Friday, February 10, 2012

Martin Sheen Searches for Meaning

Each time there is an episode of NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? there are inevitably comments the next day on social media rejoicing in how wonderful the episode was or lamenting its lack of substance, or aghast, genealogy.

The episode featuring Martin Sheen was no exception. I don't think there is any right or wrong just differences in personal taste regarding what people like to watch on tv. Ironically, when people don't like an episode because it doesn't go far enough back I tend to have the opposite reaction. The same thing happened for me last season with the Kim Cattrall episode. Let me explain why.

The Martin Sheen episode focused heavily on his search for information on two of his uncles - one who lived in Ireland and one who lived in Spain. Though the last part of the show did dig back many generations to uncover an unusual connection between two ancestors.

I can understand that perhaps some people might not have appreciated the stories of the uncles because it was only one generation back. I mean, that's not really genealogy, right?!!

For me, the story of his two uncles was the essence of why most people start searching for their roots. It's a sense of connectedness to those in your family, known or unknown, who have come before you. Martin Sheen has a strong sense of activism in his personal belief system. He wanted to know where that came from.

His uncle in Ireland fought and suffered imprisonment for a free and independent Irish Republic. His strong beliefs in his country shaped the path he took and helped bring independence to Ireland. Likewise, the uncle in Spain fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco and also suffered for his beliefs and convictions.

Martin Sheen never knew his Irish uncle and I get the sense that he didn't know the Spanish one very well. Yet his mother was sibling to the one in Ireland and his father to the one in Spain. I have a hard time believing that the pain they endured was not shared by Sheen's parents, the way family members ache when their loved ones suffer.  Surely his parents may have spoken about them growing up. But certainly his parents' reactions to the world in which they lived, and the choices that they made, would have been colored by these dramatic events that happened to their families.

I would say, yes, Martin, you have found that connection you were looking for. Beliefs, strengths, affinities are passed down. And isn't great when you actually have the opportunity to understand where they came from? Not all of us are that lucky but we still crave it.

For me the sense of connectedness, the feeling a part of something bigger was the most profound reaction I had when embarking on my genealogical journey. Whether you get that connection one generation back or five it doesn't really matter. For this reason, I enjoyed this Sheen episode and shared in the satisfaction that Martin, for the most part, found what he was looking for.

I will say, though, the only disappointing part for me was that they never mentioned what happened to the uncle in Ireland. Did he die young or old? Did he ever have a family? There was no mention of it and it would have provided nicer closure had it been included.


  1. Personally, I thought it was great. To me it is the discovery of a person and who he or she was all about. I have so many ancestors with just dates and facts. This show has great researchers that delve deeper in the records to put a story together and give that person some life.

  2. Perhaps it is where we are as a genealogist that dictates what we like to see. I spent years trying to reach farther back along my family tree. These past few years, I've been comfortable just digging into the histories of my closer ancestors and learning more about them. That is why I loved the episode on Martin Sheen's uncles.

  3. Marian, in the clip Living Photographs, which I think was deleted from the show (unless I fell asleep!) Martin meets with his cousin, Michael Phelan's daughter, and learns more about his uncle.

  4. I, too, loved this episode. Part was the fact that he researched Irish and Spanish ancestors (which are are the two ethnicities that predominate in my background), but I thought that Sheen's excitement was both genuine and contagious. Granted, he's an actor, but he appeared to be truly interested and engaged. For me, that translated into a particularly interesting episode.

    Like all the episodes, I wish it was a 2 hour episode so they could show more of the "how" they found the information as well as more of the context like the prisons his uncles served time in.

  5. I agree with Joan completely! I wish they were two hour episodes, or 1.5 hours at least! We could see so much more!

    Last year, and the year before, I ended up liking even those episodes of people who were not my favorite actors/actresses, and usually found out that I liked the person they really are much better as a result! I love the show!!!

  6. What I didn't like about the Martin Sheen episode was that the first piece on the uncle in Ireland seemed to just jump right in and move too fast. It didn't build the story. Kim Cutrall's episode really built the story around her grandfather. I don't mind the focus on one person a generation back. I just don't like that Martin was whisked off to Ireland within 5 minutes of the show starting, and we barely knew anything about his uncle. I liked the part on his Spanish uncle a little better. It seemed to build the story a little more.

  7. Jennifer,

    I agree. I was a little surprised that the first second was him getting on a plane. They could have segued that a bit better. It was too abrupt.

  8. I enjoyed the WDYTYA-Martin Sheen episode, thoroughly, in the respect that the research took them to Spain. 90% of my research has to do with Spain and I have found that it is not easy to research on the internet, for some reason. This episode gave me the names of a few of the repositories that I can begin to contact, especially, since Galicia is where my ancestors were from. I find that these shows give practical direction & protocol in their stories which I find very interesting and am so glad that it is available.