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Tuesday 2 September 2014

A Bermuda triangle of Bird family mysteries

Charlie Bird was in for a few shocks when he went on a journey to discover his roots for a new RTE programme

Published 14/09/2008 | 00:00

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TOWARDS the end of the two-week stint for the filming of RTE's Who Do You Think You Are?, last February, I ended up in the East End of London with the production team. I was totally confused as to what we were doing there. The place had no connection with anything or anyone that I thought might be related to my family on the Bird side.

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But I was in for a shock.

My journey had started in the town of Macroom in West Cork, where both my father and mother were born and reared.

Obviously I'd always known that my parents had come from the place that is said by the local people to have "never reared a fool". The small market town is on the road between Cork and Killarney, and some of Ben Dunne's family, as well as businessman Dermot Desmond's father, also hailed from Macroom. Indeed, in one family document relating to my great-grandfather, an O'Shea, I was to discover that Dermot Desmond's father helped him with the accounts of his small mineral water business. Perhaps if I were to look back further there might even be some family ties between the Dunnes and the Desmonds ...

As a child, I had been told that my grandfather on my father's side, one Timothy Collins Bird, an electrical engineer, had come from Bermuda to install street lighting in the small market town. Indeed, our sketchy family folklore told me that Macroom was one of the first places in the country to have street lighting. I'd also been told that my grandfather, a Protestant, converted to Catholicism in order to marry my grandmother.

In truth, I knew little else about my grandfather, except some vague notion that the Birds in Bermuda had some link to the British rule of the island.

My journey, then, was to take me far beyond Marcoom, to Bermuda itself and then to Portsmouth on the south coast of England. In each of these places, I had some idea as to why we were going there, but at each location there were more and more surprises.

Reaching back to the past can be a strange feeling. Most of us think we know who we are and where we've come from. But for the majority of us, the myth of who we are can be far from the truth. Once we start delving back, the ghosts of the past can come to haunt us. In a way, I was not emotionally prepared for the journey that I was undertaking.

Yes, I had known a certain amount about the Bird connection to the island of Bermuda. However, the reality of what I discovered there was far different to the colourful stories that I had in my head as a child. I knew, yes, that my grandfather Timothy Collins Bird had been born there. But in truth I knew nothing else.

I was shocked to discover that his father, a Charles Bird, my great-grandfather, was also born in Bermuda and had died at the age of 37. It turned out that he was buried on the remote island, and I was able to visit the graveyard. The slaves were buried in one part; in another, the black people; and in another, those who died of yellow fever.

I have to confess that during the visit to Bermuda I started to have some of the most vivid and disturbing dreams about the relatives I'd never known. I was so disturbed by them that I even refused to discuss them with the TV production team during the interviews we'd have as we went from place to place.

After Bermuda, we travelled to England, to Portsmouth, the home of the British Navy for hundreds of years. Here, more startling revelations took me totally by surprise. British naval records showed that my great-great-grandfather, Timothy, had been involved in one of the most important naval battles in British history, the Battle of the Nile, in 1798. The records show that he actually served under Admiral Nelson himself. Indeed, according to British naval historian Iain McKenzie, who was interviewed for the programme, the proud naval tradition in the Bird family "is something most modern British Admirals would give their left arm for".

The Who Do You Think You Are? researchers, in the end, were able to trace back my Bird ancestry to around the 1750s. It was remarkable to me the amount of first-hand documentation they were able to uncover. Even though it doesn't make the final cut of the programme, I was shown the actual baptismal record of my great-great-grandfather. He'd been baptised in a tiny church in Portsmouth around 1802. It was a huge surprise when the lady showing it to me suddenly turned over the page and remarked that just a couple of years later Charles Dickens himself was baptised in the same church, and probably by the same rector. It was one of those spine-tingling moments. Thoughts flooded through my head that my great-great-grandfather and Dickens might have played together as young children in the same small streets of Portsmouth.

Perhaps my imagination was running away with me. But the reality is we are all probably passing strangers in the streets today to whom we are related through links in the dim and distant past.

A few years ago, I met a lady from Macroom who was in her 80s. Jokingly, she told me that I was related in some distant way to Eamon O Cuiv, the Fianna Fail minister and Dev's grandson. Fact or fiction? Who knows? But when you look back, be prepared for surprises. Once you open the Pandora's box of your family history you never know where it will lead.

In the end, perhaps the biggest surprise for me came during that final visit to east London, when out popped what might be called the ultimate skeleton in the cupboard. The task of revealing this to me fell to Laura Berry, one of the main genealogists for the programme. Laura had discovered that my grandfather had been married before and that, way back in 1892, he had married 17-year-old Agnes Smith in the south of London. Laura could find no divorce record for the first marriage and so, there I was, faced with the reality that my grandfather was in all probability a bigamist.

Of course, you can only be a bigamist if you are charged, tried and found guilty of bigamy. But that notwithstanding, there and then Timothy Collins Bird's secret of over 100 years finally tumbled out for all to see. There was no doubt that in the church record in Macroom on the occasion of his marriage to my grandmother, Jane O'Shea, he had stated that he was a bachelor.

It was a strange moment for me. But when you reach back over 100 years in time, who knows what you might find in your background? More and more of us are becoming interested in our family backgrounds. I can see why: having gone through the exercise I feel much more enriched about my family background.

Of course, when delving back in time it is important not to be judgrmental of what, or who, one might find. All of us have swept things under the carpet. I shudder to think what my relatives perhaps in 100 or 200 years time might think of me.

Has this journey changed me? Yes, is the answer. But I have one regret. I wish I could roll back the clock at least a little and sit with my parents and get their view of our family history. One hundred years ago, or even less, we had the oral tradition, passing down stories from one generation to another. Today, we're all too busy to do that. It's ironic, though, that as one record dies, another emerges: the internet is now providing one of the most useful tools for us to look back to help us find out who, and what, we are. Start looking now. Who Do You Think You Are?

The first Who Do You Think You Are? is on RTE One tomorrow at 9.30pm

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