Friday, February 16, 2007

Ancestral Angels

Have you ever felt that your ancestors were guiding you or giving you a helping hand in your research?

There have been many times that I've asked for their help when I'm up against a particularly tough "brick wall," although usually they are stubbornly silent. But there have been a few times that I've followed a lead on nothing more than an unsubstantiated hunch, and been gratified to find that it paid off. And one special instance where a whole sequence of events had to be timed just right for the payoff to happen -- and it did!

My father's great grandparents were Henry Donnelly and Jane Mullin, and they are one set of his immigrant ancestors. Henry and Jane came to America around 1860 from what is now Northern Ireland -- he from a little township called Derryscollop and she from Tullyrone, both in County Armagh. I'm lucky enough to know that because 30 years ago, another family researcher acquired a copy of their marriage license and shared it with us. In addition to naming the townlands that Henry & Jane were from, the marriage license also provided us with the name and location of the church in which they married: The Church of Moy, in County Tyrone (just across the river from County Armagh).

Two years ago, my family took a cruise around the British Isles, and one of our port stops was in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Since we had the whole day free, we decided to hire a couple taxis to take us to County Armagh, so we could see what the countryside of our ancestors looked like. We told the taxi drivers that we didn't know much: only that our ancestors were from Derryscollop and Tullyrone, and that they had been married in the church of Moy, in County Tyrone. The Belfast taxi drivers hadn't heard of Derryscollop or Tullyrone, but they knew where Moy was, and they were up for the adventure!

After arriving in Moy, we stopped at a little pub -- because our driver told us that this was the best place to get information. He said you'll often find "old-timers" there, who will know where the little townlands are, or where they were. The barmaid pointed out the Church of Moy to us -- just down the street (the church is pictured above). It was late on a Sunday morning, and church was still in session, so we didn't go in. We did take some time to explore the cemetery behind the church, however. Soon church was over, and shortly thereafter, the assistant vicar (a Mr. Anderson) came out to see who was wandering around the cemetery. He was very welcoming of our little group of American tourists, and asked us what names we were looking for in the churchyard. When we mentioned "Donnellys from Derryscollop" he lit right up! The vicar said that he knew a Donnelly family that still lived in Derryscollop -- and that it was such a tiny place, that there HAD to be a connection. He insisted on leading us to the Donnelly house, and then making introductions to Edwin Donnelly, the elderly gentleman who lived there. What a wonderful surprise!

Of course, this was a family vacation, not a research trip, so I didn't have my genealogy information with me. From memory I tried to think of all the Donnelly names and dates that I could share with Edwin. He made connections instantly, and it just took a few minutes to figure out that his grandfather and my dad's great-grandfather were probably brothers. Edwin's son was also visiting, and he offered to take us down the road a bit, and show us where the old Donnelly house was, where our immigrant ancestors had lived in the early to mid 18oo's.

It was an amazing, surreal experience. To start they day off thinking that we might just enjoy seeing the countryside of our forebears, and finish it off meeting our closest living Irish relative! Had our ship not been scheduled to visit Belfast on a Sunday, then we quite possibly wouldn't have met the assistant vicar of the Moy church. And of course, without his help, we wouldn't have found our Derryscollop Donnellys. I just couldn't shake the feeling that the whole day was being orchestrated by some wonderful "ancestral angels."

Some may call it coincidence, but I think "serendipity" is more like it. Thank you, thank you, Henry & Jane!

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