Kir­wan un­locks fam­ily past

The Southland Times - - TELEVISION - KERRY HAR­VEY

When rugby great Sir John Kir­wan signed up for The DNA De­tec­tives he made one thing clear. If the test could prove he had some Ital­ian her­itage he would be over the moon.

While he is keep­ing mum about whether his wish came true, the for­mer All Black ad­mits to be­ing blown away by the chance to trace his an­ces­try.

‘‘It’s one of those things you’d never ever do un­less some­one asks you,’’ he says.

‘‘It was fan­tas­tic. I didn’t know what I was in for, or what to ex­pect, and it took a whole lot of dif­fer­ent turns so I was fas­ci­nated. Where I ended up was un­be­liev­able. It was a highlight of my life.’’

Kir­wan turned up plenty of sur­prises in his fam­ily tree, in­clud­ing be­ing re­lated to one of the United States’ most fa­mous fam­i­lies, the Kennedy po­lit­i­cal clan.

Now in its se­cond sea­son, The DNA De­tec­tives helps well-known New Zealan­ders un­cover where their roots re­ally lie and takes them around the world, re­veal­ing the dif­fer­ent cul­tures their an­ces­tors come from, the com­mu­ni­ties their fore­bears lived in and in­tro­duces them to rel­a­tives they never knew ex­isted.

Dur­ing his rugby-play­ing days, Kir­wan scored a con­tract to play in Tre­viso, north­ern Italy, and he de­cided Italy was his spir­i­tual home.

He met his wife Fiorella there, they raised their fam­ily in the re­gion and the cou­ple now live in both New Zealand and Italy, where they have a thriv­ing wine busi­ness.

‘‘There was a song Wher­ever You Lay Your Hat and I’m a lit­tle bit like that, you know. I love New Zealand, it’s my home, I feel con­nected here but I also love Italy,’’ he says.

Like many peo­ple, Kir­wan has grown up with fam­ily sto­ries about past gen­er­a­tions.

‘‘I know my mum’s side from a rugby point of view. My mother’s brother, Teddy, he was one of the first Bar­bar­ians, All Black tri­al­list, played for Otahuhu,’’ he says, ad­ding his fa­ther’s an­ces­try has fa­mous links too.

‘‘The Kir­wans are Ir­ish and ap­par­ently we’re re­lated to the Kennedy fam­ily in the States.’’

How­ever, it seems his DNA took him on a very dif­fer­ent jour­ney and to places he never ex­pected.

‘‘It’s one of those re­ally amaz­ing things. You can’t re­ally pre­dict which di­rec­tion it’s go­ing to take,’’ Kir­wan says, ad­ding he was a bit blind­sided when he re­alised the in­ves­ti­ga­tors were fol­low­ing his mother’s DNA, rather than that of his fa­ther.

‘‘I don’t know why, and for ab­so­lutely no rea­son, I thought it would fol­low my fa­ther’s an­ces­try. A gen­er­a­tional as­sump­tion is what my nieces would say. For me it was re­ally crazy and re­ally, re­ally in­ter­est­ing and took a whole lot of dif­fer­ent turns.’’ He roped in his fam­ily for help. ‘‘When it came to look­ing up photos and try­ing to find in­for­ma­tion and that sort of stuff, I was use­less. So my sis­ter Ju­dith got fairly heav­ily in­volved and so did my mother,’’ he says, ad­ding they can’t wait to see where their ef­forts led.

That jour­ney took him across the Tas­man – and much fur­ther afield – and in­tro­duced him to peo­ple whose ex­is­tence he never sus­pected.

‘‘I think the most amaz­ing thing for me was walk­ing into this house in Townsville and bla­tantly see­ing my aun­tie’s face. You go, ‘Wow, this is my fam­ily be­cause this woman looks ex­actly like my Aunty Mor­ven’ and that’s freaky, just re­ally freaky,’’ he says.

‘‘There’s no way that she wouldn’t have been of my blood be­cause she looked ex­actly like my aunty. Those types of things were re­ally crazy.’’

Kir­wan’s ex­pe­ri­ence on The DNA De­tec­tives has in­tro­duced him to a whole new world and left him keen to in­ves­ti­gate other branches of his fam­ily tree. ‘‘I’d do it all again to­mor­row,’’ he says, ad­ding that some of the fam­ily sto­ries the in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed cap­ti­vated him.

‘‘Some of the side sto­ries, like [one mem­ber of] our fam­ily get­ting on a boat, be­ing mar­ried to some­one who dies on the boat and then they marry some­one else on the boat by the time they get to In­dia – things that used to hap­pen back then that were just the norm. It was re­ally amaz­ing.’’ The DNA De­tec­tives, TVNZ 1, Tues­day

Richard O’Brien, the host of The DNA De­tec­tives, chats to John Kir­wan.

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