Laura Whitmore’s family history is fascinating...to Laura Whitmore

Who Do You Think You Are?: Whitmore is effervescent in the face of scant material

TV presenter Laura Whitmore learns that her grandfather was one of three children born illegitimately to Sarah Gerity, who died at 22, on Who Do You Think You Are?. Video: RTÉ

 

In theory, an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? is only ever as good as the charisma factor of the person doing the digging. And the British and American versions of the celeb genealogy perennial have often triumphed with a mix of big names and colourful bloodlines: a smattering of light incest on Courteney Cox’s extended family tree, a surprise royal connection on Danny Dyer’s. Look far back enough, I suppose, and anything is possible.

Producers of the Irish series have yet to hit pay dirt with a truly scandalous ancestor or storyline, yet in enlisting the likes of Pat Shortt, Damien Dempsey and Bertie Ahern, some truly touching moments have surfaced. If RTÉ’s Who Do You Think You Are? (RTÉ One, Sunday, 9.30pm) is low on the soapy stuff, it more than makes up for it with a lively and affecting look at Irish history.

Charisma, and enthusiasm at that, are not lacking in this week’s digger, broadcaster Laura Whitmore. Among the question marks that loom over her family tree is how or where the relatively uncommon name of Whitmore originated.

Raised in Bray by her mother (who separated from her father when the presenter was two), Whitmore also suspects at the outset of her journey that the very strong female in her family didn’t lick it out of a ditch. It doesn’t take a genealogist to predict that her suspicions prove to be true.

The Byzantine branches of Whitmore’s family tree soon unfurl, to reveal generation upon generation of conscientious workers and dedicated family men with solid occupations as bricklayers and stonemasons. So far, so unremarkable. Whitmore, to her credit, is positively effervescent and ebullient in the face of relatively scant material.

On told her great-great-grandfather in Templederry married a schoolteacher, Laura gasps, “oh really??” with the sort of enthusiasm that a more reserved character might deploy if they’d been told that Michael Jackson is a relative. In the local church, it transpires that a distant ancestor was the church’s first bell-ringer. “No WAY,” she replies, impressed. Whitmore is nothing if not involved.

Other efforts to create a sort of fateful moment fall somewhat flat: on the phone to her father, she is informed that her grandfather worked on the site of the Marker Hotel, near Grand Canal Dock. “I always stay at (The Marker) when I come home,” she says, almost awestruck.

Dig for long enough and most Irish families will reveal a member or two at the foothill of some notable chapter in Irish history, and sure enough, Whitmore’s family members lived through the Fenian uprising of 1867 and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. A link to the lockouts of the early 20th century is also uncovered, when her great-grandfather John was locked out of work for five months.

Often in Who Do You Think You Are? the names of family members fly thick and fast, barely giving the viewer pause to take in the particulars of one life before moving swiftly on to the next. Yet in the maelstrom of forebears, Whitmore is indeed proved correct: strong women abound in the family history. Among them are her great-grandmother Maggie, who worked as a nurse at 14, and another great grandmother, who lost two young daughters (Laura’s two grand-aunts) to flu in the space of eight days.

A climax of sorts is reached when Whitmore learns that her grandfather Robert was one of three children born illegitimately to Sarah Gerity, who died at 22, with no father listed on the birth certificate. An intriguing revelation, albeit one that leaves the mystery of the Whitmore surname very much under veil.

Still, Whitmore is evidently glad of the opportunity to enlighten herself on some “shadowy corners” of her family, even if some of them are no more or less shadowy than anyone else’s.