The DNA Detectives visit rugby great John Kirwan.
W hen 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.” Now in its second season,
Rugby great Sir John Kirwan has revealed how his family tree branched out in a totally different direction to the one he expected when he agreed to take part in The DNA Detectives. Kerry Harvey reports.
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 Kirwans are Irish and apparently we’re related to the Kennedy family in the States.” – John Kirwan