Delving into our DNA

Celebrities from Graham Norton to Jeremy Irons uncovered their family trees in the hit TV series Who Do You Think You Are? As the live show opens in London, Bill Linnane delves into his own genealogical past.

Delving into our DNA

YOU probably remember the scene in Dead Poet’s Society. Robin Williams’s character tries to teach his students about the importance of existing in the moment, always being aware of your own mortality. He gets them to look at a cabinet of photos of the school’s old boys as young men — young men now long dead — and tells his students that they too will some day turn cold and die.

For me, the internet is like that cabinet: old photos much like the ones in this scene regularly appear on Flickr. Portraits from Guys photographic studios in Cork often pop up on accounts around the world, uploaded with no knowledge of who the people in the photos are, or what their links to the family might be, found in a shoebox after a relative passed away, too late to ask why these photos were taken.

Were they parting gifts from Cork’s emigrants chasing a dream in the land of opportunity, forget-me-nots to long-lost loves, or just a need for something permanent in lives that in a short space of time endured so much change? Their stoic, emotionless poses hint at a million narratives. Finding what those stories are, what our own stories are, can be a difficult task.

Now in it’s eighth year, Who Do You Think You Are? Live — the show based on the hit TV show — drew thousands last year to London, and it’s set to do the same next week, running from February 20-22 at the Olympia. But the TV show on which the conference is based makes genealogy look easy — and in Britain it may be slightly more so. They can move with relative ease through several centuries of records. Here, where we had an oral tradition — and a lot of conflicts that destroyed records — it is more of a challenge.

Uploading of the census from the last century is a great starting point — and beyond that, subscription websites like are an invaluable resource, offering a vast array of documents and access to newspapers across the world that can be sifted through using a basic word search. The archive helps greatly in fleshing out those official documents; we may have had an oral tradition, but thankfully, as Arthur Miller said, a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself.

When I set about searching out my distant relatives, I soon realised that having a slightly obscure name like Linnane helps. Searching the archives of the then Cork Examiner — recently added to the FindMyPast archive — turns up quite a few stories about my ancestors and their heroic deeds: blowing themselves up, being executed by firing squads, smoked out of caves along the Kerry coast and then killed; it seems I come from a long line of people who were as bad at hiding their contempt for authority as they were at hiding themselves.

Reading through their stories makes you realise the birth of our nation was a bloody chaotic thing, that by the time we had finally won our freedom, every family had lost a piece of itself. Our great-grandparents fought so hard and sacrificed so much to simply have a home to call their own it’s little wonder we inherited a deep insecurity about our sense of place.

Starker than the stories of my namesakes and their brutal struggles for freedom are the ones from the aftermath of the Famine. The Cork Examiner reacts to a report in the Clare Journal (Clare being the heartland of my family name) of a house that had to be broken into over concerns for its residents when neighbours started complaining of a stench. The sheriff broke the door down, to find the Widow Quinn, her daughter and two Linnane children dead from starvation, rotting on the floor. Rats had eaten much of them.

An Examiner editorial of November 29, 1848, titled ‘The Palace and The Cabin’, stated: “Pleasure reigns in the queen’s palace — starvation and death, two grim monarchs, riots in the peasant’s cabin. Yet the British queen and the Irish peasant are — rather, were — the same flesh and blood. But the queen is surrounded by flattering courtiers, and soothing strains, and varied amusements, and pomp, and luxury, and magnificence; while the peasant-mother dies on her couch of broke straw, and lies rotting and mouldering away for twelve days in the charnel house, once her dwelling. She died of absolute starvation, though living under the protection of the proud queen of England; and three more dead bodies — of starved children — lay rotting on the same floor.

“What a horrible tale they tell — a tale that, in a Christian land, in this age of luxury and refinement, will doubtless be received with astonishment and doubt. Four human creatures, dying in this fair and fruitful land of literal starvation! A dead mother lying for a fortnight beside her dying child — think of it ye, round whose hearts home loves have twined! Four unburied corpses for as many days tainting the air breathed by the victims famine had not claimed! Merciful Providence, could the world of human suffering produce a parallel for this fearful picture? Yet our rulers stir not — they hold not out even the promise of relief to the ears — offer no pledge, as of yore, though the boasts ‘credit of the country and means of the Treasury’ are still at their command, and in their keeping.” The Famine is not ancient history — browsing through FindMyPast makes you realise that it’s only a few generations ago. What marks must it have left on our national psyche, what trauma must we all carry.

But there were also uplifting stories. Take my grandfather’s first cousin, Colonel James Fitzmaurice. Born in Dublin in 1898, raised in Portlaoise and expelled from school in Waterford at 15, he tried to join the British army when he was underage but his parents found out and he was sent home. Two years later he did sign up, and began an exemplary military career. When a clerical error meant he was sent to the Somme in July 1916 aged just 17, he saw the grim realities of war first-hand. He signed up for the RAF and was soon a co-pilot on the world’s first night airmail flight between Folkstone and Cologne. In 1922 he resigned from the RAF and came home to join the Irish Air Force at Baldonnel, where he hungered for a new adventure. He set his sights on crossing the Atlantic, and after one failed attempt in 1927, on April 12, he set off from Baldonnel on the Bremen with two Germans, Captain Hermann Koehl and Gunther Freiherr von Hunefeld. Fitzmaurice later wrote “Dear old Ireland seemed nestled in peaceful sleep as we smashed through the air on our great adventure.”

They landed on Greenly Island in Labrador on Friday, April 13, 1928. They had endured oil leaks and brutal storms, but made history for the first East-West crossing of the Atlantic. All the papers at the time report the jubilant scenes, and how the flyers met US President Calvin Coollidge, who presented them with the US Distinguished Flying Cross. When they came home to Baldonnel they were greeted by the Government led by WT Cosgrave, who gave the trio the freedom of Dublin. James was a symbol of unity — an Irishman who fought with the British against the Germans and went on to make history by flying with two German pilots.

After the crossing, Fitzmaurice tried to interest the Government in commercial aviation, but with no luck. His efforts ignored, he resigned from the air force, and went to America to work in aircraft design. While in Germany in 1933 attempting to negotiate with German aircraft manufacturers, he witnessed the Reichstag building in Berlin burning down.

On the same trip, he even had a meeting with Adolf Hitler. He moved back to England in 1939 and opened a club for servicemen in London during the war. He moved to Dublin in 1951 and tried his hand at journalism, with little success. He lived in relative obscurity in Harcourt Street, not quite in poverty, but not like an aviation hero either. He died in Baggot Street Hospital in September 1965 and received a State funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery.

He once wrote: “In Irish air transport much has been achieved and a great future develops, of which our people will be justly proud. I feel certain that in that pride of achievement, the adventure of the Bremen will be seen in all its full significance, and that my dead comrades and I, will therefore, not soon be forgotten.”

But he was forgotten, at least by descendants like me. Looking at his photo I wonder what would he think of me: untouched by war, well-fed, surrounded by loved ones, and still finding plenty to complain about; he survived the Somme, I nearly cry when I stub my toe; he made aviation history, I complain loudly when waiting for my bags at Cork Airport. I think of those children in Clare, slowly starving to death for want of a bit of bread, as my kids ask me for iPads for Christmas.

Digging through FindMyPast is a sobering experience; you can hear the voices of your predecessors whispering across the centuries to you, asking what you have achieved, if you seized the day like they did. The Irish have survived brutal oppression, starvation, bloody struggles for freedom, a civil war that tore the country apart and several recessions — and yet we push on. These archives are a testament to all Ireland has achieved, and to the strength of the human spirit, told through a million stories of heroism and tragedy that lead directly to all of us. It frames us all as the makers of history — let’s just hope our contribution won’t be just a series of Facebook rants about the price of a new iPhone.


Start by picking the brains of elderly relatives — they are the keepers of all the secrets. Make notes, or record their memories on video or audio on a smart-phone; future generations will thank you for it.

Using this, and any other info you can gather, go to, the government supported resource for researching your family tree. A simple name search there will offer a multitude of results from the military archives, the census, church records, the National Library. These will provide you with mounds of information. Cork Genealogical Society are holding a one-day Family History Conference titled “Finding the Old Homestead” in Silver Springs Moran Hotel on Saturday, March 15, from 9.30am. There will be plenty of experts and speakers on the day to guide you through finding out more about your ancestors. See for more and also for plenty of articles and tips on how to get started. is a fee-paying site, but you can join for €9.95 a month, or go on a pay as you go plan. They have a huge archive of national and regional print media online.


The TV series Who Do You Think You Are has caused a huge surge in interest in genealogy; watching celebrities sob their way through incredible revelations from their past made for great TV, and led thousands to seek out their own legacies. Across the Irish and UK versions of the show there were many revelations:

¦ Actor John Hurt said he always felt an incredible affinity with Ireland from the moment he set foot here. He took part in the show in the hopes that he would find some ancient link that would explain his sense of belonging. Armed with a family tale that his great grandmother, Emma Stafford, was the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Sligo, he set out on the trail of his Irish roots — but he was left with no concrete proof that his love of Ireland was more than skin deep.

¦ Jeremy Irons knew that his grandfather, Henry Sharpe, was born in Dublin in 1870, but moved to England when young because of financial difficulties. His parents were William and Katherine Sharpe, and it was Katherine’s family that was Irish. Jeremy discovers his ancestors had a mill in Blarney — and that he had carried on a proud family tradition of Englishmen moving to Ireland to marry local women.

¦ Graham Norton was able to trace his first ancestor who went from Yorkshire to Ireland — in about 1713. Martin Sheen aka Ramon Estevez, took part in the American version of the show, and discovered that an uncle fought for the IRA in the War of Independence.

¦ And finally, UK national treasure Barbara Windsor — of Carry On and EastEnders fame — discovered the truth about Mary Ann Collins, her maternal great grandmother. She was a match-box maker, living in a notorious east end slum, Old Nichol Street. But Mary’s parents came over to England from Cork, between 1846 and 1851 to escape the Famine.

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