Dame Judi Dench has discovered her mother’s mystery Irish family hailed from landed gentry near Dublin Airport.
In a new episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, the quintessential English actress reveals her mother, Eleanora, was born in Dublin while her father Reginald Dench was born in England but grew up in the Irish capital.
At the start of the programme, she describes her Celtic-looking mother and doctor father, who met in Ireland, as wonderful parents.
But her mother’s family were always a mystery.
“She had no relations at all that we ever met.”
In the National Library in Ireland, Irish genealogist, Nicola Morris, establishes that her Dublin mother, Eleanor Olive Jones, came from landed gentry in Swords.
Her great, great grandmother, Eleanor Francis Bolton, who was born in 1802, spent her childhood in the rarefied surroundings of Brazil House.
“It was Co. Dublin in the parish of Swords. It was quite a substantial big house so they would have been a well-to-do family.
“They had been in this Brazil House for at least 200 years.”
Handwritten records of land kept by the Office of the Ulster King of Arms of the landed families in Ireland had notes on her Bolton ancestors, who married into a Danish family back in the 1700s.
Meanwhile, she found out her father was recruited to fight in World War 1 Before delving into her father’s recruitment and military training in Trinity College Dublin at the tender age of 18.
She also met up with her paternal Irish cousins Denis and Valerie in Dublin – who she knows well from childhood and frequent visits to Ireland.
“Very generous man is all I remember of him, very much so”, said Denis.
“He always wore callipers.”
“It didn’t stop him swimming”, adds the actress, “He used to laugh so much – quite inappropriate for a doctor!”
In Who Do You Think You Are? it emerges he came close to death several times in harrowing battles during World War One and earned two military crosses – one of the highest honours for bravery – for his selfless actions in trench warfare.
In Trinity College in Dublin, battlefields historian Peter Barton reveals how his first gallantry medal was awarded after his first taste of battle action in March 1917, when he came under heavy German shelling in Ypres in Belgium.
“At 4am in the morning, so it’s pitch black, the Germans launched their raid, and what they’re hoping to do is to get into the British trenches, your father’s trenches, and kill as many British as possible, captures some prisoners to feed upon for intelligence. But it doesn’t work.
“The artillery has failed to cut the protective barbed war in front of the trenches and they can’t get through, and everybody is firing at these approaching Germans, including your father. He picks up a machine gun, and he’s firing at them as they approach.”
In a war diary, Second Lieutenant Dench and a soldier called Birney are singled out for “especially distinguished themselves”.
Seven months later on October 14th, 1917, his second medal came after a raid on the German trenches south of Arras near the Hindenburg Line, Reginald Dench, now an acting captain, is charged with organising a raid to survey German trenches to get vital intelligence.
After entering the enemy trenches, the World War One expert reads from a report detailing how the British regiment encountered German soldiers during their mission.
“A small party of the enemy worked their way towards your father’s men bombing and firing rifles. Our men retaliated, one being shot at close range by Captain Dench”, reads Mr Barton from a military report before explaining, “Your father shot a German soldier at point-blank range. And he also threw bombs.
“He’s holding off aggression by the Germans. They get back in No Man’s land, your father stays in No Man’s land like a shepherd. And ushers his men back to the safety of their own trenches, he’s the last to come back which is remarkable. And for that, he received another Military Cross.
“He knew what his duty was, and he knew it was that German soldier or him.”
She shakes her head looking grave saying: “I’m not at all surprised that nobody spoke about it all.”
Judi discovered her father’s lifelong knee injury stemmed from this time when he damaged his leg during training exercises in Trinity College delaying his deployment.
He was recovering from a cartilage operation while the Battle of the Somme – one of the bloodiest battles in human history – raged across the English Channel in France in the second half of 1916.
In the aftermath of his second military cross, he was sent back to Britain due to the same injury six days before the Germans launched the spring offensive leaving every single officer in his battalion injured, killed or captured.
“Maybe that’s why he never complained”, said Judi, “He was obviously in pain a lot but never complained.”
While visiting her family’s church in Sandymount, she sits in a pew looking at a war memorial commemorating her father and the soldiers he served alongside, which hangs next to a stained-glass window memorialising her paternal grandmother, Bessie Oak Dench.
“I’m very anti-war”, she says, “and it’s hard to contemplate how you would commit yourself to that each day.
“He’s used to just rub his knee, but he never talked about that and how in fact having that injury must have saved his life on maybe more than two occasions
“When you think how completely life-changing his experiences were, I’m not sure you could live in the past.
“I think you’d want to push that away from you a bit, well, a lot.”
Who Do You Think You Are? with Judi Dench will be shown on BBC One on Tuesday, October 19
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