Chaplin revelled in Cork gypsy roots

Charlie Chaplin may have been the quintessential English movie star, but his exotic dark looks and legendary performing genes could be thanks to his great grandmother, who was a gypsy from Cork.

An RTÉ documentary, Chaplin: The Waterville Picture, reveals Chaplin was hugely proud that his great grandmother was an Irish gypsy.

He first came to Waterville in 1959 with his young Irish-American wife Oona O’Neill and their eight children, and continued to arrive visit summer for the next 10 years.

His grandson, Arthur Gardin, said the star of films such as The Gold Rush and City Limits was always keen to remind his children of his gypsy lineage. He said: “People are aware of my grandmother’s roots but few know that Charlie also had an Irish connection.

“His great grandmother was a gypsy from Cork. That gypsy gene was something he was very proud of.”

Waterville man Eric Murphy, who used to chauffeur the movie star around Kerry, described how Chaplin told him to stop the car to meet a family of Travellers on the side of the road.

“We were coming from the beach one evening and the tinkers were parked alongside the road with the barrel caravan and the family were there outside.

“He stopped the car and went back to them. I presume he gave them a few bob.

“He was talking to them for a few minutes and came back to the car and he said: ‘Don’t forget your great grandmother was a gypsy. Keep that in mind’, he said [to his children].”

Mr Gardin says his grandparents fell in love with Waterville when they stayed in the Butler Arms Hotel for a month in 1959. They had a decade of idyllic summers until Chaplin decided it was too dangerous to visit in the 1970s, as the Troubles in the North were escalating.

Mr Gardin said: “As a famous Englishman he didn’t feel safe here anymore.”

He said the 10-year love affair with Waterville left a lasting impression on the family. Chaplin’s daughter Josephine still visits with sister Annie, who has a house in the area.

Mr Gardin, Annie’s son, said they initially came to Kerry because Oona O’Neill, the daughter of Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene O’Neill, was anxious to spend time in Ireland. “They came for a month and instantly fell in love with the place. Coming from their home on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean was a great change.

“It became a constant holiday location for them. Every year, usually at Easter time, they would return for their fix of wild unspoilt countryside fresh air and fishing. He used to say he loved the feeling of the bracing Atlantic breezes and that the air was worth £1,000 a breath.”

Local man Vincent O’Sullivan recalled how Chaplin loved joining in the fun at the hotel after a day out fly-fishing.

“He did catch a couple of undersized [ones] which he didn’t really mind showing. It was all good fun. He would go to the back bar in the evenings with the boatmen after the day’s fishing and they would buy their rounds.

“They didn’t treat Charlie any different to anyone else. There was no big fuss and bother. Charlie was thrown into the middle of them.”

* Chaplin: The Waterville Picture will be shown on RTÉ One at 10.15pm tonight.


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