Comedy star discovers his grandfather left British Army to fight for IRA in War of Independence

Paul Merton

British comedian Paul Merton found out an extraordinary story from his Irish family history when he appeared the hit BBC show Who Do You Think You Are? in 2019.

The popular star learned that his Irish grandfather fought for the British Army before quitting to join the IRA.

Waterford man James Power joined the British Army during the First World War. In 1916, he fought for the Royal Irish Regiment during the Easter Rising in Dublin.

Paul Merton

He was awarded the Victory Medal and the British Medal. However, he was horrified at the prospect of having to fire at his fellow Irish countrymen.

He was so incensed that he gave his medals back, left the army and joined the IRA.

During the Irish War of Independence, Power became a first lieutenant in the East Waterford Brigade.

Merton understood his grandfather’s predicament.

He said: “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.

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

Merton also pointed out the difference between the IRA that his grandfather joined in the 1910s-20s, which fought for Irish Independence, and the later paramilitary IRA which was responsible for terror attacks in both Ireland and the UK.

He said: “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.”

Merton’s mother Mary Ann was taken into foster care in Ireland after both Power and his wife tragically died.

After the war, Power had worked as a fireman and trimmer for the Merchant Navy. His family believed he had died at sea during a trip to South America, but Merton learned that he had suffered a heart attack near a canal in Wales.

Power’s wife was so shocked by his death that she wet into early labour and gave birth to a son (Merton’s uncle) but died a few days later.

Merton later visited Power’s grave in Cardiff, becoming the first member of his family to do so.

He said: “A few days ago I knew very little about James. I had a photograph. And I have got to know him over the last few days.

“Even though I never met him you get to know a person — the man — through his actions, his deeds.

“And he certainly saw a lot of the world in his short span of time and played a part in very momentous parts of Irish history. My thoughts have fluctuated over the last few days about whether my mother would have wanted to have known more about her father.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that, actually, if there was a place she could have come to, to lay flowers, she would have wanted that. It’s 92 years ago this happened.

“I’m the first member of the family to find out his final resting place.

“That is rather remarkable, isn’t it? It’s a long time ago, 1927, and it’s taken this long for us to find out the truth.”

Take a look at some clips from the show in the videos below.

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Written by Michael Kehoe @michaelcallingJoin our community