Before turning on Who Do You Think You Are? USA last night, I watched a recording of The Kennedys, the excellent eight-part drama series on Irish-America’s most successful family which finished its run on RTE1 on Saturday night.
In the final scene, Jackie Kennedy visits JFK’s grave in Arlington Cemetery, Washington. Before she leaves, to return to the arms of her new husband, Aristotle Onassis, her eyes are drawn to the former president’s three names, carved into the simple headstone.
It’s the Fitzgerald name that stands out, as though the programme makers were making a deliberate point about Kennedy’s Irish roots, about how in the space of a few generations, an emigrant family with its roots in Wexford had achieved the highest political office in the world. The emigrant experience is an old story now, of course, but told well, and with passion and verve, it never loses its lustre.
Who Do You Think You Are (RTE1), in which Rosie O’Donnell, the US comedian and chat-show host, traced her family’s toots back to mid-19th century Ireland, also told that story and did so with just the right mixture of drama and sensitivity.
O’Donnell’s starting point was her mother, who died of cancer when Rosie was just 10. It was a “life-altering event”, she said, but one which by the end of her research was “no longer the focal point of my existence”. The long arc of her family’s journey, from famine-stricken Ireland to 21st century New Jersey, had given her perspective, allowing her to step back from her own pain and see that what she was feeling was just a small matter in the great scheme of things.
“Historically”, she said at one point, “Irish people are known for not sharing their feelings or emotions”. But by the end, with her Irishness in no doubt at all, her early reserve had disappeared. She shared.
Who Do You Think You Are? is a very effective ad for genealogy, and for the satisfaction, fun and sense of awe to be got tracing your family’s roots. But be warned, it looks like an expensive business when done properly.
O’Donnell’s journey of discovery, clearly aided by a team of researchers, took her from the east coast of the US, north to Canada, and then to Ireland, where she visited Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow and an old workhouse near Birr in Co Offaly. That kind of research clearly can’t be done without resources but if you have them, the level of detail that can be unearthed – from baptismal records, dusty old newspapers, local history books – is genuinely astonishing. It’s no wonder genealogy has been described as the world’s most popular hobby.
In Canada, O’Donnell discovered that her great-great-grandparents, a Murtagh and a Doyle, had left Ireland with three children during the famine, and had three more in their new home. Determined to get to Ireland and to visit the roots she knew she had, she managed to find Ann Doyle’s obituary in a local Canadian newspaper. She was from Kildare.
In Ireland, with the help of genealogist Nicola Morris, she traced the Murtagh/Doyles to Blessington, on the Wicklow/Kildare border. There she discovered that they had lost one other child in the famine, had been living in a work house, probably for more than a year, and had effectively been assisted to emigrate to Canada.
O’Donnell found it all “really overwhelmng”. Had the family not ben sponsored to go to Canada, she observed, “I wouldn’t be here”.
And if the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys hadn’t left Limerick and Wexford, we might still be waiting for an Irish-Catholic president of the US. One of the criticisms of genealogy is that it is a pointless pursuit, full of what-ifs and fevered speculation, which ultimately changes nothing. JFK was a US president; Rosie O’Donnell is a succesful tv personality. So what?
But, as O’Donnell proved, knowing where you come from, who came before you and where you fit in, can help you feel like a more solid, grounded individual particularly if, like her, you’ve been living with a sense that something is missing from your existence. She returned to the US a happier person.
This viewer, at least, had been privileged to share her journey.