Monday 19 March 2018

Did you know De Niro was Irish?

Awards season is upon us, so it’s time to hoist the green flag. From Anne Hathaway and the Jonas Brothers to Rihanna and Christina Aguilera, there are plenty of famous faces we can stake a claim on, says Darragh McManus

Rihanna's dad is part- Irish. Photo: AP
Rihanna's dad is part- Irish. Photo: AP
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

We're fond of claiming people as our own, aren't we? Ralph Fiennes, for instance, was virtually made an honorary Irish citizen when we found out he lived in Cork and Kilkenny for a few years as a child. And my unbounded love for French actress Eva Green shot into the stratosphere when I read that she'd stayed in Dublin as a young woman. (That makes you Irish enough in my book, Eva. Oh, and will you marry me?)

Whenever someone with even the slightest bit of Ireland in their ancestry does something good, we enthusiastically hoist the green flag and whip out the 'Guaranteed Irish' stamp. It's funny, then, that there are so many famous, iconic and renowned people around the world whose Irish heritage remains unknown to us.

Take Jimi Hendrix. A black American from the Pacific Northwest (and, coincidentally, the greatest guitarist to pick up a plectrum): hardly the stuff of green dreams, is it? Au contraire: Jimi's mother Nora Moore was the daughter of a Cherokee Indian woman and an Irishman.

Or another left-handed rock genius who changed the face of music and died at the tragically young age of 27: Kurt Cobain was descended from a family called Coburn or Cobane, who either emigrated from Tyrone (according to the 'Heavier Than Heaven' biography) or Cork, according to the man himself.

Kurt said in 1993: "I never knew about my ancestors until this year ... They came from Co Cork, which is a really weird coincidence, because when we toured Ireland, we played in Cork and the entire day I walked around in a daze. I'd never felt more spiritual in my life.

"It was the weirdest feeling and I have a friend who was with me who could testify to this; I was almost in tears the whole day. Since that tour, which was about two years ago, I've had a sense I was from Ireland."

However, in March this year, Fionnola O'Reilly researched the family tree and tracked the grunge legend to the village of Inishatieve in Tyrone -- and discovered she was his cousin.

Other famous American musicians with Irish roots include Anastacia (her mother is Irish-American performer Diane Hurley); Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day (part-Irish on his mother's side); Chris Cornell of Soundgarden (born Christopher Boyle, son of Ed); the Jonas brothers (through their mother's side); Christina Aguilera (her mother's called Shelly Kearns); Kirk Hammett of Metallica (his father was an Irish merchant seaman); Alicia Keys (her mother is Irish- Italian); Taylor Swift (on both sides; her surname is the English translation of the Irish name Foudy); and, veering off into the Caribbean a little, Rihanna (her dad is part-Irish).

Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins has said: "I'm Irish and born on St Patrick's Day." Tori Amos is Irish on both sides, and has even written a song called 'Ireland': "Driving in my Saab, on my way to Ireland, it's been a long time."

Jim Morrison of The Doors, meanwhile, was part-Irish, and his old bandmate Ray Manzarek recently said: "It was Jimbo -- the alter-ego of Jim Morrison, that dark, Irish drunk -- who took himself to Paris. And Jimbo killed my friend Jim."

Of course, it's not surprising there'd be so many Irish in Amerikay -- didn't we build the place, after all, with nothing but a shovel and a pick? -- and they're not limited to music. I always suspected that the lovely Anne Hathaway had some Irish heritage, with that dark hair and pale skin. Lo and behold, she's mostly Irish and was even raised Catholic.

Other screen stars we can justifiably claim include Harrison Ford (who has said he feels "Irish as a person but Jewish as an actor"), Alan Alda, Drew Barrymore, Vin Diesel and, most interestingly, Robert De Niro. We always assumed he was Grade-A Italian, from the surname, the looks and the fact he always seemed to be playing a guy called Jimmy the Mook who killed people for the Gambino outfit.

We were wrong: three of his four grandparents were Irish, and De Niro himself hitched around our fair isle as a teenager in 1962. He said: "I hitchhiked from Dublin to Galway and took the ferry to the Aran Islands, then I went down through the south. People gave me blankets for sleeping outside and I had breakfast with them in the morning. They were very friendly."

Either that or very scared. Moving on, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis may have married the most famous Irish-American of them all, but was also of mostly Irish descent herself. Crime writer Raymond Chandler was too, and lived in Waterford for a while; Billy the Kid was really Henry McCarthy; Colin Powell is descended from Limerick-born Sir Eyre Coote who was Governor of Jamaica from 1805-08; swimmer Michael Phelps is partly Irish, and Malcolm X had red hair, so we're claiming him and all.

But that's enough of our Yankee friends. Let's press on to our nearest and dearest neighbour to see which Brits could get away with the wearing of the green. First up, a long-time personal favourite of mine: glam-rock leviathan, gender-bending super-freak, beautiful space-alien, all-in-one chameleon, Corinthian and caricature, Mr David Bowie. Though born David Jones, his mammy was one Mary Margaret (Peggy) Burns, of Irish Catholic stock.

This newspaper's David McWilliams has pointed out the disproportionately large influence people of Irish extraction have had on England, saying: "When you look at English popular culture -- comedy, music, that sort of stuff -- the Irish impact really is phenomenal."

And joining Bowie in our firmament of unheralded British-Irish are: Ms Dynamite; Audrey Hepburn (born Audrey Kathleen Ruston, to an English banker of Irish descent); Alfred Hitchcock (his mother was Emma Whelan, and his paternal grandmother was also Irish); Timothy Dalton (an American mother of Irish and Italian heritage); Patsy Kensit (mammy was Margaret Rose Doohan); Rhona Mitra (whose exotically beautiful looks come from her Indian dad and Irish mother, Nora Downey); Piers Morgan (son of Vincent and Gabrielle O'Meara; Morgan is his stepfather's name); Alan Rickman (on his father's side), and Tim Roth (ditto).

And it doesn't stop there. Both the seminal feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and her more famous daughter, Mary 'Frankenstein' Shelley, had Irish connections. TS Lawrence -- AKA Lawrence of Arabia -- was the son of an Irishman who'd abandoned his wife for the children's governess. As was the practice of the time.

George Galloway's mother was an Irish republican and he was reared in the Catholic area of Dundee, very much aware of his roots. He supports Glasgow Celtic in football, though, explaining it thus: "Celtic is more than just a football club -- it's a cultural icon, an emblem of the Irish diaspora which is very important to me. My father took me to my first game in 1962 ... The Irish flag flew then, as it does now, and I thought I was at home."

Even Princess Diana apparently has some Irish family, which means Wills and Harry do too, which means the heir to the throne, due to be popped out by Kate Middleton in the next few years, will be part-Paddy. Canada can claim a few surprise Irish too: 'Dawson's Creek' star Joshua Jackson (his mam is from Ballyfermot and he attended Trinity for a little while), and folk legend Joni Mitchell. India can claim Anna Kashfi, once married to Marlon Brando -- but she was born Johanna O'Callaghan, daughter of a Londoner of Irish descent.

France can claim the très cool Nouvelle Vague film starlet Jeanne Moreau, the daughter of Katherine Buckley. But probably the most amazing story in our account of the unheralded diaspora is that of the man who founded her nation's Fifth Republic and served as its president: Charles de Gaulle. In May 1969, two weeks after the end of his reign and just a year before he died, the French statesman fulfilled a lifelong ambition by visiting this country for over a month -- and checking out his Irish heritage.

De Gaulle's great-grandmother was one Marie Angelique McCartan, daughter of the wonderfully named Andronicus and sister of Felix, both of whom had visited the Dublin Genealogical Office in 1837 to certify their Irish ancestry. They were descended from Anthony McCartan who, aged 16, fled to France from Co Down after the Treaty of Limerick, which ended the Williamite War in 1691.

Almost three centuries later, his descendant, Charles de Gaulle, returned to meet with relatives, travel the country and host a reception in Áras an Uachtaráin. France's great war-chief of the Second World War even got to meet a schoolteacher named McCartan, the direct descendant of the clan leader who had been killed at the Battle of the Boyne -- De Gaulle's ancestor's last engagement on this island before exile.

The circle was complete.

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