Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Who do you think you are, Dervla Kirwan?

Dervla Kirwan ... found interesting stories about her ancestors in last night’s edition of ‘Who do you think you are?’

Patrick Comerford

Last night, I was one of the people interviewed on the BBC programme, Who do you think you are?

The series resumed on 17 July with Bruce Forsyth, who now hosts Strictly Come Dancing – his discoveries about his great-grandfather gave a new meaning to The Generation Game.

The line-up for the programmes in the current run includes; Rupert Everett, best known for his film roles in My Best Friend’s Wedding and Shakespeare in Love; the Australian actor and singer Jason Donovan; the award-winning Scottish actor Alan Cumming; comedian Alexander Armstrong; Hugh Quarshie, a long-time member of the cast of Holby City; the television and movie actor Rupert Penry-Jones; and Monty Don, the television gardener.

Last night’s subject was Dervla Kirwan, the Irish actress best known for her role as Assumpta Fitzgerald in 23 episodes of Ballykissangel, and for her parts in Goodnight Sweetheart, The Silence, and other dramas and movies. As an actress, she first won critical acclaim in 1988 in London for her “firm but fragile” performance as the factory girl Linda in A Handful of Stars, the premiere in the Bush Theatre of the first play in Billy Roche’s Wexford Trilogy. In 1992, again at the Bush Theatre, she starred in a revival of the complete Wexford Trilogy.

Dervla was born in Churchtown in Dublin and was searching for her connections with Michael Collins, a brother of her great-grandmother. Until now, Dervla has never spoken about her great-uncle Michael Collins, a national figure who played a key role in establishing the Irish Free State.Last night, she found out how her grandfather Finian O’Driscoll, a nephew of Michael Collins, fits into the story of the Irish War of Independence and the shaping of the Irish Free State after the death of his uncle.

Dervla went to the Military Archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks to unearth Finian’s pension records and clues to his activities before he joined the Irish Free State Army. She made an unexpected discovery regarding the IRA, and the documents helped her retrace Finian’s steps as she headed to Clonakilty, Co Cork, where the War of Independence was at its height when her grandfather was still a teenager.

But her discovery of an unconventional marriage took her on a journey to a tragic miscarriage of justice. Dervla knew little of her paternal side of the family and in a café she met her father who told her that his grandfather, Henry Kahn, was Jewish. Knowing nothing of the Dublin Jewish community, she headed to the Jewish Museum in Portobello.

Equipped with this new information, Dervla and I then met on a corner of Aungier Street in Dublin, opposite the site of Saint Peter’s Church. The church finally closed in 1975, was demolished in the 1980s, and the site is now occupied by the Dublin YMCA.

We talked about how her great-grandparents, Henry Kahn and Teresa O’Shea, were married in Saint Peter’s Church in 1880, when both of them gave their address as 70 Aungier Street. The parish registers show the wedding service was conducted by the curate of Saint Peter’s, Canon Morgan Woodward Jellett (1832-1896), who became Rector of Saint Peter’s three years later.

Dervla wanted to know why were married in a Church of Ireland parish church: Henry, who was then 24, was born a citizen of the Russian Czarist Empire, into a Jewish family in Suwalki in Russian Poland on 28 September 1855, while Teresa, who was born an Irish Catholic.

Bu t off camera I told Dervla how Henry was a cohen or member of the hereditary priest caste in Jewish society. To marry any woman outside Jewish society would exclude him for ever from full membership of the Jewish community in his adopted city. Teresa, for her part, risked being excluded from Catholic society for marrying a Jewish man unless he first converted to Catholicism.

Anti-Semitism had not yet become a major social problem in Dublin: just four years before their marriage, Lewis Wormser Harris was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1876 – although he died before taking office. But both were taking a major risk, so it must have been a true love match. They must have really loved each other to make such enormous sacrifices.

As residents of Saint Peter’s Parish, the Church of Ireland parish church provided the most convenient and most tolerant place for Henry and Teresa to celebrate their wedding.

As I told Dervla, this was a true Victorian romantic love story.

I showed her a photograph of Saint Peter’s before it was razed to the ground. But we also talked off-camera about how this church, which had been rebuilt in 1867, was a beautiful and richly-decorated church. The rector of Saint Peter’s, Archdeacon William Lee, and his curates, Canon Morgan Jellett and the Revd John James MacSorley (1809-1884), were part of that High Church tradition in Anglicanism that gave us the slum priests, with an enlightened social awareness and engagement.

As we talked on, I was reminded of John MacSorley’s daughter, Catherine Mary MacSorley, who wrote the hymn, We thank thee, O our Father, in 1890 for the children of Saint Peter’s School in Camden Row 1890. Her hymn includes a description of the conditions in inner-city Aungier Street, where Henry and Teresa were married, in late Victorian Dublin:

And in the dusty city,
where busy crowds pass by,
and where the tall dark houses
stand up and hide the sky;
and where through lanes and alleys
no pleasant breezes blow,
e’en there, O God, our Father,
thou mak’st the flowers grow.


Henry Kahn ran a tobacconist’s shop in Capel Street. Ten years after he and Teresa were married, he was baptised a Roman Catholic in Saint Michael’s and Saint John’s Church, Dublin, on his 35th birthday, 28 September 1890. A Latin inscription next to his name reads: “Adult baptism from Judaism.” He was naturalised two years later.

Dervla had discovered a Victorian love story, and the rest of the story later unfolded in last night’s episode of Who do you think you are?, as she also learned about a dismal miscarriage of justice and an act of anti-semitism that even reached the House of Commons – and that inspired an episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Curiously, genealogy is becoming a family project for Dervla this summer – she is married to Rupert Penry-Jones.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Updated 4 August 2010 with photograph from the programme