In reviewing the episode of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' which featured Martin Sheen, the question for me is, 'am I going to be a killjoy?' The answer is a resounding 'YES', and I think I have good reason to be resentful. 'The Irish segment of Martin Sheen's episode of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' was a big disappointment for me, principally because of the misleading way in which information was presented.
To those of you who have Ancestry accounts, and look for Irish records, I'm pretty sure I don't have to point out the problem with the magical appearance of an actual civil registration record when Mr. Sheen conducted his Ancestry.com search. Enough said.
I like Martin Sheen as an actor, but quite frankly I was completely appalled when I read some of the interviews he gave with respect to his family history after his experience on WDYTYA. It is clear to me that Mr. Sheen knows absolutely nothing about the history of Ireland, and learned nothing from his experience on the show.
To the UK Daily Mail he stated (and I quote):
"When I was in Ireland and discovering the involvement of my uncle in the Rising and the Civil War, because he took an opposing side to (Eamon) de Valera, I was afraid he might have been in on the plan to assassinate Mick Collins. But as it turned out he was in prison when Mick Collins was assassinated and I was deeply relieved."
Aside from the fact that Mr. Sheen is revealing his own massive ego and sense of self-importance in thinking he is connected to the man who killed Michael Collins, the HUGE problem with this statement is that Collins and DeValera were on OPPOSITE SIDES during the Civil War, so if Mr. Sheen's uncle was against Eamon DeValera, he would have been on the same side as Michael Collins.
Further, in an interview with TheDeadbolt.com, Mr. Sheen claims his ancestor also served during the War of Independence. In the show, he is researching the military service of his mother's brother Michael Phelan, and according to Michael Phelan's own pension application he was not a member of the I.R.A. until after the truce of July 1921, thus he would not have participated in either the 1916 Rising, or The War of Independence (1919-1921). Martin Sheen needs to run, not walk, to the nearest library and learn a little about Irish history before he says another word about it.
I was amused to see Martin Sheen in the research room of the Cathal Brugha Military Archives, simply because I have spent so much time there myself, but my amusement was quickly squashed. Cathal Brugha is a working military base, and in the Military Archives they have a stellar staff, made up principally of civilians (Hugh, Noelle, and Lisa). I like to imagine that perhaps they refused to appear on camera in protest of the nonsense to which they were witness.
Although pension records and medals files are held at the Cathal Brugha Military Archives in Rathmines Dublin, the records cannot be viewed there, unless of course you are Martin Sheen. You must apply through the Military Pensions Office in Renmore Galway, providing proof of your next of kin status (see this POST). Staff at Renmore Galway request the records from Cathal Brugha; the Cathal Brugha staff ship them to Galway, and from Galway they send you copies of the records. It may sound convoluted, but that is how it works.
With respect to the visit to Kilmainham Gaol, showing a prison cell in the panopticon section of the prison, in which Michael Phelan was allegedly held, does not quite fit, (sorry I'm skeptical about this claim too). I'm guessing the panopticon section of the prison was used because it's more TV friendly than the dank and dark corridors of the old gaol where many civil war prisoners were held. Also, I have searched the Kilmainham Gaol Registers, and have found no reference to a Michael Phelan of Tipperary imprisoned there during the period in question.
With respect to the pension application of Michael Phelan, the show was more interesting for what they failed to say, than for what they said. It is important to understand that pension applications made for service during the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War, were made between 1924 to 1949, and are statements of "claim". People could in effect claim whatever they liked in an application. Civil War applications and witness statements in particular are remarkable for the way in which some of them were used as almost a sort of revenge against others.
A pension application had to be accompanied by sworn affidavits made by witnesses attesting to the veracity of an individual's claims. These witnesses might include commanding officers, or other high ranking officials. Mr. Sheen's ancestor may have claimed to have burned down one of the prisons in which he was held, but did he? Was there an affidavit to support his claims? Also, a pension applicant was not always given full credit for what he/she was claiming. An individual could claim to have served with the I.R.A. for years but, based on the affidavits of others, as well as the judgment of the authorities, he/she may have been denied their pension claim, or had it significantly altered. I would like to have seen more evidence than just a pension application, at least an indication that Phelan's claim was accepted, and he was granted a pension.
I guess it comes down to this: what is the point of WDYTYA? Is it purely for entertainment? Is the viewer supposed to think that they can go down the same path? When you watch this show, do you imagine that if you went to Ireland, you would uncover your past in the same way as this celebrity? What assumptions are viewers bringing to the show? Where are the evidentiary records? Enjoy the show, but don't assume you can follow in their footsteps, and don't assume there is necessarily truth in all, or even any, of the claims they are making about a particular individual.
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- Finding Irish Ancestors: Research Aids
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