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Big Brother presenter Emma Willis and her connection to a 'murderous Orangeman'

Emma Willis made a shock discovery while researching her Irish roots
Staff reporter

BIG Brother presenter Emma Willis was left shocked after discovering that an Irish ancestor was a ‘murderous Orangeman' who beat and tortured a Catholic blacksmith and his son.

Emma, from Birmingham, made the discovery while researching her family history for an episode of BBC One's Who Do You Think You Are? which aired on Thursday night.

While discovering one side of her family had deep Brummie roots, further research showed she had Irish connections with another family line traced to Co Wicklow.

She learned that her great-great-grandmother was called Margaret Kirwan and was born in Ireland to Michael Kirwan and Harriet Fowler and travelled to Dublin to find out more.

At the Registry Emma learned that the 1861 wedding of Michael and Harriet was a mixed marriage and Harriet's father, Richard Fowler, was listed on the marriage certificate as a ‘gentleman'.

Further records revealed that Richard – who is Emma's four-times great-grandfather – was from Dunlavin in Co. Wicklow.

His father, Richard Fowler Sr, was, in 1790, a Protestant landholder in Dunlavin – at that time a Protestant enclave during a period of sectarian tensions.

She discovers that an article from a newspaper of 1797 referred to Richard Sr as a "notorious informer and a murderous Orangeman".

In another newspaper from the same year, she read a shocking account of how he and others raided the house of a Catholic blacksmith - whom they suspected of making weapons for the United Irishmen - and dragged him and his son from their beds, stabbed, beat and tortured them.

Although upset by the discovery she said she took solace in the fact that two generations later, Richard Sr's granddaughter Harriet married Michael Kirwan, a Catholic, for love.

Kirwan, it is also discovered, was a highly regarded marble mason and the first to create altars in Catholic churches in Ireland after a series of reforms, allowing for Catholics to openly worship, sparked a revival in church-building.

His altarpieces were judged by his contemporaries to be equal in quality to the marble work in Catholic churches in continental Europe.

It also emerged that Kirwan became both a champion of Irish Home Rule and of workers' rights in Dublin.

He became influential in his home city and in 1862 put his name to a petition for the creation of one of Dublin's most important landmark – the statue of Daniel O'Connell that still stands on O'Connell Street.

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