Mapping the past
Making peace with your past can inform your future, as Geoffrey Rush, Adam Goodes and other stars have discovered on WhoDoYouThinkYouAre?. HOLLY BYRNES revisits some memorable revelations
IN an age when most celebrities hire an army of foot soldiers to keep secrets from prying eyes, it’s a leap of faith to allow cameras and a team of researchers to probe their family histories for scandal and skeletons.
For Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, who follows his bloodlines back seven generations in the latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? it was like being a part of his own big-screen thriller. Encouraged by acting “mates” including Magda Szubanski and Richard Roxburgh, who have COMEDIAN Szubanski (right) has long known the value of laughter. But her season three history search exposed pain and unimaginable tragedy. On her mother’s side, she followed the travails of grandfather Luke McCarthy to his birthplace in Ireland. Always believing he had ties to the IRA, Szubanski instead discovered the tragic reality of his early life – losing his father and 10 siblings before the age of 16. Through tears, Szubanski tells one historian: “I knew I’d be crying, I didn’t know I’d be crying so soon.” It was in the context of such overwhelming grief and the extreme poverty that genealogists then revealed his prison history (for larceny and other petty crimes). Out of jail as World War I gripped Europe, McCarthy was sent to Paschendale. The resulting shell shock plagued him for the rest of his days. previously featured on the award-winning series, Rush relished piecing together his past.
“Mine became more of a detective, mystery thriller... how does it all turn out? For people like Magda [Szubanski] and Susie [Porter], I remember, they were deeply emotional and traumatic melodramas, where they discovered very painful, yet fascinating things,” Rush says.
He knew some details of his paternal side, traced back to feisty early settler John Thomas Rush, who fought for convict rights. But his maternal ancestry HE stands proud today as a role model for his indigenous community, but Goodes (right) has not always had that connection to his Aboriginal culture. In 2013, the Sydney Swans star learnt where his blood ties began. His family story was a mystery for many years because his mother, Lisa, was taken from her birth parents as a child. In the first of many tender moments between “mumma” and son, Goodes looks to this experience to help her heal and provide answers about their ancestry. The search takes them to Adelaide, revealing Goodes’ links back to a powerful white mining magnate, Walter Watson Hughes, who fathered his great grandfather; a half-caste child raised between worlds with the help of another Aboriginal elder, ‘King’ Tom (known to his Narungga people as Garadi). Goodes also returns to Adnyamathanha land, where he is once again initiated back into the ancient ways of the tribe during a face painting ceremony. THOMPSON’S past is as dramatic as the roles he has played. The search for his family history has been life-long for the actor born John Hadley Pain (below). He was adopted aged 10 by the family of his school pal, Peter Thompson (after the death of his mother four years earlier). Thompson’s stunning ancestral discoveries date back to his great, great, great grandfather Patrick Byrnes, who rebuilt his life in Australia after being transported as a convict from Ireland in 1836. He became a saw miller, timber cutter and surveyor’s assistant, with Thompson visiting his bush grave near Bowraville, on the NSW mid-north coast. Two twists to the story: before learning of his family history, Thompson has bought a farm in the area, bordering on the property owned by Patrick Byrnes; who also happens to be this scribe’s great, great, great grandfather. WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? TUESDAY, 7.30PM, SBS led him to Germany and, unexpectedly, the royal court of Denmark. There he found his great grandfather seven times removed was musician Johann Willms, who was forced to beg the King for the approval to earn his living playing for a local count.
The series has provided similar surprises for other stars and compelling TV for the show’s devoted fans.