On the O’Neill ancestral trail

September 9, 2011

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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