Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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By Turtle Bunbury


Anyone who has listened to ‘Scrap Saturday’ or watched ‘Father Ted’ can appreciate the genius of Dermot Morgan. Before his abrupt and unexpected death aged 45 in 1998, Morgan was one of the funniest and best-loved comedians in Ireland.

But to understand what made Morgan tick, you need to go back in time and look at the generations that came before him. Denis Morgan, Dermot’s grandfather, was one of de Valera’s key fund-raisers operating in America at the time of the Irish War of Independence. Donnchadh Morgan, Dermot’s father, was a passionate artist, sculptor and actor, stranded in the civil service. Holly Morgan, Dermot’s mother, was a Dun Laoghaire beauty with a wicked sense of humour and it was she who taught her firstborn son the art of mimicry.

Like any Irish family worth its salt, the Morgans claim descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages, the 5th century High King of Ireland. Their ancestor is said to have been a sea-faring O’Neill called Muricen (meaning ‘mariner’) whose family lived in Teathbae, a mini-kingdom which spread from the eastern shores of Lough Ree into Counties Westmeath and Longford. In 1036, Conaing Ua Muricen of this sept became the first of seven Morgans to rule Tethbae. However, the family sank into obscurity after the Anglo-Norman invasion.

By the early 18th century, a number of Morgans were to be found in Dublin, prospering as merchants and town councilors. It is not known when Dermot Morgan’s forbears arrived in the city but, by the late Victorian Age, they were living on Castle Street, a turnip’s throw from Dublin Castle, the fortified seat of British rule in Ireland until 1922.

Denis Morgan, Dermot’s grandfather, was born in Dublin in 1885. As a child, he must have often seen the carriages of the Anglo-Irish nobility and gentry trotting up the streets around his home, preparing to decant the well-dressed occupants in advance of the balls and soirees of the Castle season.

Educated at the Christian Brother School on Synge Street, Denis was 17-years-old when he made his way to the Mount Sion CBS in Waterford to start life as a teacher in 1902. A passion to teach remains strong in the Morgan bloodline. Before he turned to comedy, Dermot was a secondary school teacher in Dublin, while Dermot’s son Don [Donnchadh] Morgan is a German and media teacher at Monkstown CBS today.

By 1907, Denis Morgan was teaching Irish and mathematics at the CBS in Thurles, Co Tipperary, which was to be his hometown for the next fifteen years. Already an active member of the Irish-speaking community, an indication of his political beliefs can be seen on his 1911 Census form. He began to fill the return in English, then scratched this out and completed it in Irish. In 1914, 29-year-old Donnchadh O Muireagain – as his friends now called him – married Margaret O’Connell, a young National teacher who he had met at the Thurles choir. Seven children were born to the couple.

On 15 January 1920, Denis Morgan was elected Chairman of the Urban District Council of Thurles. Four days later, RIC Constable Luke Finnegan was fatally shot in the stomach in the town. The War of Independence was in full flight. Denis always insisted he knew nothing of the plan to kill Finnegan. Nonetheless, his house was targeted by the RIC during a violent assault on the town that night. Addressing the American Commission on the Conditions in Ireland eleven months later, Denis told how he lay sprawled upon the damp cold stone basement floor of his house with his heavily pregnant wife and 5-year-old son Seamus while the RIC guns blazed at his house, showering plaster and glass all around them.

Ten days later, Denis was arrested, handcuffed and transported via Spike Island to Wormwood Scrub prison outside London. When he asked on what charge, he was told: ‘No charge – government orders’. During the transit, a belligerent soldier stepped forward to smash his rifle butt into Denis’s face. The officer-in-charge shouted: ‘Put that down or you’ll feel my rifle’. The officer later confided that Denis had taught him in Middle Grade at Thurles CBS.

The ensuing three months must have been deeply traumatic for Denis. Not long after arrival, he learned that Margaret had given birth to a baby boy, Donnchadh, father of Dermot. Just days later, he learned that Seamus – the small boy with whom he endured that dreadful night in Thurles - had taken ill and died. Denis applied for leave to attend his son’s funeral, but was refused. The Wormwood Scrub prisoners later went on hunger strike and Denis was among those taken to hospital for treatment. In May, he was released under a general amnesty, returned to Ireland and resumed his chairmanship in Thurles.

In the autumn of 1920, an American Commission was set up in Washington to investigate atrocities alleged to have taken place in Ireland during the War of Independence. Denis Morgan was one of four Irish citizens to take the stand. His evocative descriptions, including his account of the attack on his home, had a massive effect on American public opinion which was rapidly pressurizing Britain to bring an end to the war. He subsequently remained in the USA, raising money for Irish independence. He was given a gold pocket watch by the people of Boston which, although it no longer works, continues to be owned by the eldest son in the family.

While in Washington, Denis learned of the events of Bloody Sunday, including the assassination of fourteen British agents in Dublin by Michael Collins death squad. It is a curious twist that one member of the death squad was Michael O'Hanlon, grandfather of Ardal O’Hanlon who played Father Dougal to Dermot Morgan’s Father Ted.

Despite a request from the Archbishop of Cashel, Denis never returned to his teaching post at Thurles. He maintained he had been treated badly by the Christian Brothers. In 1927 he entered the Irish Civil Service, serving in the Department of Education until his death in Blackrock in 1945. During this time, he also gave driving lessons to the young Frank Kelly, the actor who played ‘Father Jack’ in the Father Ted series. Four of Denis’s children subsequently entered the Civil Service and Denis joked that his family had nearly enough personnel to run a department of their own.

Denis’s eldest son Donnchadh, the father of Dermot, was an extremely gifted artist and sculptor. He followed his father into the civil service but, as Dermot later said, ‘he just wasn't cut out for suburban life.’ A fluent Irish speaker with a highly analytical mind, Donnchadh had a passion for amateur dramatics generally and Sophia Loren in particular. His wife Holly Stokes was a celebrated beauty from Dun Laoghaire. Holly’s grandson Don Morgan recalls her as ‘a vicious mimic who taught me and my brother [Rob] how to swear’. It was her ‘mischievous streak which really fed into my father's humour, as well as his own talent for mimicry.’

Donnchadh’s nephew Donagh Morgan served as Secretary to three taoiseachs namely Garret FitzGerald, Charles J. Haughey and Albert Reynolds. He was Haughey's secretary at the time his cousin Dermot was performing the ‘Scrap Saturday’ sketch, leading some to incorrectly assume he was the ‘deep-throat’ of the show.

Sadly, Donnchadh died of an aneurism aged 54, leaving four teenage children, the eldest of whom was Dermot. Donnchadh’s grandchildren continue the artistic streak, with painters, sculptors and actors amongst them.

Dermot’s elder sons have an added curiosity in their blood in that their mother, Susanna Garmatz, came from Hamburg and is of Pomeranian descent. She met Dermot at the Dublin Horse Show, which she was attending as a supporting member of the German team participating in the Aga Khan Cup.


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