There’s an echo, generations on, that leads us back to Ireland. It called around 19,000 New Zealanders in 2002. I was among them and, like many, I was on the ancestral trail.
On a sunny June afternoon, I found myself standing among the weathered Celtic crosses in the graveyard at St Mary’s Church in Ballymacpeake, Co Derry, not far from the River Bann. Mum’s grandfather grew up there.
I had her O’Neill family tree with me, but I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for, or even what had drawn me.
A few yards away, a woman was putting fresh flowers on a grave. I asked if she knew any O’Neills in the district. ‘Well, I’m an O’Neill. I’m Mary,’ she said in a precise Irish lilt. She sized me up while I talked, then said unexpectedly, ‘Follow me.’
Off she went in a little red car down lanes and byways, stopping to walk across a field to a farmer on a tractor harvesting hay. Soon she beckoned me over.
He introduced himself as Stafford O’Neill. Stafford? Mum had an uncle back in New Zealand named Stafford O’Neill.
Half an hour later in Mary’s house, she had covered the table in an afternoon tea of griddle scones, triangle ham sandwiches and cakes. Stafford and Neal McErlean, Mary’s brother, parked their tractors, slipped off their gumboots and joined us.
In the living room an old black and white photo sitting on the TV caught my eye. The woman in it, Mary’s mother, bore a striking resemblance to early photos I’d seen of Margaret O’Neill, my little grey-haired nana who’d lived in Petone. They’d have been first cousins.
‘Would you like to see the old cottage?’ Mary asked. Down another lane we went to a little thatch-roofed house that sat on a tight corner. This was where my great-grandfather, Patrick O’Neill, grew up before departing for New Zealand as a 23-year-old in 1880.
Standing on the earth floor, surrounded by the black bricks of turf now stored there, Mary told me how her grandmother had baked Irish bread in the open hearth. She talked wistfully of the ceilidh that drew families in on Saturday evenings. ‘The singing and the dancing, it was wonderful,’ she said.
Outside, across the prosperous green and rolling fields, I could imagine the families filing to Mass at St Mary’s Church in the distance. As a boy, my great-grandfather found people dead from starvation in those fields, grass stuffed in their mouths in a last attempt to feed themselves.
That was a story Mum had told me. Passed down three generations, it had come alive out of a chance meeting. Or was it just chance?
Not every attempt to find your roots leads to a magic afternoon like that. It helps if you’ve done your homework before you go. I was lucky that the O’Neill family tree, put together by Paddy O’Neill from Dunedin and Bernard O’Neill from Alexandra in 1986, was so well-researched. I was lucky too that members of the same family still live in that part of Co Derry.
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Many thanks for the kind reponses to the first post.