Two sides of Irish history reflected in celebrity family tree

This is about some holiday season viewing which may be of interest to readers – rather than an article trying to make a political point.

“Who do you think you are” covers television presenter Emma Willis’ family history in an episode available on BBC iPlayer for the next 29 days. It is worth a watch.

The programme looks into Willis’ roots in Birmingham – amongst animal horn and hair. One of her ancestors was a manufacturer of hair brushes and glue-based sizing using animal products.

She then travels to Ireland. First, she is horrified to discover that one her ancestors was involved in an horrific crime. This has been much covered in the media. It is a harrowing insight into an appalling period of Irish history.

Secondly, there is a much more uplifting tale of her ancestor Michael Kirwan. He was a pioneering sculptor who created a series of marble altars in Catholic churches in Ireland (and one in Cape Town). He was also an early trade union activist and follower of 19th Century Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell. The programme’s cathartic journey ends in O’Connell Street, Dublin (the ‘main street’ of the city) where Emma Willis is amazed and delighted to discover that her great-great-great-great grandfather was one of the sponsor’s of the grand statue to the national hero.

Those two strands of Irish history were later conjoined, in Emma Willis’ family tree, in a love match of a Protestant and Catholic couple, who had to be wedded in a registry office because both churches greatly frowned on such matches.

The episode really is a fine example of the “Who do you think you are?” series.

Photo of the O’Connell Monument above by dailymatador from Flickr Creative Commons Licence.


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