It seems like just about everyone claims to have Irish Heritage these days, but exactly who is and who isn’t? When even Barack Obama (or should that be O’Bama??) is talking about his Irish roots, how can we tell a proper Irishman or woman from a wannabe?
Hollywood is full of the Irish – you know, the ones with the dodgy American accents? Neeson, Farrell, Fassbender are the recognisable ones, but there are a few you might not be aware of having been born in Ireland.
There are lots of celebrities who are of Irish descent, like Harrison Ford, John Wayne, Grace Kelly and even Mariah Carey. You might even be surprised to find out that writers like Raymond Chandler, George RR Martin, Bill Bryson and even F Scott Fitzgerald had Irish parents. However, the 10 in my list were all born in Ireland or in the case of one, was adopted by Ireland.
1. Iris Murdoch
There were a few raised eyebrows when I included Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea in my 100 Irish Books by 100 Irish Authors list, but Jean Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin on July 15 1919. Her parents were Irish, her father from the north of Ireland and her mother from the south and the family moved to London when Iris was nine, when her father joined the Civil Service. She set three of her stories in Ireland: the novels The Unicorn (1963) and The Red and the Green (1965), and the short story Something Special (1958).
I think being a woman is like being Irish… Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time.
2. CS Lewis
Clive Staples Lewis was born on the eastern outskirts of Belfast in 1898 and grew up in a large house called Little Lea at Dundela. In his autobiography he remembers a house
of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes and the noise of the wind under the tiles. Also of endless books…From our front door we looked down over wide fields to Belfast Lough and across it to the long mountain line of the Antrim shore.
The landscape of Narnia was thought to be inspired by the spectacular scenery of the Mountains of Mourne in County Down, a landscape Lewis loved and today The Linen Hall Library in Belfast houses a unique collection of books by and about the author, donated by the CS Lewis Association of Ireland.
3. Sam Neill
Sam Neill, that quintessential New Zealand actor was actually born in Omagh in Northern Ireland to an Irish mother and a father from New Zealand. The family returned to New Zealand in 1954 when Neill was 7 and at the age of 10 he changed his name from Nigel to Sam, saving himself from he says ‘a lifetime of pain’. Nigel Neill doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. He claims never to have had an Ulster accent, which may explain how bad his Northern Irish accent in Peaky Blinders was…..
4. Patricia Quinn aka Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show
With a name like Patricia Quinn it should some as no surprise that Magenta, Frankenfurter’s housekeeper from the movie version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show is from Ireland. As the famous singing mouth from the opening credits of the movie, she has been associated with that musical for over 40 years. Born in Belfast in 1944, she was working as an actress at the Belfast Arts Theatre where she was sacked for having bronchitis. With no other jobs on the horizon, she travelled to London and stayed with Z Cars and fellow countryman James Ellis before her big break came in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These days, Quinn is known as Lady Stephens as she married Robert Stephens (ex husband of Dame Maggie Smith) a year before his death in 1995. And if that’s not a random enough fact, two of her nephews are members of Snow Patrol!
5. Francis Bacon
Not to be confused with the Elizabethan philosopher of the same name, although he was a collatoral descendant, the artist Francis Bacon whom Margaret Thatcher described as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures”, was born in Baggott Street in Dublin in 1909 and spent much of his childhood moving back and forth between England and Ireland living often with his grandparents in Kildare. He lived and worked in London for most of his life, but in 1998 the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin secured the donation of the contents of Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews, South Kengsington and the contents were moved and the studio reconstructed to stunning effect in the gallery. Today most of the works are in the Hugh Lane in Dublin.
6. Michael Gambon
Michael Gambon was born in Dublin in 1940 to a seamstress mother and engineer father and they moved to London in 1945 as his father looked for work in the building industry. His father had Michael made a British citizen, rather fortuitously for it meant he could recieve a full knighthood and CBE rather than an honorary one. At the age of 19 he sent an entirely made up CV to Irish theatre impressario Michael MacLaimmoir (who, oddly enough wasn’t even Irish!) and made his stage debut in a production of Othello in the Gate Theatre Dublin in 1962 playing ‘Second Gentleman’. Pretty humble beginnings for one of the world’s most renowned stage and screen actors, The Singing Detective and Harry Potter star!
7. Duke of Wellington
Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, one of the leading military and political figures of Britain in the nineteenth century was actually born in Merrion Street in Dublin and spent his childhood in the family estate in Meath before leaving to attend Eton College. Following his defeat of Napolean at the Battle of Waterloo he acted as Prime Minister of Great Britain and oversaw Catholic Emancipation, the granting of civil rights to Catholics in Ireland. Whether or not he thought of himself as Irish is another matter given he is attributed as saying,
Because a man is born in a stable that does not make him a horse.
8. Bram Stoker
Another shocker for some people was the news that the creator of the greatest vampire story of all time, Bram Stoker, was Irish. I didn’t know it until I was living in Dublin and saw the blue plaque on the house he was born in! It has been suggested that Dracula was based in part not on Vlad the Impaler, but on Manus the Magnificent, once ruler of all of Ireland and of whom Stoker was a direct descendant. The reach and influence of his best known work cannot be overstated and Dracula has spawned over 1000 novels and 200 movies.
9. Kenneth Branagh
The quintessential British Shakespearean actor and now Disney director (for the new live action Cinderella), Kenneth Branagh is probably best known in Northern Ireland as ‘wee Billy’ – for his break out role in the Billy Plays by Graham Reid which were shown on the BBC’s Play For Today. He was born in Belfast but his family moved to England when he was nine at the outbreak of the Troubles. He claimed he lost his Belfast accent to avoid bullying and after training at RADA went on to become one of Britain’s best loved actors and directors. He has been nominated for five Academy Awards and He was appointed a knight bachelor in the 2012 Birthday Honours for services to drama and to the community in Northern Ireland. Last year he performed alongsdide Rob Brydon in The Painkiller on stage at the Lyric Theatre in his home town. If interested, you can watch The Billy Plays on YouTube.
I feel Irish. I don’t think you can take Belfast out of the boy.
10. Spike Milligan
The comedian, writer and Goon Show creator, Terence Milligan was born in India to an Irish Father and British mother. His British citizenship was always in question, despite having served six years in the British army and when he was declared stateless after refusing to swear an Oath of Allegience to the Queen, he became an Irish citizen. His website jokes that his request to the Irish Ambassador was answered with “Oh, you’re that bloke on the telly. Of course you can become an Irish citizen. We’re terribly short of people”. Following his death, his coffin was draped in the Irish flag and as the dioceses where he was buried refused to allow his famous epitaph ‘I told you I was ill’ to be on his gravestone, it was included in Irish instead – Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite
So, any big surprises in my list? Is there anyone you have discovered was Irish and been surprised by?