When my dad, Ray Martin, told me he was going on Who Do You Think You Are?, I laughed, thinking of the poor producers who would have to accompany him.
I’ve had enough family holidays to know what he’s like on the road. In a word, he’s inexhaustible: detour after detour to check out one crumbling relic or tree-dotted landscape after another, his camera permanently fused to his hand, like an extra limb.
Dad almost became a history teacher, such is his love for all things antiquated. Instead, he went into journalism, I guess because though he likes history, he loves meeting people and hearing their stories and while old buildings have their charm they’re not not known for being talkative.
Who Do You Think You Are? was the perfect fit for my endlessly curious father. He couldn’t believe he got to do it, couldn’t believe someone might think his history was interesting enough for TV.
Dad’s journey took him to Western Sydney, outback NSW, country Victoria and rural Ireland, following clues handed to him by bookish historians, illuminating bit by bit the path trodden by his long-lost relos.
It really is as revelatory as it seems on TV: each day was a total mystery where Dad would come home wide-eyed, desperate to know what the next outing would bring. For my brother and I - who have always taken the piss out of his boundless enthusiasm - it was just as revealing: little by little, ancestor by ancestor, our father started to make complete sense.
Dad was glad that Edmund Grace, the dutiful Irish soldier on his father’s side, had missed the Eureka Rebellion by a day or so. A staunch republican, desperate to flick the Union Jack off our flag, Dad couldn’t stomach the idea any ancestor of his would fight for the Brits against the rebel miners.
It really is as revelatory as it seems on TV: each day was a total mystery where Dad would come home wide-eyed, desperate to know what the next outing would bring.
Law-abiding Edmund then became a country cop and retired with a nice nest-egg after the locals did a whip around at the pub to get him some money for his dotage. Dad found it interesting but was disappointed: he wanted a ratbag, not a well-liked Protestant copper.
The Old Man on his mum’s side was much more impressive: William Leamy, a Catholic convict from County Tipperary, who ran with a notorious gang of graduates from the Robin Hood school of thievery. Eventually caught, Will was shipped off to the colonies by a canny judge who knew he was too industrious to waste by hanging.
At Sydney Cove he did his time then headed north to Keepit, near Gunnedah, where he set up house with Bertha, an Aboriginal woman and their two kids, John and Jane (my great grandmother). It’s here, in this home among the gumtrees on the shores of a lake filled with pelicans, Ray Martin starts to come together.
Dad was born in the bush. His first 10 years were nomadic: on and off trains and in and out of tiny towns as his father found and lost jobs from Moree to Mildura. When his parents split, he and his mum moved to Launceston. After that it was Sydney for uni before traveling the world as a foreign correspondent and reporter for 60 Minutes.
Dad has seen cities big and small. He’s seen the best and most beautiful places the world has to offer, yet he has always claimed, “When I go bush, I breathe easier.” He never understood why “outback” felt like home, but he’s felt it all his life, long before he actually knew he had Indigenous heritage that ties him even more intimately to the land.
It meant a lot to him to learn about Bertha, whose Kamilaroi blood still runs through his - and my - veins. A tireless champion for Indigenous people, it had a special impact on Dad to connect with Bertha, to see where she walked and lived and died.
I won’t soon forget watching him standing on the banks of a dry creek bed, tears forming behind his eyes, looking out over Kamilaroi land, where William and Bertha raised their “beloved” children together.
Beloved. That’s what William called his son and daughter in his will as he left them all his earthly possessions including “Cookaboy”, his property.
This was the mid-1800s: a few years earlier 30 unarmed Aboriginals were slaughtered in the Myall Creek massacre just a 100 or so kilometres distant. This was not a time when any whitefellas admitted even consorting with Aboriginals, let alone referring to their “half-caste” bastard kids as “beloved”.
Dad reckoned this detail said a great deal about the old man’s affection for Bertha, and of his courage, and his character. I reckon it explains a lot about my dad. How goodness and fairness are innately part of his blood. How essentially he wants to be liked but at the end of the day he doesn’t give a damn as long as he’s done the right thing. How he fights for battlers and the importance he places on family and heritage.
The whole Who Do You Think You Are? experience was for Dad - and for us - a journey of belonging. We knew nothing of William, that he may have been a convict but he was a brave, compassionate man. We knew Bertha had existed but beyond that, nada. Legend says she lived past 100 and was buried in the style of a tribal queen.
Dad wishes everyone could go on Who Do You Think You Are?, because it gives you a sense of belonging you never knew you were missing. I think he’s right. When Dad stood on that rugged outback hillside, face painted white by Kamilaroi Elders, alongside what might have been the grave of his great-great-grandmother, I saw what he’d always talked about but what I had never truly understood: he was breathing easily. He was peaceful. He was home.
Watch the Ray Martin episode of Who Do You Think You Are? right here:
Series 1-7 are available on SBS On Demand from August 8.
Series 8 of Who Do You Think You Are? Australia begins Tuesday September 13 at 7.30pm (AEST) on SBS.