Francie Barrett is just the right hook for Traveller documentary


TV REVIEW:WE KNOW NOW that if you go far enough along the branches of a US president’s family tree, there’s bound to be an Irish link, even if at first it seems unlikely.

The new wave of ancestor hunting employs DNA techniques to delve into the past, and a couple of TV programmes have done likewise. Although no matter who the subject, their ancestry always seems to lead back to Africa and then branch off into a bewildering jigsaw of countries – and all hundreds of thousands of years ago.

So it was with the first part of Blood of the Travellers(RTÉ1, Sunday), an excellent two-part documentary in which the Olympic boxer Francie Barrett attempts, with the help of scientists in Dublin and Edinburgh, to discover where the Irish Traveller comes from.

Barrett is the perfect man for the job. He had easy access to the people he needed for the DNA samples and spent a year collecting 40 of them from the main Traveller families in Ireland, who were delighted to take part. Barrett is an engaging presenter, and it was clear from his open inquisitive face he had a genuine interest in the scientific findings.

Two complicated results were presented, but it was difficult to figure out what they meant in the broader scheme of things. Nearly more interesting than the results was why they are needed. With no written history and a dying oral tradition, Travellers have no proof of their origin. There are three main theories, and in a series of kitchens and living rooms Barrett teased them out with groups of Travellers who all had their own opinions: that they are related to the Roma; that they were the first Irish people, here long before the Celts; or that they are “settled Irish people” who took to the road during the Famine.

If it turns out that the latter – the least favoured by the Travellers – is true then it would give some credence to what they see as a deliberate and long-time government policy to get them off the road. In 1963, when Charles Haughey’s Commission on Itinerancy issued its findings they began, “The final solution to the itinerary problem will be assimilation”. A chilling first three words.

The second episode will with luck put the DNA findings into context and reach conclusions. It was also intriguing to catch up with Barrett, who became such a prominent figure during the summer of 1996 when he was just 19 and boxing for Ireland. He is now married and a father living on a Traveller site in London. He spent the years after his Olympic adventure combining construction work with professional boxing. He’s a natural in front of the camera.

BARACK OBAMA’S INTERESTin his famous countryman, Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, and Douglass’s relationship with Daniel O’Connell, was well flagged before the visit, so Frederick Douglass agus na Negroes Bána(TG4, Wednesday) was timely. A slave on the run, Douglass came to Ireland in 1845 for refuge when his increasingly high profile as an anti-slavery campaigner in New York made him fear his master would find him. Ireland at the time had an active Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society and a reputation as a place where black immigrants would be welcomed and simply accepted without comment. And Douglass found it to be the case.

The poor in Dublin were, he thought, reminiscent of the plantation, and his future campaigning was informed by this understanding that poverty and lack of education are not about race. He stayed for two years, travelling around Ireland and Britain, and in his writings said he was inspired by O’Connell. But – and here’s where this well-made documentary was frustrating – it was more a potted biography of Douglass. As one of the most famous figures in US history, his life is already well documented. What would have been more interesting was a clearer picture of his relationships and experiences in Ireland and, particularly, a more than cursory exploration of the O’Connell connection.

WE GOT A GLIMPSEthis week of the interactive potential of live TV – and it wasn’t pretty. In the promo for Diagnosis Live from the Clinic(Channel 4, Wednesday), a young man is seen turning on the telly, flopping down on the sofa and pulling down his trousers. After a quick shufti down his Y-fronts, he notices three doctors peering out from his TV screen, so he gets up, stands in front of the TV and drops his pants so that his backside fills your screen and presents what’s troubling him (but happily not us) to the sympathetic-looking trio.

The actual programme, in which ailing members of the public got a live diagnoses via their TV screens was probably more of the same, but even though one of the doctors was the delightfully unshockable Irish medic Pixie McKenna the promo was offputting enough.

THE REASON FORtuning into Channel 4 at all was the intriguing new series 4 Rooms(Channel 4, Tuesday). A cross between Antiques Roadshowand Dragons’ Den, the idea is that people who have what they think is a valuable artefact – they ranged from a torn Francis Bacon painting to Elvis’s golf buggy – get a chance to sell it to four leading London dealers. Each dealer is in a room and makes an offer. The owner then has to work out if they’d be better taking the offer or trying one of the other dealers. Once they leave the room any offer made there is off the table.

Weird what people collect. There was a dalek from the 1960s, Christmas cards sent by Lady Diana to her chef and a cigar that once belonged to Winston Churchill (“No provenance,” snarled the dealer. “I’ll give you £1.25”). While on Antiques Roadshowtwin-set types profess to be amazed that Great-aunt Bertha’s fruit bowl could be worth £200 – “Gosh as much as that! I’d never sell it” – here everyone is out to make a buck (not least the flinty-eyed dealers).

The elderly man who arrived with a cast-iron mask of Hitler taken during the war from a concentration camp got short shrift because the dealers didn’t want to get involved in the burgeoning trade in Nazi memorabilia. One of the dealers came up with a solution. He offered £1, a token sum, saying he would take the mask off the market and donate it to a museum. The man who had Hitler in his attic for 60 years held out for £1,000.

When one young man turned down a good offer for his Norman Foster table the dealer snapped, “Do you know what word rhymes with needy?” 4 Roomsis fascinating for all sorts of reasons; not just because it lets you play amateur valuer on a range of curios, and gives lessons on negotiation skills. It’s an insight into the human condition: more revealing than anything the doctors saw.

Get stuck into . . .

Scott & Bailey
(UTV, Sundays, 9pm), another new female-led police procedural. The six-part series stars Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp. It’s more believable than Vera– a bit like a Manchester Cagney & Lacey.