eremon line (also the Scottish MacDonalds and Ronalds). My Connors ancestors from Eber.

The first settlers in Scotland arrived probably from England around 7000, B.C. in the Mesolithic Age living mainly along the coasts. In the Bronze Age the Beaker people arrived, so-called after the fact they buried their dead with metal beakers. The Gaelic speaking Celts arrived around 1000, B.C. in the Iron Age. They eventually pushed out and assimilated the Picts who were descendents of the original inhabitants, who got their name from their pictorial symbols. The Romans never succeeded in subduing the fierce tribes and built Hadrian’s wall in 122 A.D. to keep them out of Roman territory.

In remote times some ancestors of the Irish Clan Colla surnamed MacDonnell went from Ulster in Ireland to Argyle and the Hebrides in Scotland where they became the most numerous and powerful clan in the Scottish Highlands where they were generally called MacDonalds. In 1140 in the time of King Malcolm the Fourth of Scotland Samhairle MacDonnell was the eighth and greatest Thane (Baron) of Argyle, lord of Cantyre, lord of the Hebrides, Founder of the Kingdom of the Isles. He married Sabina the daughter of the Norseman Olad, King of the Isle of Man. He died in 1154.

Randal, the son of Samhairle was also the lord of Oergeal and Cantyre as well as the Founder of the Cistercian Monastery and Benefactor of the Abbey of Paisley. His sons, Domhnall, Alexander, and Rory invaded Ireland in 1211 in the territories of Derry and Donegal with seventy-six ships and settled in Antrim, where they became very powerful and intermarried with Irish princes and masters of Ulster.  Alexander is the ancestor of the present MacDonnells of Ulster.  Rory is the ancestor of the MacRorys, whose name was anglicized as Rogers, Rodgers, Roger, and Rogerson, which makes him a likely ancestor of my grandmother, Mary Rodgers, who in 1877 was born in Balla, a small town in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. Life was very hard in Ireland in the 1890’s, so she migrated to New York while still a teenager and married my grandfather in 1900.

In 1866, my great grandfather, Robert Thomas Ronald, born 1844 in a place as yet unknown, arrived in the United States. He was nationalized in 1872. According to the 1880 US census for New York City, he was born in England of a Scottish father and Irish mother and employed as a baker. In 1873 he had a son also named Robert T. Ronald, who by 1900 was employed as a clerk in a furniture factory. He married Mary Rodgers in 1900 and my father, Robert Anthony Ronald, was born in New Jersey in 1901, but raised in Brooklyn, New York.

Both my mother’s parents came from northern Italy. My grandfather from Bologna, my grandmother from Genoa.
The area around Bologna was first inhabited in the Bronze ago about 3000 years ago by a people called Villanovese, who were conquered by the Etruscans, who were in turn pushed out by the Celts, who had to finally give way to the Romans, who occupied the city for 400 years giving it the name Boronia. With the decline of the Romans came a succession of barbarians hordes, the Visigoths, Huns, Goths, and Lombards.  So who knows what mixtures of  blood flow in my veins? With the defeat of the pagan Lombards, the Christians began to fight over Bologna in a series of struggles between the Holy Roman Emperors and the Popes.

Crevalcore, the home town of my Grandfather Massimiliano Gaetano Bergamini, is by car about 45 minutes northwest from the city of Bologna.  He was born on the family farm there on July 29, 1855.  A famous Italian photographer of the late 19th century published a book in which there is a photo of my Grandfather’s parents and his brothers and sisters in their Sunday finery posing in front of their farm house. My grandfather was already gone when the picture was taken.

The name Genoa comes from the Latin “genua” for “knee’ or “jaw” for mouth of the sea. The Phoenicians originally from Tyre in Phoenicia went to Genoa from their settlement in Corsica around 2000, B.C. where they joined with the local inhabitants, the Pagu or Tribe of Ambrones, a Celtic people originally from Iberia.

Those ancient Phoenicio-Celtic settlers, also called the Ligures, from early times  formed bands of pirates all over the Mediterranean much feared by the Greeks who called them Thyrrerioi. They likewise often served as mercenaries, even being mentioned in the Greek legend of Hercules (as Ligures) and often joining Carthage to fight its many wars.  There were 4000 Phoenicio-Celtic soldiers in Hannibal’s army when he was defeated by Rome in 218, B.C.  On the home side, the Ligures were famous for the fine olives they cultivated and the olive oil they made, which were exported all over the Mediterranean and to every part of the then known world.

According to Plutarch, it wasn’t until 102, BC. that Genoa finally fell under the control of the Romans, who made it the Province of Gallia Cisalpinis (Inside the Alps Gaul).  Octavianus Augustus made Genoa his hometown in 18, B.C.  It wasn’t until around 300, A.D. that the Church finally took hold. One of its earliest Bishops was St. Syrus (324-384).

After the Romans lost control of Genoa in 401, A.D. the region fell in and out of independence many times over the next 1450 years.  But whether free or dependent the Genoans managed to build a mighty maritime and mercantile empire.  They conquered not by military might but by economic prowess and financial clout.  Their fleets were the first to use modern compasses and sextants. Around 1100 they established the first commercial bank (Banco di San Giorgio) offering merchants and traders the first known bills of exchange and other financial services. They developed the first insurance system.  It was Genoa who organized and led the First Crusade in 1098 and the Third Crusade in 1190.

Present day Genoa lies atop the Gulf of Genoa at just about the center of the Italian Riviera. Near the lower half of the eastern Riviera is the little town of Sestri Levante, where my grandmother Adalgiza Angelina Carmelina Lambruschini was born in on May 4, 1875 into a prosperous noble family that traced its ancestry back to a legendary pre-Roman King and a Roman Senator and was proud of its relationship to my grandmother’s granduncle, Cardinal Luigi Lambruschini who had been Secretary of State of the Papal States and reportedly lost being elected pope by a single vote in the conclave that chose Pope Pius IX. In 1890 when only 15 years old my grandmother joined her sister who was living in San Francisco. She married my grandfather in 1900 and my mother was born in 1906

And that is how I ended up half Italian, three-eighths Irish and one eighth Scottish. But it still doesn’t explain how my parents got together and I was finally born in the little town of Martinez in 1932.  There are still many elements of chance that need to be explained.

Painting by Bendu