Comedian Billy Connolly is clear what kind of relative he hopes to find when he traces his family tree. “The best-case scenario would be to find someone I’m descended from who impressed me by their wildness, someone whose behaviour I thoroughly approved of,” he says.
Thanks to family stories, Billy half-expects to locate such a character in Ireland. Instead, he travels to India to hear tales of military forbears on his mother’s side of the family.
First up, after briefly checking records in Glasgow, that means heading for Wellington in the south of India. In the 19th century, this was a garrison town, and it’s still the base of the Madras Regiment. Here, at the wonderfully named Wellington Gymkhana Club, Billy meets historian Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, who has information about his great-great grandfather, Daniel O’Brien.
Hailing from County Wicklow, labourer Daniel joined up and initially enjoyed a successful military career in India. Serving with the prestigious Royal Horse Artillery, he was promoted to corporal in 1863. However, he was later stripped of his new rank and he repeatedly appears in the defaulter’s book, which recorded when soldiers had broken the rules.
Billy, who’s survived his own battles with the bottle, suspects Daniel may have been a heavy drinker, a suspicion confirmed when he sees his forebear’s hospital records in Bangalore. These show Daniel suffering from alcoholism (“It’s a family tradition”), dysentery and, at a time when around one in three troops had the disease, syphilis.
However, Daniel somehow escaped this downward spiral and got married in 1869. In 1873, he was described as a “regular, good and temperate” man. Billy likes Daniel, whom he sees as essentially vulnerable. He’s saddened to learn Daniel and family fell into poverty when he returned home.
But Daniel isn’t the only relative with Indian connections. Daniel’s father-in-law, John O’Brien, served with the First Madras Fusiliers. In 1857, he was at the centre of horrific events when Indians rose up against colonial rule. In Cawnpore, northern India, he saw the aftermath of a massacre where women and children were butchered and disremembered, their bodies thrown into a well.
In a conflict where atrocities were committed on both sides, John would have taken part in meting out cruel punishments against those deemed responsible, including making them clean up blood with their tongues prior to being hanged.
From Cawnpore, John went to Lucknow, where he found himself besieged because his regiment couldn’t fight its way out of the town after going to the aid of British residents. He suffered a serious gunshot wound in a prolonged and brutal defence. “It’s dead easy for me sitting here, Joe the hippy, peace and love and save the whale, but when you’re there it’s a different sausage,” says Billy, as he looks back on what he’s learnt about John’s life.
John was pensioned out of the army in 1859, but there’s still one more twist in the tale as, via the records of St Patrick’s Church in Bangalore, Billy learns that John’s wife, Matilda, was Indian. Not only that, but she was just 13 when she married.
Reflecting on what he’s learnt, Billy says he’s probably more like wild Daniel than dutiful John. He’s delighted to have Indian blood. “In my heart I have a little bit of India and I’m going to keep it very close to me,” he says.