Belfast Telegraph

Comedian Paul Merton uncovers grandfather's IRA links

Paul Merton. Photographer: Stephen Perry
Paul Merton. Photographer: Stephen Perry
Sarah Tulloch

By Sarah Tulloch

Comedian Paul Merton has said he “completely understands” his Irish grandfather's decision to join the IRA in 1920.

The Have I Got News For You panelist traces the life of his maternal grandfather James Power, from Crooke, Co Waterford, in an upcoming episode of BBC One's Who Do You Think You Are?

Paul Martin, known professionally as Paul Merton, is one of two children born to English father Albert and Irish mother, Mary Ann Power, who was fostered after her parents died when she was a baby.

When a priest told James’s wife her husband had died at sea, she went into shock and premature labour and tragically died in childbirth. Her baby boy survived only three days.

A poor farmer, Power enlisted in the Royal Irish Regiment of the British Army aged 23 at the outbreak of the First World War.

In April 1916, Powell’s Regiment was deployed onto the streets of Dublin during the Easter Rising to suppress the rebels.

Following the Rising, Power served for the British Army in Greece, Egypt, and the Battle for Jerusalem before returning his medals and joining the IRA - then the military wing of the Irish republican movement fighting for independence from Britain.

Merton (62) said that he didn’t blame his grandfather for joining the republican army waging a guerrilla war against British forces.

“Firing at his fellow Irishmen… that could instill a radicalism in you I think. I don’t blame him to be honest,” said the comedian.

“You think you're going to France to fight the Germans, and then you're in Dublin and ordered to shoot at your mates.”

James Power, Paul's maternal grandfather
James Power, Paul's maternal grandfather

Following Irish independence, he was married and had children. To provide for them, he started working as a fireman in the merchant navy.

Contrary to reports that he had died at sea, records show that Power died in Cardiff age 37 of a heart attack before falling into a canal, where his body was recovered.

Merton had previously turned down the opportunity to star on Who Do You Think You Are following the protests of his parents. After their death in 2013, the comedian decided to revisit his family history.

Merton told the Radio Times: “I think my mum would have taken the attitude that it was a long time ago and [the IRA] was a different organisation then, and it was about getting away from British rule.

“They were an occupied country fighting for independence. Having gone through the experience he's gone through, I can completely understand why my grandfather would have been anti-British. It was very plausible, very understandable.

“As an Irishman in British uniform, James is ordered to shoot fellow Irishmen on the streets of the capital city of Ireland. That sort of thing could, to use a modern phrase, radicalise you, I could imagine.

Paul's sister Angela Martin, Mary-Ann Power (Paul's mother) and Paul Merton (aged 7) - taken at Hemsby Holiday Camp - 1964
Paul's sister Angela Martin, Mary-Ann Power (Paul's mother) and Paul Merton (aged 7) - taken at Hemsby Holiday Camp - 1964

He said that his extended family in Ireland had been moved by the episode.

“This was the old IRA. Some of my Irish relatives were very firm on the distinction between what it used to be and what it became, 50-odd years afterwards.

“The thing with the IRA is that people will think: 'Oh, the Birmingham bombings' and all that. But this was a different time. It needs to be put into context.” 

Who Do You Think You Are? airs on Wednesday, August 28 on BBC One at 9pm

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