BEHIND THE SCENES OF MARK GATISS’S EPISODE
Actor and writer Mark Gatiss held Claire Vaughan spellbound when he told her his WDYTYA? story – complete with vampires, murder, Irish royalty and characters that didn’t make the final cut, plus some nifty research
The Sherlock co-creator looks back on his episode of WDYTYA? plus we reveal how you can trace your Ulster kin
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin... If there’s one thing actor and writer Mark Gatiss loves above all else it’s a good story, and if there are spooky goings on thrown in, then so much the better. As we chat about his Who Do You Think You Are? exploits, it becomes evident that, to his delight, he found just that. “People always say you’re the sum of so many things,” he tells me, “but there were parts of this journey that were so attuned to everything I love that it was almost uncanny. There’s violent history, murder, Cromwell, vampires, all in one big Irish stew pot – I couldn’t believe it!”
Episode director Sarah Feltes explains: “Mark is a raconteur – he is always telling stories, so I wasn’t surprised at how engrossed he became in the research. It was all about a narrative for him, and he made our evenings very entertaining!
“We started out with his maternal grandfather Jeremiah O’Kane, a middle-class Irish Catholic from what would later become Northern Ireland, who the family knew had died young. He was a doctor, which meant he had done fairly well. We were hopeful we would find interesting people going back down his line.”
But what WDYTYA? uncovered was not what Mark had expected. He says: “There were a couple of family mysteries that were solved quite quickly. The rest of it was a complete revelation – that was what made it so thrilling because I just didn’t know where we were going. It was a very twisty and odd story in the end, perfect for me!”
A Catholic landowner
Jeremiah’s parents were John O’Kane and Margaret O’Mullan. Margaret’s obituary mentioned her father Jeremiah O’Mullan, a big Catholic landowner in a place called Ashlamaduff in County Londonderry. At the records office in Belfast, Mark was able to find Jeremiah in Griffith’s Valuation records – and put a face to the name with a striking photograph of him.
Jessie Potts, who researched Mark’s episode, says: “The photograph is amazing and such great quality, really beautiful. Someone else in the family had given it to us, but the name we had was incorrect. Once we had an older picture of Jeremiah and could see the resemblance, and dated it, we realised that it was him. It’s so rare that you come across photographs like that.”
Land valuation records, tithe applotments and an indenture helped build a picture of the lives of Jeremiah and his father George in the absence of census and other more basic records. And they revealed something very interesting: “They showed that George had rented the land at Ashlamaduff, but Jeremiah O’Mullan had bought huge amounts of land in Glack and the family homelands at Ashlamaduff,” says Jessie. It was very unusual at the time for a Catholic to own land.
But where did he get the money from to buy it and why was the surrounding area known as O’Cahan’s (later O’Kane) country?
As the researchers delved into the records to try to find the answer, they uncovered more about George including that he rented from the Company of Fishmongers, which had taken over the land following the Ulster Plantations in the early 1600s.
Mark’s dream of being descended from Irish royalty came true as one of the
It was a very twisty and odd story in the end, perfect for me!
archivists told him that his O’Kane and O’Mullan ancestors were chieftains and gentry who ruled the area before the livery companies took over the land.
Jessie says: “The livery company records were key to our research. Without them we wouldn’t have known much about George and what he did. The companies sent deputations to visit their land and compile official reports. You can build up a really nice picture of conditions that people lived in.” But George wasn’t just leasing property from the Fishmongers Company, they also employed him as a land steward, herdsman, and rent collector – a dangerous job.
One of the more unusual records the team used to track the O’Mullans was the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Mark says: “They told me it was very unusual because many of the Irish stories don’t survive, and that George’s has is, amazingly, all down to the Ordnance Survey. It’s absolutely incredible. The people in charge of the survey felt it should encompass Irish history and so they were going around finding out the names of all the local landmarks – sometimes literally just a hole in the ground. By incredible coincidence the chief surveyor met and spoke at length to George O’Mullan, who told him the story of the fall of my ancestors and other local legends – it’s all there – it’s amazing.”
Vampire tales on a bleak hillside
If it hadn’t been for this chance encounter, the window into George’s world would have remained closed, and WDYTYA? viewers would never have been treated to Mark’s recounting, on a bleak hillside, of the chilling tale of the slaying of vampire Abhartach by an O’Kane chieftain – one of his forebears.
All these records gave a real insight into George’s life. Sarah explains: “They reveal what a complicated character he was, working for the absentee landowners, yet also very much steeped in the local culture. Mark teased this information out in a way that gave you a real sense of this man, living a fairly precarious existence both physically and politically.”
George and others like him were under constant threat of violence from disgruntled neighbours (often via letters from the fictitious ‘Captain Rock’) and his property was destroyed by “malicious mountaineers” whose cattle he had impounded. Heavily in debt when the Great Famine hit in 1845 as a result, George struggled on until 1861, when he died in poverty.
However, for Jeremiah, the last O’Mullan left at Ashlamaduff, things were about to change. A solicitor’s letter dated 1875 revealed that he had been left £5,000 (£400,000 in today’s money) by his brother Bernard, who had emigrated to Australia. This enabled Jeremiah to buy the home he’d grown up in, as well as huge amounts of surrounding land.
Untold stories recounted
Beyond Mark’s spooky brush with the vampire in windswept Slaghtaverty, there were several other legends relating to his family that didn’t make it into the episode. “There was one about the fall of the O’Kanes and another about an O’Mullan who was a highwayman,” says Sarah.
Shane Crossagh O’Mullan was an Irish outlaw, disaffected after his family were driven from their land. He stole from those he believed were exploiting the working man, robbing him “of the fruits of his industry”. Shane vowed he would “walk the ladder to the gallows-top” before he would submit to the will of the incoming planters and landlords. This eventually came to pass and he was hanged in 1722.
The tale of the fall of the O’Kanes features a battle with Oliver Cromwell, most likely in 1649 when he came to Ireland to try to secure the process of Plantation following the 1641 Rebellion. Commander of the Ulster forces, Shane O’Kane, launched a counter-attack against Cromwell. Shane was told that a big army of Connacht men was on its way to help fight, however, he wanted all the glory and went into battle without them.
He survived, but was murdered by the MacDevitt clan, who rolled stones onto him from the top of a hill as punishment. Meanwhile, the rightful O’Kane chief, Donnell Givelagh O’Kane, who had returned from France in 1642 to support the Irish, was stabbed to death by Shane Clerach, who had tried to usurp him during his absence. And so ended the O’Kanes.
Mark also visited the final resting place of Cooey-na-Gall O’Cahan, who died in 1385, although the scene didn’t make it into his episode. “We went to the Dungiven Priory where there was a tomb of an ancient O’Kane,” says Sarah.
“We didn’t have a proven pedigree that linked Mark to him, but it was an evocative place. The whole area is full of O’Kanes and O’Mullans and there is that general sense of ownership that comes with that.”
Also, Jessie tells me she found out more about Bernard, Jeremiah’s brother: “He emigrated to Australia in the 1830s and became a ‘squatter’ in New South Wales, which meant he settled outside the limit the government set around Sydney. Eventually, a system of leases came in though and Bernard farmed sheep – he had about 2,500 of them, plus 75,000 acres.
“HHe wasn’t married and had no chiildren, so when he died in 1875 (thrown from his buggy in an acciident), his estate was sold and aroound £ 20,000, a really life-chaanging sum in those days, went to his brothers.”
Like George before him, Mark haas plans to tell the tale of his forebbears in his own unique way: “It’ss just like an Irish Western. Essentially, my family were royalty. They lostt it all during the Plantation, they were pushed out onto reservations like American Indians: what is wonderfully described as “clinging to the cold bare mountains”. Then my 3x great grandfather became a herdsman and was in constant fear of attack because he felt he’d betrayed the other farmers. There’s cattle rustling, there’s revolution: it’s an extraordinary frontier story. It’s an Irish story, but it has all the central planks of a Western. It’s a different landscape but they have all the same preoccupations.
“I’m definitely going to go back. It was an exceptionally beautiful and raw place,” concludes Mark – and now it’s part of his own story.
Mark’s great great grandfather Jeremiah O’Mullan
as a young man
Left: A threatening letter from ‘Capta ‘Captain Rock’; above: Ordnance Surve Survey notes about Glack
Jeremiah O’Mullan and wife Elizabeth (née O’Kane) at Ashlamaduff in County Londonderry