Wednesday 21 March 2018

McGann: 'I have their blood in my veins - but I own my story'

Stephen McGann, actor and author - and brother of Joe, Paul and Mark - has delved into his talented family's past. He tells our reporter about how they survived the Famine, why the tenements were a step up for them, and how the acting dynasty came into being

Stephen McGann:
Stephen McGann: "You look at people's names and ask who were they? That's what actors do." Photo Gerry Mooney
Stephen plays Dr Turner in Call the Midwife with co-star Laura Main

Ciara Dwyer

Stephen McGann spent a lot of time in hospital when he was a little boy.

"I loved it," says the Liverpool-born actor. "Back in the lavish days of the NHS, they'd sweep you away for a week. I had countless operations for my ears, nose and throat."

As he utters these words, his dark brown eyes light up, and he sounds positively cheerful. Happy in hospital? I'm mystified.

"It was a bit like what I'm doing now in Call the Midwife. (He plays Dr Turner in the BBC series.) It was more or less the same era. In the 1960s, hospitals were full of matron nurses. It was regimented and very clean; I loved it. There was visiting time, where people fussed over you, gave you fruit and sweets, and then they pushed off. You were safe, had good nursing care and you were left to your own devices."

Far from lonely, he relished being alone.

"I grew up in a crowded house, the fourth of five," he says. "But I was shy. There was no place for privacy and no place to find out who you were and as a kid, you were assigned your role. I was the sickly one and the bones of my rib cage stuck out. My nickname was Bone.

"In hospital, I had my own space. There was warmth and security in this orderly kindness. I came to see it as a haven, a place where I could be free. It was there that I first found solitude and a sense of self. I could read my books."

McGann tells me that he was a nerd and an insular child. While his brothers Joe, Paul and Mark, who all share the acting gene, enjoyed rough and tumble horseplay, he was too fragile for that.

Years later, as a result of a lucky break, the four McGann brothers would act together in the stage musical Yakety Yak and then starring in the TV series The Hanging Gale. (The latter was based on the story of their Irish ancestors during the Famine.) The boys were bright and hungry to get on in the world. But Stephen explains that they weren't destined to work together, forever, as a family unit. Each had their own talent and they went off in different directions, some concentrating more on music than acting. Stephen acted and also did some writing.

But his regular spells in hospital as a boy formed him as a man. He became fascinated with illnesses and the whole world of medicine. Also, thanks to those vast chunks of time alone, he spent a lot of time in his head. By the time he was a young adult, he was curious about his ancestors. Genealogy became his passion. Those interests come together in his new book - Flesh and Blood, which has the subtitle - A History of My Family in Seven Maladies.

When I heard the description of the book, I groaned. I thought that it was going to be a litany of ailments and a miserable read. Nothing could be further from the truth. McGann tells the tale of his ancestors with passion. Yes, people die from hunger, and smallpox and there was trauma and frostbite. But he writes about their struggles and their resilience.

Full of suspense, it reads like a thriller. The book covers 150 years of social history and it's a meditation on the way lives and histories are shaped by health. He picks out the encapsulating ailment for each period in history and finds a connection with it in the present. It makes for a pleasantly meandering read. Also, it's an opportunity for him to fuse his two passions - history and medicine. You can hear the actor in him. In the book, he turns the genealogical data into human drama. He paints the pictures vividly.

All of this started when he asked his father about their family. Stephen knew that with a name like McGann, there must have been an Irish connection. He grew up in Liverpool which, he tells me, has a really old diaspora culture and where every second person seems to have an Irish surname. Stephen was curious about his paternal grandfather, who had died aged 35, but his father knew nothing about the Irish link.

"We didn't even know where my grandfather was born," he says.

"I asked my dad, my Uncle Jimmy and my Auntie Mary. They told me about my great-uncle, James. He was a fireman on the Titanic and he survived the exposure in the North Atlantic. But that was all I knew."

And so, long before the internet existed, Stephen set off looking at old parish records to see what he could find.

"I walked into the local records office, this snotty-nosed Scouse kid and I asked the librarian for help. She was wearing half-moon glasses. She goes off and all of a sudden, she comes back with this book which looked like a priceless antique from the 1840s. I still remember the smell of the book. I'm waiting for her to put on special gloves and show me some pages. Instead, she plonks it down and tells me to give her a shout when I'm ready. I couldn't believe it."

Just having this tome in his hand was excitement enough.

"As I turned the vellum pages, it was like a camera flashback," he says. "You are seeing the streets. The neighbourhood of this lost world begins to develop. It's calling you. That's when I got the bug because I realised that it was all there.

"You look at people's names and ask who were they? That's how actors look at characters."

But it wasn't all easy. In the beginning, he felt like he was looking for a needle in a haystack. He learnt that there were more records for people who had money and he thought that his poor family were going to be undocumented.

Inspired by the TV series Roots which was based on the Alex Haley book, he had this romantic notion that it was going to be easy to find the full story of his ancestors. Instead, the reality was much slower, full of stops and starts.

"I looked at these illiterate dregs of the poor and they were not bothering history. I remember saying to myself, well, I'm never going to find anything interesting," he says. "But the more I persevered, the luckier I got."

For 35 years Stephen has searched for stories about his ancestors but only five years ago, he found the specific Irish connection. He traced them back to Tibohine in Co Roscommon. His great-grandfather Eugene was born there.

"They survived the Famine and in the big rush afterwards, they went to Liverpool, then over to the States and then back to Liverpool. They were housed in the ghettoes in there.

"I begin the story in a slum with my great-grandmother Susan. Her child is lying dead in her arms. After the Famine, they were starving in Liverpool as well. I was looking at these large families thinking, this isn't right. I was trying to understand, as an actor, what was making them go on."

Stephen then followed the family's life. He realises that many people associate tenements with hardship but with his detailed research, he explains how tenements were a good thing for them.

"For us, they were part of our development, and a step up. There was hot and cold running water and a loo."

When I remark that he struck gold with some of his stories about his family, he tells me that he believes that everyone has tales like this. The important thing is to listen to your family, especially while they are still alive, to get their testimony. Sometimes people have stories which they are not willing to tell, at first; take his Uncle Billy.

"When we were growing up, he was this mad uncle. He used to eat a tulip as a party piece. We loved him. We knew that he'd been in the war but it was never mentioned. Nobody talked about it until one day me and my brother Mark went on a day trip with him to Wales. I must have been 10 at the time. We just asked him straight out - what was it like? - and he told us.

"He had been taken by the Japanese in Singapore and he was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp for three and a half years. He was a really interesting character, but like a lot of men of that generation, he never talked about it.

"He told us that he survived his hunger by hatred. But there was something underneath the hatred. He said that all the poets and writers and gentle souls didn't survive but the only ones who walked out were the bastards. And he was a bastard. He told us that he grew up like a street rat. He learned how to box and he could find food in the docks. When they starved him and hit him with a rifle butt, he could still find a way to get up."

The party trick of eating the tulip suddenly didn't seem so funny any more. It was no trick. Their Uncle Billy could eat anything because that was how he survived.

Like Billy, Stephen's father was another man who'd had a military life but didn't wish to dwell on it. Instead he got on with his duties of being a husband and father. Joe McGann was critically wounded on D-Day in Normandy. Penicillin was the new medicine which helped with his shrapnel injuries. He was healed physically but mentally. he was scarred for life. He saw his friends die and that lingered with him.

Years later, Stephen's mother would discover her husband's medical record and learn that he had anxiety neurosis.

"Trauma had lodged in my father's brain, eating away at his peace. A terrible cloud gathered over his emotional outlook. He'd survived but remained wounded. He buried his anxiety.

"My dad was a gentle man but he was depressed. He was damaged and traumatised. The depression was like this fog and for years, my poor, innocent mother didn't know this. He would criticise her for the smallest thing but gradually, over her life, this quiet, obedient housewife began to do her own thing. He didn't kill her spirit and on his deathbed, he apologised to her. She told him that it was OK. And it was OK by then."

Stephen phones his mother, Clare every Sunday and they chat. She told him the story of her life for his research. He had watched how she had defied her husband by becoming a grief counsellor and later, she studied to become a nursery teacher. He believes that the feminist battle wasn't won by waving flags and burning bras. Instead, it was done house by house, woman by woman, just like his mother.

His parents divorced and then, when his father Joe was very ill, his mother took him back into the family home and minded him. There was no animosity. It is clear that Stephen admires his mother's strength. And so does his wife, Heidi Thomas. She credits Clare McGann as one of her main inspirations for the drama series she writes - Call the Midwife. He tells me that the series is not about the babies but what the babies mean.

Stephen fell in love with Heidi when he acted in one of her plays, and then they never worked together again until the hit series. Their son Dominic is a student and now they are empty-nesters. But in the book, Stephen writes about how he was present for the labour. It was bumpy and like so many men, he felt redundant.

But there was great joy when they heard the baby's first sounds. In the book, he describes how the midwife carried their groaning little baby over to him. He saw his face for the first time, red and bruised from the grappling tug of forceps. He was in awe of him. Later when he was left alone with his son, he was too nervous to lift him up.

A year after their son was born, Heidi was very ill and almost died. Her bowel had become blocked by scar tissue. It was a terrifying experience but when she was better, they all took something from it. The great miracle of the experience was that life continued afterwards. It stopped her being so afraid.

In Stephen's book, she explains that when you've dealt with something completely terrifying and come out the other side, you can reflect on it and think, well, I came back. Sometimes all you need to know about life is that there can be another chapter.

She remembers when she was as weak as a kitten, with tubes and bags coming out of her, two nurses washed her. This was nothing to do with science but it was about what it means to nurse human beings and value human life. She never forgot their gentle kindness.

Stephen tells me that there is a scene in Call the Midwife where a nurse has been abused. She is sitting in a bath and silently, another nurse comes in and gently washes her back. Heidi had remembered it all and wanted to pay tribute to them.

And as for Stephen?

He was almost a widower with a one-year-old son. Being so close to tragedy made him appreciate life all the more. He is full of love for life and gratitude. And his genealogical journey has enriched him. His ancestors are always in his mind.

"I have their blood in my veins but I own my own flesh. I make my own story. My family had nothing but they just kept moving forward. I do the same."

In the beginning, it was like a reverse narrative where Stephen told his father about their ancestors but now, he has restored order. After years of research, he can finally tell his son the story of their family.

Dominic read his father's book and sent him a text afterwards. He told him that he was proud of him and thanked him for telling him the family story. There is no need for any Who Do You Think You Are? on him.

Born and bred in England, Dominic has linked up with some Irish musicians. He has just started playing the bodhran. Now he knows why he is drawn to that instrument. It's in the blood. It goes way back.

'Flesh and Blood - A History of My Family in Seven Maladies' by Stephen McGann is published by Simon and Schuster €14.95

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