On the O’Neill ancestral trail

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.’

Great grandfather's cottage

Me with long-lost relation Mary McErlean in my great-grandfather’s old cottage, now used to store turf

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.

Pat Martin


15 Responses to On the O’Neill ancestral trail

  1. Hello Pat, I really enjoyed this story of you meeting the O’Neills of Ballymacpeake and the photo. I hope to call in with Stafford, Mary, Neil and Pat and learn some more about my past soon. I have seen the booklet of the O’Neill family tree which is a real credit to the New Zealand O’Neills as it is so so well done. I have been having a look at some of the ancestors and that’s how I came across this website, and am able to see you in the tree booklet. Your great grandfather Patrick was the younger brother of my great grandfather James O’Neill. James’ daughter Martha married Henry Hugh McErlean in 1923 and their child Brigid (who married Harry Henry in 1949) was my mother. Are you still in Ireland or back in New Zealand?
    Best wishes
    Kevin Henry
    19 Ballyeglish Rd, The Loup
    Co. Derry
    email winnie.henry@virgin.net

  2. Pat Martin says:

    Hi Kevin
    Good to hear from you. I’m in New Zealand, and I’m a third generation Kiwi. But like many New Zealanders whose ancestors migrated from Ireland and elsewhere, I’ve always been curious about where my family came from.
    If our great-grandfathers were brothers, are we fourth or fifth cousins, or just distant relations?
    I agree the O’Neill family tree is a great piece of research and a credit to its authors.
    Say hello to them all when you visit – I saw Stafford when I visited there again in 2009.
    All the best

  3. Lisa O'Neill says:

    Hi Pat,
    Kevin and yourself are relations of my husband Kieran O’Neill we live in Ranfurly, Central Otago and I am just starting his family tree, we also have the O’Neill book. We are planing a trip to Ireland some time in the future and as I have ancestors from there to it will be very exciting.
    Will be very keen to keep in touch.
    Cheers Lisa O’Neill

  4. Pat Martin says:

    Hi Lisa,
    Good to hear from you. The O’Neill family tree is a great piece of research. That part of Ireland- Ballymacpeake and Eden – where our O’Neills hail from is a great part of the world. Family members still there were very generous in showing me around.
    I hope you and Kieran enjoy your travels there – be sure to keep us posted.
    All the best

  5. Lisa O'Neill says:

    Hello Pat, well finally we are making that trip to Ireland in June, wow can’t wait. I want to take Kieran to see the old house and check out the grave yard only problem is I can’t find Ballymacpeake on the map ?? Help please.
    Cheers Lisa

    • Pat n Pip says:

      Hi Lisa, Good news about making the trip. I’m in East Timor at the moment, on a 2-year stint with VSA. The best thing to do is use Google Maps and look for Greenlough (where St Mary’s Church is) and have a look around the area from there. The roads are confusing at first, but there’s a lot of family history in the area, with many McErleans and O’Neills living nearby. My internet connection here isn’t that great and sometimes ‘townlands’ like Ballymacpeake and Eden aren’t shown on maps anyway. But have search – it’s amazing what you can find. Regards, Pat

    • Kevin Henry says:

      Hello Lisa, try this link


      and this alternative

      https://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=greenlough%20parish &rls=com.microsoft:en-gb:IE-SearchBox&oe=UTF-8&rlz=1I7DAIE&gws_rd=cr&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hl=en&sa=N&tab=wl

      it’s a start

      Kevin Henry (only 25% O’Neill)

  6. Lisa O'Neill says:

    Hi Pat thanks for your reply you live an interesting life. I have looked for Greenlough and can’t find that on google maps either. Kinda given up after hours of looking, where is it near? Cheers Lisa

  7. Karleigh says:

    Hi there, I am trying to learn more to see if our O’Neill families are related. My 5th great grandfather was Charles O’Neill of Ballyeglish

    • Pat n Pip says:

      Hi Karleigh. Short answer is I’m not sure if we’re related. The family tree I have is of O’Neill family members who emigrated to New Zealand from the Greenlough area in Co Derry. My great-grandfather, Patrick O’Neill came here around 1880. His father, James Stafford O’Neill, was born around 1825 and remained in Greenlough. That’s as far back as my records go but the O’Neill name is a prominent one in Irish history and no doubt there’s a lot more research that would throw some light on it. All the best.

  8. Hi Karleigh, Ballyeglish is about 16 miles from Ballymacpeake, so probably too far for there to have been a close link between our O’Neill families in the 1830s. There would be a link lost in the mists of time, though! 🙂

  9. Mark O’Neill says:

    Wow, what a story.
    I’m an O’Neill born in Sth NZ and looking for any information regarding my ancestors.

    • Pat Martin says:

      Hi Mark. Glad you enjoyed it. The family tree I mention was put together by two South Island O’Neills, Patrick and Bernard. Patrick has put together a pretty amazing website which features the O’Neills – http://www.pko-genealogy.id.au/ – which is a goldmine if you’re keen to know more.

      • Mark O’Neill says:

        Thanks Pat
        I appreciate your prompt response, as I am only just beginning, any advice is welcome.

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