Although she moved away from Eire when she was just 17, Dervla Kirwan’s Irish ancestry is hugely important to the actress. “It’s absolutely part of who I am,” she says at the start of her episode of Who Do You Think You Are? However, as someone closely related to Michael Collins, a key figure in the fight for Irish independence, she’s long been worried about “prejudice” because of her family history.
Exploring this side of her genealogy is “like jumping out of an aeroplane and not quite knowing if your parachute works”. But leap she does, beginning with a visit to her parents to learn about her connection to Collins.
It comes through Dervla’s maternal grandfather, Finian Collins O’Driscoll, who was Collins’ nephew. Finian served in the military and, unusually, Dervla is allowed to see his pension file.
This reveals that Finian served for three years with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which waged a guerilla war against British rule between 1919 and 1921. She also sees an account of Finian’s actions as a signalman in 1920, warning IRA men when British troops were moving through an area.
To learn more, she heads for Clonakilty, County Cork, birthplace of Michael Collins. The hills around the town were the scene of intense and brutal fighting. Had the British captured Finian, he might well have faced execution even though, born in 1903, he was just a teenager.
He faced further danger because of his family connections. Collins, director of intelligence with the IRA, became one of the chief negotiators during the talks with British officials that led to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. When the terms of the treaty, with its provision for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, resulted in civil war in Ireland, Finian’s connection with Collins put his life in jeopardy.
Unlike his uncle, killed in an ambush in 1922, Finian made it through this tumultuous era and died in 1965. Dervla’s glad to have resolved “confusing questions” about his IRA service and adds, “I feel a great sense of acceptance and peace. I just wish I’d met my grandfather.”
Next, she turns her attention to her paternal grandfather, Harry Kahn, and a Jewish connection. What would the lives of Harry and Dervla’s grandmother, Teresa O’Shea, been like in such a staunchly Catholic country? At the Irish Jewish Museum, once the main synagogue for Dublin’s Jewish population, Dervla learns more with the help of curator Yvonne O’Connor. Through such documents as Harry’s certificate of naturalisation, she learns that he was a Polish tobacconist who left Eastern Europe at a time when Jews were being widely persecuted.
Yet he would have encountered prejudice in Ireland too. Inter-marriage was rare, and Harry and Teresa would likely have been ostracised by both their communities. Worse was to follow. In 1902, Harry was sentenced to a year in gaol for breaking a shop window. Sentencing Harry, judge Sir Frederick Falkiner said: “You are a specimen of your nation and your race that cause you to be hunted out of every country.”
Faulkner was anti-Semitic and the trial was a notorious miscarriage of justice that resulted in a question being asked in Parliament. Further, the trial probably inspired a famous passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the most famous novels of the 20th century.
None of which would have been much consolation to Harry, who was imprisoned in harsh conditions. Although he was released from jail early, he seems to have been broken by the experience and died penniless in a lunatic asylum following a series of strokes (which can lead to depression).
“I didn’t want [Harry’s death] to be a story of Jewish persecution, but it’s fairly hard not to see that that’s what happened to this man,” Dervla concludes. “The only brightness is that life has conspired somehow to allow me to tell his side of the story.”