When Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez looked into his family’s history, he found a story that took in the Spanish and Irish civil wars – and perhaps laid his own trail towards the White House.
Estévez, better known as actor Martin Sheen, became interested in his family’s past when he agreed to take part in Who Do You Think You Are? because, as he said, “I’m 71 years old and I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around. I was doing it for my grandchildren and their children.”
While most of us might not have quite such far-reaching family connections, finding out where we came from adds a substantial new dimension to our understanding of ourselves. It also often rewrites history. Not just personal history – it’s amazing how frequently families suppress, forget or simply misunderstand the stories they are told by older generations – but also a nation’s history.
As time goes by, events get frozen in time and a simplifying narrative attaches to them: “Those are the good guys; those are the bad guys; and this is what happened.”
The trouble is, life is rarely that simple – and the only way to get a proper picture is by looking at the lives of ordinary people.
With such massive emigrant populations, Ireland has many sons and daughters who return in search of their history. And with such a politically unsettled past, the island offers many surprises to people who think they know where they came from.
Half-Spanish and half-Irish, Martin Sheen is vocally proud of his mother’s Tipperary roots. He has made several films in Ireland, he carries an Irish passport, and he even studied at NUI Galway when he finished playing US President Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing.
The tides turn over time
During his research, liberal activist Sheen found that his uncles had fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. On his mother’s side, another uncle fought for Home Rule in Ireland, but in the turbulence of the early 20th century, allegiances shifted fast.
When he heard his uncle had been opposed to the Free State, Sheen admits he suspected his uncle’s involvement in the notorious murder of political leader Michael Collins, “but as it turned out, my uncle was in prison at the time,” said Sheen. “I was deeply relieved!”
Dr Who and the Orange Order
Scottish actor David Tennant (Dr Who, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) was similarly astonished by what he found when he dug into the past. From a vague reference – “There’s some Irish in there somewhere” – he found that his great-grandfather, William Blair, was a Northern Irish Protestant and member of the Orange Order.
Finding out about your past is exciting, scary – and very rewarding. As Martin Sheen put it, “No matter what came down, I was going to accept it. I wasn’t always prepared for what I learned, but the journey itself was deeply satisfying.”
So, who do you think YOU are?