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.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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This entry was posted in The Arts.


  • Richard Underhill 4th Aug '17 - 11:12am

    The name of this programme is a con. It disregards the importance of environmental factors in who we are.
    We rightly focus on what is happening during our lifetime. Did we pass the 11+ exam? or the university entrance exam? Was our health and fitness affected by the existence and funding of the national service? Were we conscripted into the armed forces? and if so did we see military action?
    In the future an episode of this programme will discover that an ancestor has been converted to another religion after his/her death.
    Some factors still apply, for instance Clare Balding found out that baking powder is easier to work with than yeast when making bread. Her analysis of whether a suffragette committed suicide in front of the King’s horse was on another programme, possibly Channel 4, and depended on modern technology, despite the common-sense opinions of members of her family who work with horses. Probably both opinions, yes and no, will persist in print and widespread belief, as with so many other factors.

  • Richard Underhill 4th Aug '17 - 11:13am

    Typo: Was our health and fitness affected by the existence and funding of the national HEALTH service?

  • Richard Underhill 4th Aug '17 - 11:38am

    Some of the factors in programmes such as these need to skirt around Darwinism as they allow the implication that people have been affected by factors which are not inherited either genetically or financially.
    There are people alive nowadays who deny Darwinism, just as there are some intelligent and well educated people who are climate change deniers.

  • Sue Sutherland 4th Aug '17 - 12:59pm

    I love ‘Who do you think you are’ because of the personal slant on historic events and regard the title as an interesting play on words, nothing more. It is fascinating when someone discovers that an ancestor shares an ability with them, but even more fascinating is the way people identify with and feel for their ancestors, almost as if they know them. I remember Jeremy Paxman being overwhelmed by the fact that one of his was a single parent living in great poverty, which was not how I imagined he would be at all.

  • It’s social history, not a science programme 🙂 It was great discovering that someone on my family tree (late 1700s) was secretary to a Whig MP. It makes him ‘real,’ not just a name and dates.
    Knowing who our ancestors were and how they lived gives us ‘roots’ and a sense of belonging. We are who we are because what they did in life led ultimately to our parents existing, meeting and having us.

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