WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

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It’s exciting watching the stars of Who Do You Think You Are? as they delve into their family history. But it’s not just celebrities who have incredible stories in their past. Discover the TV-worthy tales in your own family tree with our expert advice.

Dervla Kirwan

A troubling past

Dervla Kirwan found both sides of her family had to battle against the odds. First she heard how her mother's relatives played a leading role in the Irish War of Independence. Then she discovered her father's kin faced an equally tough battle to survive.

Michael Collins FuneralThe Ballykissangel star knew she was related to Michael Collins, Ireland's most famous revolutionary leader, but she didn't know the extent of the connection. Her mother revealed that not only was Michael Dervla's 2x great-uncle, but her grandfather Finian Collins O'Driscoll also played a key role in the Troubles.

The actress visited Cathal Brugha Barracks and consulted Finian's Irish Republican Army pension record. She found he had joined at the height of the Irish War of Independence, and helped to form the 'flying columns' that thwarted the British forces. After the truce in 1921, his life became even more difficult, as the deal with the British divided Ireland. The low point came with Michael's shooting in 1922 – Dervla saw a photograph of her grandfather at the emotional funeral.

Having cleared up confusion on her mother's side, the TV star was keen to trace her father's line. She knew there was a Jewish connection, and her grandfather's birth certificate showed his father was named Henry Kahn. He married a Catholic girl in 1891.

TOP TIP
Irish census records are scarce, following a fire in 1922. However there are a number of records you can use as ‘census substitutes’. For example, we have an index to Griffith’s Valuation – a comprehensive survey of property owners across the country in the mid-1800s. See all our Irish collections


Dervla visited the Irish Jewish museum to get an insight into Henry's life. A letter confirming his naturalisation into the UK showed that he had emigrated from Poland during the persecution of Jews in the Russian Empire. Meanwhile, his marriage certificate showed he had married in an Anglican church – another historian explained that both Henry and his wife would have been ostracised by their communities for marrying outside their faiths, leaving the State Church as their only option.

TOP TIP
As well as providing details such as ages and occupations, Immigration papers often reveal your ancestors’ origins, so you know where to look for further records. Find your travelling forebears in passenger lists, arrival registers and many other immigration records


Kilmainham Jail

A trip to the National Library revealed more problems. A newspaper report detailed how Henry was convicted of criminal damage by an anti-semitic judge, who refused to let him defend himself. The trial caused uproar, but he was still forced to spend six months in Kilmainham Jail. Dervla visited the Jail, and found cold, hard surroundings.

Unsurprisingly, the story didn't have a happy ending. Henry's death certificate showed he died just four years after leaving prison, and Dervla found he had spent this time in a workhouse and asylum. A report into the workhouse described its conditions as "like a dungeon" – a depressing end to a difficult life.

TOP TIP
Workhouse records can be upsetting, but few documents paint a more vivid picture of your ancestors’ lives. We have admission books, medical registers and a comprehensive range of other records from some of the UK’s largest workhouses in our London Poor Law collection


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