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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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