Damien Dempsey: A Protestant? Mise? I’m afraid so

‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ review: The singer has a whole national history in his gene pool

Damien Dempsey: Letterfrack was “hell on earth,” he says, struggling to keep emotion at bay. “That’s a lot to take in”

Damien Dempsey: Letterfrack was “hell on earth,” he says, struggling to keep emotion at bay. “That’s a lot to take in”

 

The heroes of the celebrity genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are? (RTÉ One, Sunday, 9.30pm) are mostly unsung. But for the famous faces tracing their obscure roots, it’s the unglamorous and fastidious work of history’s bureaucrats that offers them a lifeline – in the case of birth records, literally

Follow the trail of dense ledgers and official forms long enough, as the singer Damien Dempsey does at the start of a new Irish series of the franchise, and eventually, with a jolt of emotion, one of those names may overlap with a battered photograph, and someone can point at a child and say, “That was me.” Sometimes hope and history do rhyme.

If Dempsey makes a great candidate for such discoveries it’s not just because his ancestral lines are so rich with national detail – distinguished by proudly insurgent republicans and freedom fighters on his mother’s side, diasporic struggles on his father’s – but also because, as a singer, Dempsey himself is a kind of folk historian.

Admittedly, his heroes do get sung. Musicians, like historians, are makers of records. Dempsey’s interest in discovery is partly to separate facts from myths, aware that family tales, no less than folk, will grow in the telling.

After the poignant detail of another entertainer in the family, a grandaunt and rising theatre star cut down by tuberculosis in 1945, Dempsey is proud to discover a great-great-great-grandfather, Frederick Bridgeman, imprisoned during the Famine for participating in illegal military drills. “For freedom-fighting purposes,” Dempsey nods, and when it is learned that this man received the freedom of the city – and voting rights – from the Great Emancipator himself, Daniel O’Connell, it only seems appropriate that Dempsey deliver a soft verse of The Bold Fenian Men.

But history is an arch joker. In the plush halls of Dublin Castle the archivist Mary Clarke bursts this Fenian bubble with a ledger that records a fascinating change of stripes. “A Protestant?”

Dempsey asks of his great-great-great-great – pause for breath – great-grandfather, with eyebrows steepled. “A Protestant, I’m afraid,” she says.

Dempsey takes it well. “Well, I’m an auld Druid,” he says, “so them divisions don’t really faze me at all.” If anything, the folk singer can now lay claim to a greatly expanded repertoire.

The real badass in Dempsey’s family, though, was Jenny Shanahan, his grandmother’s aunt and a member of the Irish Citizen Army under James Connolly. After participating in the Easter Rising of 1916, the historian Mary McAuliffe points out, Shanahan engaged in a propaganda campaign “to make sure the 1916 Rising isn’t another one that will go into song and history”.

What’s wrong with song and history, Dempsey might think. But he is visibly affected by the injustice of the emerging conservative Ireland – “It should have been Collins running the place, not de Valera” – which delayed her soldier’s pension until a year after her death. “I won’t forget,” Dempsey says, sitting in her last home, the camera subtly framing him between two rooms in the hues of the Tricolour. “I won’t forget.”

But what of a family that would rather be forgotten? How stark the difference is between such detailed records of Dempsey’s five-times-great-grandfather, and then, on his father’s side, a grandfather he barely knew. “It was hard to get a word out of him,” Dempsey’s father says.

This excavation brings Dempsey first to a family in a Waterford cotton mill, who emigrated to the United States in the mid-19th century, for another cotton mill in which the whole family – two parents and three children – worked in sweatshop and slavish conditions. “It’s like hell,” Dempsey says to a local historian. “It’s not a life,” she agrees.

It’s not surprising that his great-grandmother Margaret Dempsey should want to leave this place, but it is more stunning that she did – with two of her three surviving children and without her husband.

It brings Dempsey’s taciturn grandfather to Mayo, and eventually to the infamous St Joseph’s Industrial School, in Letterfrack, Co Galway, rife with abuse. “Hell on earth,” Dempsey says, struggling to keep emotion at bay. “That’s a lot to take in.”

This is an understatement. Dempsey, the working-class compassionate troubadour, has a whole national history in his gene pool. (One appeal of the show is that perhaps we all do.) But his use of the word “survivor” is well warranted, and that, you feel, is his family’s legacy. Considering the many surprising junctures of history, the immense challenges, the breaks both hard and lucky, at one point he remarks with quiet marvel, “I’m still here.” Sing it loud.