Last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was a rollercoaster ride for Dervla Kirwan. She found out about her great great uncle Michael Collins, a key player in establishing the Irish Free State, and the political relationship between Michael and his nephew, Finian.
The programme spent a lot of time focusing on Dervla’s great grandfather, Henry Kahn. Henry was Jewish and married Teresa O’Shea, a Catholic, in what was for the time a very unusual (yet very romantic) union. Henry was sentenced to 12 months in prison for breaking a window, and in his hearing was subjected to anti-semitic comments by a notorious judge, who refused to let Henry make a statement in his defence and condemned him as ‘a specimen of your nation and your race that cause you to be hunted out of every country’.
This incident was so grievous (and a reflection of how Jews were viewed at that time) that it led to a question being asked in the House of Commons and it was even retold in James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses.
Henry’s prison sentence, which involved months of hard labour, ‘broke’ him and he died aged 50 after suffering a series of strokes. Dervla described her journey into her past as ‘tough’ but said that she would recommend anyone to do the same. It just goes to show that tracing your family history can throw up some unexpected revelations, not all of which might be easy to hear.