Julie Walters: ‘It would have been a bit dull if there weren’t any skeletons in my family closet’

Julie Walters tells TV Times about her great grandfather, a poor Irish farmer who became a folk hero ahead of the new series of Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC1, Thursday, August 7)

What were you expecting to find up when you agreed to do the show?
“It would have been a bit dull if there weren’t any skeletons. I just hoped that they wouldn’t be too embarrassing. I wanted to be able to walk down the street afterwards and into Boots without people saying, ‘Did you see her on Who Do You Think You Are? BLIMEY!'”

What you did know was that your mother Mary O’Brien grew up in Ireland before leaving for England in 1938 at the age of 23…
“My mother was a very strong woman and apparently she said she was going on a little trip to England and then she just didn’t go back! She ended up in Birmingham and met my father who was a builder and that was it. In six months they were married and there were letters from her parents saying, ‘Come home at once!'”

You also discover that your great-grandfather Anthony, who was a farmer, faced starvation in 1879, and wrote to his rich English landlord Sir Roger Palmer to plead with him to lower the rent…
“It was a sad little letter. You could never have relaxed, because you’d have never known all through your life whether you were going to be thrown out at a moment’s notice. It made me want to cry.”

You then find out that Sir Roger refused to lower the rents, and so the farmers formed a protest group called the Irish National Land League…
“Anthony’s one of the people who started the Land League and I’m so proud of him.”

You then found out that not only was Anthony – your maternal great grandfather – involved in the Land League, so was your great grandmother from your father’s side of the family!
“I’m absolutely thrilled that it wasn’t just the men and that my great grandmother Maria O’Brien was involved in the movement. I’m thrilled that my great grandparents were radicals. I had no idea. They were real people standing up for their rights.”

There was a dark twist though, when you realised that Maria’s father, Cummins Buchanan, had become an outcast in his community after taking land that had been seized from an evicted farmer…
“His daughter fights with the Land League and he’s in there taking land! For a woman in those days to politically stand out against her father in that position must have caused huge ructions in the family.”

Do you understand the predicament that your great, great grandfather was in?
“I’m not condoning it all, but I can understand why if someone had the opportunity to get a bit more land, they would take it. And like everyone really he was doing the best for his family as he saw it. I’m not going to get angry with him, although I think it’s a dreadful thing to do. What comes out of this is how strong Maria was in order to do what she did at that time, with that father. I mean I found it difficult to go against my mother to become an actress. That was really hard.”