Jeremy Irons was born in a prosperous middle-class family just after the Second World War in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. He enjoyed an idyllic childhood sailing with his brother, sister and father before attending Sherborne School in Dorset at the age of 13.
Given the choice of a career in the army (he was very good at sports at school and was recommended for The Paras) or drama school, Jeremy chose the latter. He says his greatest fear on the search is to find that his ancestors were dull and middle class: his father once warned him not to look into the family history as he would find “only boring accountants”.
Jeremy has two main objectives when tracing his family ancestors. He feels most at home in South West Ireland, where he lives by the sea, describing the feeling of moving to Cork as like “coming home”. However, he believes this empathy is more than just the fact that he is married to the Irish actress Sinéad Cusack, and he wants to find out if there is Irish blood in his veins.
Secondly, a family myth claims that one of his ancestors, Thomas Irons, rode into Westminster on a donkey to present a petition on behalf of the Chartists, and was subsequently arrested and sent to Newgate Gaol. Jeremy wants to find out if this is true.
His first port of call is to talk to his cousin Susan in Tooting. She shows him the marriage certificate of Thomas, his great, great grandfather, which mentions that he was a policeman – one of the first ever Peelers. Jeremy wants to know how a man could have gone from being a policeman to being arrested as a Chartist and sets off to discover more at the Met Police archive offices.
The archives’ Maggie Smith shows him records that detail Thomas Irons’ entry into the police force. They also reveal that he was dismissed for being drunk and disorderly in 1834, later being arrested as part of a Chartist plot and spending 18 months in Newgate Gaol.
Charting the Chartists
Jeremy is intrigued by this plot and, with the help of a Chartist expert, discovers more about the so-called “Orange Tree Conspiracy” for which Thomas was arrested. The family myth about his ancestor petitioning government turns out to have been true, but what about the donkey? As unlikely as it sounds, this part of the legend could also have roots in reality – as the Chartist expert puts it, the donkey was “the white Bedford van of its day”.
Pleased with his success with the first part of his quest, Jeremy then begins the search for his Irish roots. A journey that takes the actor to Yorkshire, Dublin and Northern Ireland ends up in West Cork, where to his delight he discovers that his great x4 grandfather, David McCreight, owned a linen mill just 20 miles from his current home.
Finding out he has Irish blood is, Jeremy says, like winning an Oscar. He feels it is a complete vindication of the strong pull Ireland and especially Southern Ireland has over him. However, when asked what his wife Sinéad feels about his Irish heritage, Jeremy says that she’s more excited to learn that there was a political activist in the family!