Friday 24 May 2019

'One of the most powerful television hours I've ever seen' - huge reaction to Damien Dempsey's family story on Who Do You Think You Are

Damien Dempsey on Who Do You Think You Are? RTE One.
Damien Dempsey on Who Do You Think You Are? RTE One.
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

There has been an outpouring of support for singer songwriter Damien Dempsey following the story of his family as revealed on RTE's Who Do You Think You Are?

The first episode of the new series kicked off on Sunday night and saw the hugely popular singer investigating his ancestry including the life of his grandfather Thomas, who was born in America, but moved to Ireland with his mother and ended up spending time in the notorious Letterfrack Industrial School in Connemara.

Also on his father’s side, Damien learned about the heroics of his great grand aunt Jenny Shanahan who fought in Dublin Castle with James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army in the 1916 Rising.

Jenny led a difficult life and struggled to receive her military pension and died at the age of just 39.

On his mother’s side, the surname of Bridgeman opens up a window into an aspect of 19th Century Dublin that Damien had no knowledge of: his ancestor was a respected Freeman of the City – one of few Catholics afforded the privilege.

He ended up being accused of treason and rebellion in the era of the Young Irelanders and was incarcerated in the same prison as one of Ireland’s greatest civil rights campaigners Daniel O’Connell.

Damien was clearly moved by the hardships his ancestors faced, particularly those of his great grand aunt Jenny and his grandfather Thomas. 

Thomas was born in the US and Damien traced his grandfather's ancestors back to Fall River Massachusetts where his great, great, great grandfather James Rocket emigrated to with his family in the 1800s. 

James's children worked under horrific conditions with their parents in the cotton mill industry.

Damien also traced his grandfather Thomas' movements from the US back to Mayo via Liverpool, with his mother Maggie and sister in 1910, leaving his father and older brother behind in the US.

Locals in Mayo were able to tell Damien about his grandfather.  They told him his father described Letterfrack as being like Auschwitz.  The children there suffered "systematic and sustained abuse and cruelty".

An order of detention was made for Thomas when he was under 14 and "was found wandering" and the local parish priest complained about this and his mother was deemed "a parent who does not operate proper guardianship".

An abuser operated in Letterfrack from 1913 to 1940 and he would have been overlapping with Damien's grandfather's time there.  Damien described it as "hell on earth" and became very emotional about the stories of abuse.

Viewers were also hugely moved by the revelations made in the programme:

Damien Dempsey 

Other celebrities featuring in this series are comedian and actor Pat Shortt, presenter Laura Whitmore, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, actor Adrian Dunbar and former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.  The series continues next Sunday at 9.30pm on RTE One.

You can watch the full episode on RTE Player HERE

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