Irish actress Dervla Kirwan commented at the end of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' last night if someone suggested taking part in the programme she would say "yes definitely and then take a couple of valium."

There are only ever two ways these stories go – wealth, success and perhaps royalty or directly to poverty, madness and the workhouse. You rarely have a nice middle-class story where the ancestor held down a decent job all his life and resided happily in a two-up, two-down with his wife and three kids. Or maybe you do but the programme makers neatly side-step them until the find a more interesting candidate.

Guess which route things took for Dervla’s great grandfather? Obviously jail followed by a downward spiral to the workhouse, an insane asylum and a premature death.

Dervla’s is a great grandniece of Michael Collins and she spent the first half of the programme exploring her mother’s side of the family and particularly her grandfather who was a member of the IRA and later the Irish army. She visited west Cork and examined her grandfather’s IRA records to see what life was like for him during the War Of Independence fighting the Black and Tans. Later during the Civil War he was forced to leave Cork due to the strength of anti-treaty feeling in his homeplace as he naturally took the pro-treaty stance of his uncle.

While this half of the story was very interesting it was definitely overtaken by the history on her father’s side of the family when she explored her Jewish ancestry.

While researching Henry Kahn the crusading side of Dervla’s personality was awakened and she was given an opportunity, as she saw it, to right an historical wrong which destroyed the man’s life. Kahn had travelled to Ireland from his native Poland in his youth fleeing Jewish persecution and things began well for him. His marriage was a love match as he and his wife so wanted to be together they married outside their faiths risking being ostracised from their communities. So far so good!

Kahn was a tobacconist by trade but obviously in order to earn a little extra money he allowed betting in his shop which paved the way to ruination. Several spats with the law ensued but in 1901 he found himself in deep water when he broke a shop window and damaged some goods (reasons unknown). Unfortunately he found himself in front of a very unsympathetic judge who demonstrated anti-jewish feelings in his sentencing. He also denied Kahn and opportunity to defend himself and his damning commentary on the defendant was so inflammatory that it briefly caused a media sensation which saw the matter raised in the House of Commons.

The furore meant little to Kahn who was sent to Mountjoy and later Kilmainham for a year. Although the sentence was commuted to six months, Kahn never recovered his business or health from the scandal. The description of conditions in the workhouse where he later ended up were so appalling that Dervla couldn’t continue reading.

It never ceases to amaze me how little information people have about their own family even two generations back. Dervla admitted last night that she didn’t know her paternal grandfather’s Christian name while her father knew almost nothing about his mother who had died when he was seven. We are all just the same and this programme is a forceful reminder how important it is to talk to older family members about their history. Who knows what skeletons we may have lurking in our cupboards!

As ever it was great TV and Dervla was a great subject.

Bree Treacy