Posted by on 3 August 2010 in General

I find Irish history both fascinating and thought-provoking, so I was really looking forward to Dervla Kirwan’s Who Do You Think You Are? episode last night. I have to admit, I found the first half disappointing, as we were largely given a beginners’ guide to the Irish War of Independence and Civil War. Thankfully, things picked up in the last 30 minutes, as some real family history research turned up an emotional, and quite unexpected, tale.

I was flabbergasted that Dervla could have such a close link to one of the most famous figures in Irish history, and not know her precise relationship. Surely she would have at least been curious about Michael Collins following school history lessons? Perhaps because of Collins’ fame, it seemed the Who Do You Think You Are? team didn’t need to work too hard to discover this side of the star’s story, meaning it came over more like a historical documentary than a family history programme.

However, the tone changed dramatically as Dervla investigated a Jewish connection on her father’s side. She negotiated her way through birth, marriage and death certificates, naturalisation records, newspapers and prison and asylum papers as she pieced together a tale of courage, romance but ultimately sorrow. The idea that a judge could be so openly racist seems incomprehensible today, and the fact that it sent her great-grandfather into such a downward spiral makes it all the more abhorrent.

If you have, or suspect, an Irish link in your family, check out our full range of records dedicated to the Emerald Isle. Among the highlights are an index to Griffith’s Valuation – possibly the most important record of the country’s mid-19th-century population – and a series of documents relating to famine relief work.

Looking outside Ireland, you can trace travellers in your tree through passenger lists, arrival registers and many other immigration records. If you think your ancestors followed the same distressing route as Dervla’s, consult workhouse admission books, medical registers and other documents in our London Poor Law collection.


Chris Paton 

Not sure I quite agree about the first half – I think the programme absolutely did the right thing, rather than go for the sensationalist tale of Michael Collins (let the press make of what they will on that front!), she looked at her grandfather’s story, a much braver decision for the programme makers to make. It covered familiar territory in the Irish Civil War – but it was a legitimate tale to tell, and as she said herself, all she was looking for was clarity about a half told tale half remembered. As for the Irish civil war pension records not being available to the public – from a conversation I had at last year’s WDYTYA Live with the NAI and NLI, all I can say is – watch this space!

The second half, however, was probably the best half hour of the series since Bill Oddie appeared in the first episode. And possibly the first not to go all begorrah, bejesus or no surrender on us, the usual form when London based WDYTYA programme makers visit Ireland. A proper Victorian tragedy, with a wealth of records types we don’t normally get to hear of. BBC Television at its very best – and thankfully, after such a miserable start to this series with the first two programmes!

3 August 2010 at 2:42 pm
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3 August 2010 at 2:53 pm

I myself would be interested in the records being released to family as I find myself at a loss knowing that my Dad’s records are held in the same place as Dervla’s Grandfather yet they are not available to me. My father was also born in 1903 the same year as her grandfather and he also had a pension.I hope this changes as I too am aching to fill in the missing gaps in my Dad’s life. I know some of what he went through but need the whole story.. Hope someone can help me.

3 August 2010 at 4:20 pm
Niamh Blake 

I really enjoyed this episode, and Dervla was right to clarify for British viewers that the old IRA was a very different thing to the organisation focused on the north in the recent past. Every second person in Ireland probably had family members in the old IRA and are proud of all they did to make our country (mostly) independant.
I too, would like to have access to my grandfather’s records at Cathal Brugha Barracks.
The Jewish family story was very interesting also, as I’ve never known of any Jewish Irish people personally, I had no idea there was such prejudice against them as there was against Catholics.
I was really hoping that Dervla would cover her Kirwan line, as I have one of my own, and would have been most interested in this side. It was still a great episode though.

3 August 2010 at 6:10 pm

i did find the first half boring because being here in ireland it’s just old news, and brought back memories of being in history class learning of all that stuff. It didn’t get into that side of it too much because it’s too split down the middle, and the star herself said she is not political and her family were. She’s a peace supporting person, and never wanted to be affiliated with something that spiralled into what would be as we know today the “other” IRA, a country divided between protestants and catholic and the fact that so many people died for the cause. Although it is important to say that Michael Collins and all his associates, played a vital role in obtaining Irelands Independance from the British Rule. But as i said, nothing that we irish haven’t heard a million times before. the second half was better, and really sad i thought.

4 August 2010 at 4:15 pm

Strangely, the programme did not mention the lack of census data in Ireland? This may be one of the reasons they had to fall back on newsreel film (most of which is available on the “Mise Éire” DVD if you want more). Otherwise, I thought it was a very revealing programme and one of the best in the WDYTYA series!

4 August 2010 at 5:55 pm

I found the part about Henry Kahn fascinating – my own great great grandfather was a Jewish Henry who was a tobacconist who left Russian territories for Ireland in the late 19th Century. Unfortunately his surname tends to be much more erratically spelled than ‘Kahn’.

Can anyone tell me precisely what the book was that Dervla found her G-G grandfather’s name in – the A to Z of Irish Jewry? More information on this resource would be really useful, as I know so little of my own relation Henry Leuria and his son, Max, who married a Roman Catholic Irishwoman also…

5 August 2010 at 6:23 pm

Watched Dervla’s story with great interest as my great grand father is also an Michael Collins, alas not thie same one.

However found Dervla’s story very intersting, uncanny that both her great grandparents lifes coincided. Can’t help thinking its a shame Henry Kahn didn’t know Michael Collins. Michael fought to help the Irish people he felt had been wronged. And poor Henry was very clearly wronged.

Felt like Dervla did, sad for Henry.

8 August 2010 at 7:33 pm
Ivor J Doherty 

I, fully enjoyed Dervla Kirwans journey into her family history and very glad that she got many questions answered. I was mightily annoyed though when I saw her drive into Cathal Brugha Barracks and given the red carpet to peruse all the documents about her grandfather and even get photocopies. Three years ago I applied to get to see the file on my uncle, I duly sent off all the required documents only to be told that I did not qualify even though the guidelines clearly state that nephews and nieces fall into the next of kin category. But Chris Paton I will clearly “watch this space”

9 August 2010 at 7:36 pm