In Fermoy’s old military cemetery, behind the Famine graveyard at the back of the soccer pitch, there stands a small white marble cross. It marks the life and final resting place of a historic figure who died at the age of 25, in 1910, 5,500 miles from his birthplace.
Last year, Ballyhooly man Tim O’Mahony received in the post, a news clipping from his sister-in-law Mary O’Mahony in England. Tim’s sister-in-law had read about a minor controversy in the Daily Mirror and, spotting a local connection, sent Tim the story. Intrigued, Tim began his research.
It had all started with “The Empress of Mars”, a 2017 episode of the 55-year-old BBC science-fiction series Doctor Who. A Black actor had been cast as a British soldier battling Martians in 1881. The author of the episode, actor Mark Gatiss, writer and star of The League of Gentlemen, Sherlock and Doctor Who, had protested initially – and mildly – at what he saw as the latest example of the BBC’s drive to become “more representational and make everything less homogeneously white”.
While stressing that he was in no way objecting to the casting of ‘the brilliant young Black actor’ Bayo Gbadamosi as one of the soldiers, Gatiss said his reservation was that “these are soldiers from the South African war, they’ve just been fighting the Zulus. There weren’t any Black soldiers in Victoria’s army”. Deciding to research further the matter, Gatiss soon discovered he was wrong, and the story of James Francies Durham quickly became an obsession for him.