Belfast Telegraph

No surprise that ancestor of Big Brother's Emma Willis was Orangeman with chequered past, insists Order

By Rebecca Black

The Orange Order says scores around the world should not be surprised to discover they have loyalist roots.

Chief Executive Iain Carlisle was speaking after television presenter Emma Willis reacted with shock after learning one of her forebearers was a member of the Orange Order.

The revelation came as the Big Brother frontwoman took part in the BBC ancestry programme Who Do You Think You Are?

At the outset of the show she spoke of her hopes that her family would be deeply intertwined with her home city of Birmingham.

While her mother's family were, as Emma proudly put it, "grafters" who generation after generation were tradesmen in the city, her father's line took her on an unexpected journey across the Irish Sea.

"I had absolutely no idea we had any Irish on my dad's side," she said on the ferry journey over.

She followed the trail of genealogical breadcrumbs to the town of Dunlavin, Co Wicklow, where she discovered that her five times great-grandfather Richard Fowler had been a gentleman landowner and also a member of the Orange Order in the late 1700s.

Dunlavin had been a place of sectarian tensions at the time as one of just a few majority Protestant towns in the south of Ireland.

Genealogist Nicola Morris revealed to Emma that in November 1797 the Union Star newspaper - run by the republican United Irishmen - had published an article naming Fowler as "one of those privileged murderous Orange men".

Looking shocked, Emma asked: "What is that, what's Orangeman?"

She was informed that the Orange Order had been established in the 1790s in Ireland, and that its members were Protestants loyal to the British Crown.

However, the tale took a darker twist when it emerged that Fowler and two others had stabbed a father and son, Michael and Thomas Egan, as well as interrogating them. The pair survived the attack.

It is said Fowler believed the Egans, who were blacksmiths, were making weapons for the United Irishmen.

In 1798 the United Irishmen staged an uprising against British rule in Ireland.

Emma became tearful at the discovery, but was heartened to discover that tensions appeared to have subsided two generations later when her great-grandmother Harriet Fowler married a Catholic, Michael Kirwan.

Iain Carlisle, chief executive of the Orange Order, said that with tens of thousands of members of the institution not only in Ireland but also across the UK and further afield since its formation, finding a relative who was involved should not be all that surprising.

He told the Belfast Telegraph that the Orange Order received several enquiries every week from people from around the world who had ancestors who were members of the organisation.

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