Mel Homer, Coast's Drive Home host, goes in search of her elusive Irish history
I have always felt a certain affinity with Ireland. They're my second favourite rugby team, and like many Kiwis I didn't even mind it when they beat the All Blacks in 2016 and 2018. Best not in 2019, though lads.
It's estimated that 70 million people around the world are of Irish descent, and it turns out I'm one of them. I had no idea, until a DNA test and a meeting with Geraldene O'Reilly, who heads the Irish Interest Group in the NZ Society of Genealogists. Geraldene, armed with just my name, brought up family connections all over Ireland.
Two weeks' later I'm sitting outside Temple Bar in Dublin, in the 10pm summer dusk, with my new favourite tipple, An Dulaman — known as a sea gin because it uses seaweed among its botanicals. I'm sipping from an oversized bulbous glass (now the only way I will ever drink gin) and wondering if the guy beside me is my third cousin.
Exploring your Irish roots is a popular pastime. Here's how my chase went.
After 28 hours in the air, I arrive in Dublin and head straight to Epic museum in the city's Docklands. The museum details the history of the Irish diaspora and emigration. It was voted Europe's Leading Tourist Attraction at the World Travel Awards this year. Here I am to start my personal family search in Ireland and discover what it means to be Irish through the stories of emigrants. Epic is the world's first fully digital museum and I should have put aside hours to truly appreciate this place, just as my second favourite rugby team did. Yup, two hours on the ground in Dublin and I run into the entire Irish Rugby World Cup squad who are here on a bonding visit. The luck of the Irish is already rubbing off on me, it seems.
Armed with a manila folder of papers and printouts from Geraldene, I set off to meet Brian Donovan, a genealogist with the Irish Family History Centre, the official genealogy partner of Epic. They have a team of dedicated genealogists to help people like me unearth their Irish roots. He's unearthed quite a lot, on both my mother's and father's side. We decide to concentrate on my father's side, the Malanaphys, from the north, because they're trickier and more obscure than my Hayes relatives to the south — and we love a good chase.
Northward I go, to Country Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, the stronghold of the Malanaphys. Crossing the border from the republic to Northern Ireland, my pocketful of euros is now useless — the pound is the currency here — and as the road signs change from kilometres to miles, it takes a while for my brain to recalibrate. If you want to see the colossal confusion Brexit is going to create, this invisible border is the one to cross.
Enniskillen is an island town created by the flow of the River Erne. Home to 15,000 people, it is smack dab in the middle of County Fermanagh, known for its lakes and waterways. You can — and I did — kayak the entire way around the township. It is dominated by Enniskillen Castle, on the shores of Lower Lough Erne, which houses two museums and is home to the Fermanagh Family History Centre.
It's here I hope I'll find tangible evidence of my family. Something I can touch would be nice. Even a pile of rocks in a field, just ... something. I've arranged to meet John Cunningham — a local legend who apparently knows everything there is to know about the area. But for today, I'm just getting a feel for the place. I'm shown the sights by Billy, my driver, who has a story for every occasion. He once drove celebrity cook Annabelle White around these parts. I know, because he keeps telling me and showing me the photos.
I hit the road bound for Derry — the county is known as Derry but the city is still officially Londonderry but the name changes depending on who you're talking to. This is the port where thousands of Irish left to start their lives in the new world, and this town is possibly the last place my Irish family saw of their homeland. In reality, I want to see the city from the TV show Derry Girls.
Many of the road signs in Northern Ireland have had the London part of Londonderry spray-painted out by Nationalists, and then roughly painted back on by Unionists. The ongoing battle is nothing new in these parts. This is a town inextricably linked with The Troubles, and it's where Bloody Sunday, or the Bogside massacre, took place in 1972.
Huge murals depicting the struggles of Derry are scattered around the walls of the Bogside, and a good place to see them is the 400-year-old city wall that loops around the central city and is an easy 1500m stroll. The latest mural is one the town is incredibly proud of – it features all the Derry Girls cast. The sun is out and Derry is lovely. I also have my best coffee in Ireland so far at The Warehouse Cafe.
Hopefully, today I find some tangible proof of my family connections to these parts. I'm to meet John at Enniskillen Castle as arranged. He has been doing some research for me. Everything is in hand.
Uh oh. Everything is not in hand. Cross communications mean John, although he has a wealth of information on the area, has not been researching my family connections.
Just as I am flushing hot and cold and beginning to think I've come all this way for nothing — NOTHING, I silently scream — I literally stumble across Frank Roofe, a local genealogist who's at the castle on his day off doing a bit of catch-up work. (Spoiler alert: he does not do any catching up).
We check lots of facts and spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out how the name Malanaphy is spelt in the records and when he comes up with the goods, I could hug him. In fact I do hug him when he tells me, in his Northern Irish lilt, that I'm home now.
He gives me a hand-drawn picture of an old graveyard, with the instructions "it's over the creek, near the holy well and through a field in another field" and I'm ready to find the resting place of my Irish family.
I nearly miss the gate in the high hedgerow, it's so overgrown. As I clamber over the gate into thigh-high nettles, I'm giggling slightly hysterically. There's no sign of a graveyard. Oh, hang on, there it is, on the hill in the distance — a small circular collection of tombstones next to a 6th-century ruin. This is it! I start wading through the meadow. The air is quiet, just a little birdsong and wind. It smells strongly as if there is a brewery just over the hill, but I learn later that it's the hops growing in the surrounding fields.
The journey that started thousands of miles ago in New Zealand has ended. I find the grave of my Malanaphy family. The resting place of my great great great-grandfather, if my greats are correct.
I feel a lot more emotional than I anticipated, and I shed a wobbly tear and wish my dad was still alive to share this moment. It's a beautiful spot, here beside my family, to sit and reflect on the past week.
Chasing down my Irish family roots has at times felt like piecing together a Wasgij jigsaw, where you don't have the finished picture to work with when, and a lot of the time, you're making assumptions and hoping the pieces fit. It's ultimately rewarding and I will be back to find more family. For now, though, it's off to the pub for a celebratory gin.
Where to start your Irish family search
NZ Society of Genealogists (search for the Irish Interest Group) genealogy.org.nz
Irish Family History Centre Epic Museum epicchq.com
Fermanagh Genealogy Centre fermanaghgenealogy.org