Growing up in Eire, Graham Norton felt “slightly foreign”. “You’re made to feel like you’re not Irish,” he says of being raised as a Protestant in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Yet as far as the comedian’s aware, his ancestors are Irish on both sides. Having once thought of home as “just somewhere you sat ’til you were ready to leave”, he now wants to know more about his family’s past. In particular, how did they come to be in Ireland?
His first visit takes him home to see his mother, Rhoda Walker. (Graham took an old family surname for his career.) It’s from “funny but harsh” Rhoda, Graham says, that he got his sense of humour. It’s also Rhoda who gives Graham a clue to a family mystery: why did his great-great- grandmother, Mary, have two different surnames, Dooey and Logan?
To find out, he heads north of the border in search of his mother’s side of the family. In a church in Ballymena, thirty miles from Belfast, Graham finds a record of his great-grandmother Mary’s marriage. She was, it turns out, eight months pregnant when she headed down the aisle. “Good, I’m not the first person to bring shame on the family,” jokes Graham.
Nor was Mary. In Ahoghill, five miles from Ballymena, Graham learns more about Mary’s mother, Margaret Logan. She had at least four children and no father is listed for any of them, although in one case a Fred Dooey is scratched out of the records – the mystery of the two different surnames is at least partly explained.
But what of Graham’s father? For generations, the Walkers lived in Carnew, Co Wicklow. Even today, it is a Protestant enclave. Through land valuation records, Graham discovers the Walkers were tenant farmers, renting land from the Fitzwilliam Estate founded in the 1630s by Thomas Wentworth. This takes him into a dark area of English-Irish relations, the English establishment of ‘plantations’ in Ireland by confiscating land from the Irish and bringing in Protestant settlers.
The Walkers, it gradually becomes clear, were pillars of Carnew society. Graham’s great-great-grandfather Joseph, for instance, was a churchwarden and “overseer of deserted children”: his role in society was equivalent to that of a local councillor today. There had to be “a huge amount of resentment” towards such figures, Graham realises, because the Anglican Church of Ireland had the power to levy taxes on both Protestant and Catholic.
Choosing a side
Going back another generation, Graham finds Thomas Walker, born in 1773. The date is significant. It means Thomas would have lived through and even fought in, the bloody 1798 rebellion, when the Society of United Irishmen rose up against English rule. At Carnew, one of the conflict’s most infamous events took place, when 41 untried Catholic prisoners were massacred.
Having also learnt that one of his distant relatives, John Walker, was probably murdered by the rebels, Graham reflects: “You discover that your ancestors were on the side that history and time have decided was the wrong side. It means that you’ve got to stop and you’ve got to examine that history in a slightly more detailed or complicated way.”
Nearing the end of his journey, Graham visits the Fitzwilliam-Wentworth Archive in Sheffield to learn that it was Yorkshireman John Walker, born in 1691, who first crossed the water. Chat show host Graham, points out historian Melvin Jones, has “the same genes as Michael Parkinson”.
In the shadow of stately Wentworth Woodhouse, the magnificent Wentworth and Fitzwilliam family seat, Graham reflects on what he’s learnt. He’s not found a sense of where he belongs but his ideas about family have changed. “Blood is more important than place,” he says, “and blood is more important than land.”