Wednesday 24 January 2024

Gentle history: TG4's Sloinne tells the stories of Irish surnames

Sloinne, a seven-part series on the origin and heritage of specific Irish surnames (one per episode), launched on TG4 on Sunday evening.

I didn't get to watch it live thanks to Storm Isha and her disruptive blow through, so I was pleased to find it on catch up. As far as I can tell, the series will be freely available to view worldwide; each episode will be released online after its broadcast.

The series will not only explore the surnames themselves but also the history of the areas and locations closely linked to their origins. This will include visits to ancient strongholds connected to the surname, reliving battles and feuds over land possessions, and recalling stories of more recent surname bearers.

Other surnames in the first series will be Murphy (Ó Murchú), Kelly (Ó Ceallaigh), Joyce (Seoighe) and O’Connor (Ó Conchubhair).

Episode One followed Mazz O'Flaherty, a Dingle Record Shop owner, on visits to Loch Hackett and Oughterard in County Galway with historian Adrian Martyn to learn the early history of the O'Flahertys. She then travelled to the Aran Islands with historian Gerry Hanberry, who explained the clan's seafaring and piracy connections and the surname's link with Oscar Wilde. Still on Inis Mór, Mazz's next stop was Kilmurvey House, a fine stone house built by an O'Flaherty in the mid-1800s and now the home of Treasa Hernon Joyce who showed her guest some old O'Flaherty family letters that she'd discovered during lockdown in a trunk under the stairs.

The two women also enjoyed the story of James O'Flaherty whose portrait hangs in the House; he was a friend of Oscar Wilde's father but was known locally as the White Billy Goat, such was his reputation as a gallivanter.

The second half of the programme was set in County Kerry. In Killarny, Mazz learned the story of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty and how he earned the soubriquet of Scarlet Pimpernel by setting up an escape organisation in Rome during WW2 to helping people fleeing Nazi Germany, and then, through Dr Conor Brosnan she discovered more about her own great great grandfather, John Joe O'Flaherty, a local hero. Finally, she met up with Dingle Druid Juilí Ní Mhaoileoin whose recent research has identified John Joe's grave for the first time.

The episode ran for 50 minutes and it was a slow 50 minutes. I don't mean that as a criticism. Far from it. Unlike certain other genealogical shows that leave the audience exhausted from the stress, rush and perfectly framed moments of emotion along the chosen celebrity's 'journey', Sloinne's more gentle formula of local historians putting the past into a wider context, and pulling out stories of individuals, as well as having a soft genealogical tie-in, was much more relaxing.

I particularly enjoyed listening in to the oral telling of these lives while Mazz and the historians sat at a homely table, on a quay-side wall, or a street bench, rather than gawping at old documents in a climate controlled archive or learned institution and having to race from place to place to force the tale into chronological order. The programme wasn't as slick in presentation as the 'bigger' shows, but it felt much more real... more personal.

I have no O'Flaherty connections and of the other six surnames scheduled to feature in the series, only O'Sullivan appears in my direct ancestral line (as it stands so far). I'll be watching more Sloinne episodes, though.

Sloinne is presented in Irish (Gaeilge) and English. Subtitles can be turned on via a widget below the progress (timer) bar.