Famine family: Stephen McGann on his Irish roots
Call the Midwife actor’s love of genealogy uncovered relatives who died of starvation and inspired Flesh and Blood, his family story
Brothers Joe, Stephen, Mark and Paul McGann in the BBC Famine drama, The Hanging Gale
Stephen McGann is remembering how, when he researched his family tree for the first time, he discovered he had what he calls “slum blood”. “Ever since I was a teenager, I wanted to go back in time and find out where my ancestors came from in Ireland. My first question was: if they were poor and Irish, why did they come over here, to Liverpool? Why am I an immigrant?”
He remembers looking through a beautiful old parish record book at the age of 17 and reading that his great-great-aunt Teresa had died of “marasmus” as an 18-month-old infant in 1868, in a Liverpool slum. “I thought: oooh, what does marasmus mean? Then I realised it was a posh name for starvation.”
The teenage McGann, who would grow up to play Dr Turner in Call the Midwife, was immediately overcome with what he describes as a “weird passion” for genealogy. He solemnly promised his ancestors he would find out more about the history of the McGanns.
When I look at my family history, I see how close I am to poverty. And I know I am an immigrant, in a way that’s changed me. But for the grace of God, I am that child on that beach
Fast-forward 37 years and we are discussing Flesh and Blood, the 300-odd page book that finally fulfils that solemn promise. In it, McGann, who at 54 is the youngest of the four McGann actor brothers, looks back at the history of his family through the lens of seven maladies: hunger, pestilence, exposure, trauma, breathlessness, heart problems and necrosis. He discusses how health and education – or a lack of them – have driven medical progress and social change in Britain, and how these changes have dramatically altered the fortunes of the McGanns.
“My family’s story is intimately related to the progress of this nation, because of the relationship between social history, public health and physical medical health. Until the welfare state, my family subsisted. After the welfare state, they thrived. I feel, in my family, the burden of the legacy of history very keenly.”
McGann, who has an MA in science communications, explains that genealogy is detective work: “You see these wonderful antiquated Latin terms on death certificates and very quickly realise that to understand the cause of death, you have to understand those medical terms in their wider sense. The purpose of genealogy – to gain self-knowledge, to answer questions like who am I? Where do I come from? – has to expand to embrace what a particular medical term means in that time, in that place, right there. I focus on health as an antagonist in the book because that’s the beat that drives the central characters on.”
He gives the example of another McGann death certificate, in 1865: Teresa’s younger sister Susan, who was only nine months old. Cause of death? Marasmus again. “You’re a woman living in a slum. Your infant child dies of starvation. How do you recover from that? How do you respond? What would motivate you to have sex that night with your husband among the rats, and conceive another child?”
His great-great-grandparents had fled the potato famine in Co Roscommon, only to be forced to watch child after child starve to death in Liverpool. “I think, inside, we carry a part of ourselves from the past. When I see a Syrian child’s body washed up on the beach, when I see a photo of refugees walking, I think: my lot walked, my lot starved.”
His gentle Liverpudlian accent grows stronger. “At the turn of the last century, my people were illiterate, they were still part of the peasant ghetto population. That’s not that long ago. When I look at my family history, I see how close I am to poverty, how close we all are. And I know I am an immigrant, in a way that’s changed me. But for the grace of God, I am that child on that beach.”
In the book, he details how the McGanns repeatedly survived starvation, tragedy and war simply by being prepared to do whatever it took to survive: “That’s in the blood.”
Owen McGann, for example, worked as an “emigration agent” – a conman who tricked unsuspecting Irish migrants arriving at Liverpool docks into paying twice the price for a ticket to the New World. His cunning meant his son Eugene didn’t starve to death as his daughters Teresa and Susan had. Instead, Eugene lived long enough to have his own son, McGann’s grandfather Owen Joseph, who deserted the army twice during the first World War, escaped arrest, re-enlisted in Australia under the name “Joseph McGann”, earned himself a medal and returned home in glory. But he would never again use the name Owen Joseph. Meanwhile, his brother James, McGann’s great-uncle, worked in the engine room of the Titanic and miraculously survived the sinking by balancing on the overturned hull of the very last lifeboat. It’s likely he had to fight off others who tried to board, to keep the boat afloat and to save himself.
McGann’s grandfather died when his father was five, so his father never had an opportunity to learn about his family’s past. “I have a very strong sense of my history now, and of my ancestors’ contribution to my current reality – but I didn’t have that when I was younger.”
My generation was the pampered one, the privileged one, insulated against the brutality of the slum streets, the beach in France and the lack of antibiotics
His father would tell the youthful McGann: “You don’t know you’re born.” “He was right. I still don’t – and I glory in the fact. Because my generation was the pampered one, the privileged one, insulated against the brutality of the slum streets, the beach in France and the lack of antibiotics.”
His father had been critically wounded on D-day and was among the servicemen who were treated with the first mass-manufactured batch of penicillin. “I’ve always been very interested in the penicillin story because it saved my father’s life. My father had this adoration of antibiotics as a miracle drug. Since the battles of Troy, every soldier with wounds like my father’s had died. But he got lucky, he got saved and that’s why I’m here.”
This sense of not knowing he’s born has stayed with McGann, and he has always tried to instil in his son Dominic a sense of pride in his roots. “In a very male, pompous way that has probably bored him at times. I’ve said: ‘Look, this is what you come from. This is your slum blood. There’s possibly microbial resistance in your blood which comes from the slum streets. You are a biological product of these people. You, my lovely Russell Group university son doing a philosophy course and drama, this is your legacy, this is who you are. And the only thing I ask of you is to integrate and weave it into your self-identity, like I have.’ Hence the book.”
The process of researching his family history has helped McGann to understand his own father better. “I adored my father, but he was flawed. He resented my mother because she’d been able to go to grammar school. He was depressed, deeply depressed – and undiagnosed.”
Writing the book also brought him closer to his 81-year-old mother. In one of the most moving chapters of Flesh and Blood, he writes about the death of his twin brothers in 1957 – one stillborn, the other too premature to survive. His mother, who was just 21 at their birth, never got a chance to hold her dead babies and was never told by her husband where they were buried. Instead, she was warned by doctors she must stop grieving, or she would be given electroconvulsive therapy.
“When I was writing the book, I went to see my mum, and we talked for hours about my brothers who died. She wanted her testimony to be read. It became clear to me that she was reviving them, and rescuing her younger self. She was saying to her younger self: ‘You’ll be OK.’”
I say his name. No one has said his name since he was gone. Immediately, I sighed him back into existence. Because the moment you whisper their name, you evoke them again
Writing the book meant so much to him because it’s his way of bringing to life the people in his family who had been forgotten, he says. “I’ll always remember going through the records, getting to my grandad and seeing he’s not called Joseph, he’s called Owen Joseph. And I’m thinking: Owen? His name was Owen? I never knew that. And then I get this really strong feeling, right there in this library. I say his name. No one has said his name since he was gone. Immediately, I sighed him back into existence. Because the moment you whisper their name, you evoke them again.”
He sees genealogy as akin to treasure hunting or archeology. “I dug my ancestors out of the ground. I resurrected them. The McGanns were lost in those public records, and now they’re not. So, yes, my father was right, I don’t know I’m born. But now I know that they were.”
Flesh and Blood: A History of My Family in Seven Maladies by Stephen McGann (Simon & Schuster, £20) – Guardian service