As the “pink sheep of the family”, Boy George always had a sense of “being different” as he grew up in south London. Being from an Irish family only compounded this at a time when Northern Ireland’s Troubles were at their height.
Yet as George explains at the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, he knows surprisingly little about his family in Ireland, although he does know that his grandmother, Bridget, was “found wandering” the streets of Dublin as a child. He also knows that someone in his family was hanged at the same time as the famous Irish freedom fighter, Kevin Barry. “I think there will be a lot of sadness, a lot of mascara running,” says George.
After a visit to his mother, Dinah, George heads for Dublin. Here, he discovers that rather than “wandering”, his grandmother was picked up close to her home by the NSPCC, whose officers at that time were criticised for being overly zealous and were known locally as “the cruelty men”.
Whatever the specific reasons for Bridget being taken from her tenement-dwelling parents, she spent much of her childhood in Goldenbridge Convent Industrial School, between the years of 1919 and 1929. It was a tough upbringing in line with Bridget’s memories of children being made to wear damp sheets as punishment for bed-wetting, but the “ambitious and painstaking” little girl made it through. “She was a survivor,” realises George.
Next, George turns his attention to the family connection to Kevin Barry, a name George first heard on an LP of Irish rebel songs as a child. Visiting his aunt, Phyllis, he learns that his great grandfather, Richard, was a British soldier, which doesn’t seem to tally with a story of Irish republicanism. In fact, many working-class Irish men joined the military.
Also, before she married Richard, George’s great grandmother, Molly, had been married to his brother. Her daughter from this marriage, Annie, married a republican, Thomas Bryan. In 1917, Thomas was arrested for taking part in a drill of the Irish Volunteers, a precursor to the IRA. In 1920, during the Irish war of independence, he was again arrested – and in 1921 he was convicted of high treason.
“I don’t mind death in any form,” he wrote from his prison cell, but worried about the impact on his “dear little wife”. On 14 March 1921, Thomas was executed, his body placed in an umarked grave.
When Thomas was arrested, Annie was pregnant, but the couple’s son didn’t survive beyond a day and predeceased his father. Widow Annie, George’s great aunt, died in 1930. In 2001, the body of Thomas Bryan, one of the so-called ‘Forgotten Ten’, was exhumed and reburied with full military honours. The story is “like a really sad song” – one that now means so much more to George as he joins Irish band Lankum to perform the rebel song he remembers from childhood, ‘Kevin Barry’.