Not- so- British heir of a working- class hero
Who Do You Think You Are? 7.30pm, SBS
DO you know who your great- greatgreat- great grandfather is? I know mine, but that is because he was a historic figure: Billy Blue, ex- convict and familiar of Lachlan Macquarie and his wife and son, and the first non- indigenous resident of Sydney’s north shore, who also happened to be a native of the West Indies. His genetic heritage was mainly a mix of the Caribs, the original, now extinct, Indian inhabitants of the West Indies, and the black slaves brought from Africa who laboured in the canefields.
But most people’s knowledge of their forebears usually extends only as far back as two or three generations, if that.
To a large extent that is a reflection of the social mobility of a young democracy made up of people from nearly every social, economic and ethnic group in the world: when you’re in the throes of building a new world, you have little time for the old; ossified societies have time for little else.
But even in class- ridden Britain the links with the past have frayed, such that this BBC program, now in its sixth season, which follows a wellknown figure in search of their ancestors and along the way delivers some potted history, has tapped a deep longing among Britons to know more about where they come from.
In this episode Jeremy Irons, the man with the greatest voice in films, starts with two aims: to find why he’s the only actor in his family and whether he has any Irish heritage.
That first aim is quickly subsumed in the hunt to find the truth about his great- great- great grandfather Thomas Irons, whom family lore credits with riding a donkey into the House of Commons in the 1840s to deliver a Chartist petition calling for parliamentary reform and adult male suffrage. As Jeremy Irons notes, he wants to be related to a man such as that.
The story turns out to be much more interesting, as the amiable Irons, usually accompanied by two very obedient black dogs, talks to genealogists and historians to build a compact portrait not only of Thomas but of Chartism and the era that spawned it.
In pursuit of his second aim, Irons travels the length of Ireland, along the way discovering a very tender father- daughter relationship and learning about the defunct but once widespread industry based on making linen. After several disappointments, he does find his treasured Irish connection in the family tree, and it turns out to be not too far from where he started out and why, when he first moved to West Cork, ‘‘ I felt, inexplicably, that I’d come home.’’
It’s an absorbing journey in the company of a boon companion ( and his dogs) who could make the phone book sound like Shakespeare.
Irish, aye: Jeremy Irons’s thespian voice belies his ancestry