Famously, Michael Parkinson was told by the programme-makers in the UK that his family history was too boring to make an episode! And the general point is true: just because a famous celebrity agrees to take part in Who Do You Think You Are? is no guarantee that the research will unearth enough solid material to make a TV programme.
We were very lucky on both counts to get a Hollywood star like Fionnula Flanagan to participate in the series – not only was she eager to take part and had time in her hectic schedule, but her family stories turned out to offer a fascinating and unique insight into the history of the last 150 years.Fionnula sees herself very much as a product of her parents' sense of political and social justice, and so she simply wanted to know more about their origins. We were happy to oblige.
Rosanna McGuirk & The Workhouse
Although Fionnula was born in Portland Row in the centre of Dublin, her mother Rosanna's family were from Wicklow. Fionnula remembered visiting her Grandfather's ancestral home in Glencree as a child, and returned for this programme. Three simple documents were able to clarify a turbulent decade in the family. In the 1901 Census, Fionnula's grandfather Patrick McGuirk was 23 and single, living at home with his parents; ten years later on the 1911 Census, Patrick's father was dead, his older brother James was in line to take over the farm, and with no place for him on the farm, Patrick himself had left home. A Wedding Certificate from 1908 confirmed that he had moved 30km closer to the Capital, and had married Margaret Owens... both were listed as being employed by the Loughlinstown Union or Workhouse.
The Workhouse is now St. Columcille's Hospital, but the old Workhouse Board of Guardians Minutes and records are now kept at the National Archives. Fionnula was able to discover that her grandfather's first job application was for the post of 'Lunatic Keeper', before he successfully landed the job of Storekeeper & Superintendent: one of his roles was to accompany the workhouse boys to & from the local primary school. Fionnula also saw records relating to her grandmother being appointed seamstress at the workhouse, and for the time when Patrick and Margaret applied for time off to be married. There was even a record of Patrick requesting a piece of linoleum for his living room floor just after getting married.
Further research in the Wicklow Newsletter and Wicklow People turned up a sorry tale of discrimination: At the same time as Fionnula's Grandfather was put in charge of bringing the workhouse boys to the local school, the parents of the community launched protests, complaining that their children would be morally contaminated by the presence of the workhouse paupers... Fionnula's own mother Rosanna (who was raised in the workhouse her parents worked in) would have also walked to the local school... Fionnula could understand the discrimination her mother would have seen, and began to understand the overwhelming sense of decency and social justice she carried with her throughout her life.
Fionnula has always been enthralled by her late father Terry, and the image of the man as a Republican, a Socialist and an idealist. It was important for us to give Fionnula fresh insight into her father.
From census records, we knew that Terry was born into a big family in Dublin's inner city. As a young boy he would have been influenced by the War of Independence and Civil War, and by the 1930s he was an active Republican, involved with a strongly socialist branch of the IRA known as Saor Eire. What Fionnula did not know was that the founding meeting for Saor Eire was planned to take place in her beloved Peacock Theatre, beneath the main stage of the Abbey.
Using the expertise of historians and authors such as Dr. Fearghal McGarry, Fionnula was able to see how the increasing chasm between the militant left and the conservative religious right was not only happening in Ireland, but across Europe. In the National Library, Fionnula traced the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, which began when a conservative General Franco staged a revolt against the new Socialist government. The Irish newspapers of the time (and the Catholic Church) strongly supported Franco.
However, in defense of democracy and the Spanish Republic, Fionnula's father decided to head to Spain to fight against Franco.
Today, the Spanish Civil War has been overshadowed by WWII. It's now seen as a struggle between fascism and democracy, but at the time (especially in Ireland) it was regarded as a war of Christianity Vs Godless Communism. From a research point of view, history is often written by the victors: it was very difficult to find records and accounts of Terry Flanagan's time fighting with the International Brigades in Spain. We were able to rely on a number of good books, among them Sean Cronin's biography of Frank Ryan, the unofficial leader of many of the Irish in Spain, and Michael O'Riordan's book on the Connolly Column. Luckily, Fionnula's brother Rory (who participated in the episode) had written some notes in the flyleaf of his copy of Sean Cronin's book, while in conversation with his father Terry more than 20 years ago. Those notes were to prove invaluable.
The other lynchpin in the story was Richard Baxell, an author and journalist who has written extensively on the British Battalions in the Spanish Civil War. Richard had also visited Moscow to go through the International Communist Archives (Comintern), and had unearthed records and documents that Fionnula had never seen before.
With all these resources, Fionnula pieced together a dramatic story of her father's arrival in Spain by foot in December 1936. Just two months later, Terry Flanagan was accused of sabotage after the Irish members of the British 15th Battalion voted to leave and join the Americans. At the heart of this accusation (which almost had Terry deported), was a former communist spy and ex-Black & Tan, Wilfred McCartney.
Luckily Terry survived this battle with McCartney, and went on to fight in the very real war waging across Spain. Fionnula and her brother Rory managed to learn the precise day and the exact spot where their father was wounded. Further Moscow records showed how, even though he was unable to fight on, Terry volunteered to continue the Propaganda war at home. By the end of her time in Spain, Fionnula definitely understood why the Civil War had been the “great adventure” of her father's life, and the experience which would inspire his epitaph: “He Fought The Good Fight”
The final task was to see where Terry Flanagan got his socialist principles from. Terry was the son of a baker called Michael Flanagan and his wife, Mary 'Polly' Ryan. The census records from 1901 and 1911 showed that Michael & Mary had at least 9 children, of which 7 survived, all raised in the heart of Dublin. Off-screen, genealogist Maire Mac Conghail was able to paint a vivid picture of tenement life in the area at that time.
Fionnula met up with four of her cousins: together they were all grandchildren of Michael and Polly. From this family get-together, Fionnula learnt for the first time that Polly and her sister Annie had both spent time as children in the Goldenbridge Industrial School.
The original records for Goldenbridge are held by the Sisters of Mercy in the Mercy Congregational Archives in Dublin. Fionnula was able to find the records for her Grandmother Polly, and for Polly's sister Annie. 12 year-old Polly was sentenced for 4 years, her 10 year-old sister for 6 years: their crime was “begging alms”. By the end of her time in Goldenbridge, Polly had learnt to read & write and it was expected she would make “an excellent Laundress”. Her sister Annie, who was listed as “weak” & “dull”, survived Goldenbridge but died by the age of 24.