Michael Palin & Letterkenny
And now for something completely different.
You may know Michael Palin as one sixth of the groundbreaking comedy troupe Monty Python who brought us such comedic gems as The Life of Brian, The Holy Grail, the Meaning of Life and the TV Show, Flying Circus. Or perhaps it is as the film star from A Fish Called Wanda or Brazil? Maybe it is as the travel explorer who has been from Pole to Pole and Around the World in 80 Days? Whichever way you know this multi talented writer, TV and film star, did you know that he claims ancestral descent from our very own town of Letterkenny?
Whilst making a BBC documentary in 1994 entitled Great Railway Journeys: From Derry to Kerry, Michael discovered that his great-grandmother on his father’s side was Irish who had left in 1845 on a “coffin ship” bound for America when both of her parents perished in the Great Famine. Her name was Brita Gallagher, and after much more careful research he discovered that she was from “a town called Letterkenny”.
Orphaned, with only a label on her dress to identify her, Brita Gallagher sailed from Kerry to America where she was brought up by a rich spinster called Caroline Watson, who was most likely her aunt. She was then sent back to Europe to receive an education when she was 16. She travelled for several years, before a chance encounter with an English academic called Edward Palin in a hotel in Switzerland. At the time, he was an Oxford Don at St John’s College and although there was a 17-year age gap between them, they were attracted to one another and in 1867, once she had reached the age of 21, they were married in Paris.
The affair was quite scandalous in this Victorian age and so Edward was forced to give up his position in the college but secured a living as the vicar of Linton, Herefordshire. The couple had seven children, one of whom was Michael’s grandfather.
Unfortunately, due to poor census records in nineteenth century Ireland, any details of Brita Gallagher’s life in Letterkenny are difficult to come by. For example, we do not know whereabouts in the town she was from exactly or how she made it from here all the way down to Kerry to depart for her new life in America. One can only speculate.
Having met Mr. Palin a number of years back and discussed his ancestry with him, he revealed that he is very proud of his Irish roots and that he was delighted to discover the town his great grandmother came from. He also hopes that it won’t be long before he can make a visit to Letterkenny in the future and discover more about his ancestral ‘home’.