The adventure began when Kathleen from the GETHealth Summit told me we could take a bus to Ballygawley. She said it was near the small village of Glencull – the place my ancestors once lived. That Saturday, Robby and I took the short, two-hour-plus ride from Dublin to Ballygawley.
When the bus driver stopped, we looked around us and saw no signs of which way to go. Leaving the bus, I asked, “Which way to Ballygawley?” He replied, “Just follow the walking trail and you’ll see it ahead.”
Martina was the first person we stumbled upon. She was sweeping the doorway of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, and when I asked her if she knew anything about the Neelleys, she replied no – but that she would run and ask others. The two gentlemen in the hardware store were a bit more interested in appliances than history, but suggested Martina take us to the retired taxidriver’s home so he could drive us to the old graveyard – it was too dangerous to get there by foot.
Seamus Flannery’s wife answered the door – just across the street from the hardware store. She hadn’t heard of the Neelleys either, but said she’d ask Seamus. When he arrived from a back room, he asked who I was. “Nancy Neelley Hicks,” I said, “my maiden name is Neelley.” He said that he knew about our family and that none were buried where Martina suggested. Instead, he said that the Neelleys had their own graveyard, and that they were the landlords of Glencull. Seamus said he’d take us there.
Before getting into his car, he said there was an old tale about one of the Neelleys who had been buried at the Ballynasaggart graveyard, instead of the family cemetery. When the family got home from the funeral, they found the deceased seated in a carriage at the house. His soul couldn’t rest not being with the family.
Seamus drove us onto the graveyard, showing us landmarks along the way – a hull of a home barely standing
from the 1700s, the Glencull school that he had once attended.
High upon a hill, we saw the graveyard with six tall trees around it, all inside a stone wall. A gate kept strangers away, and was covered in thorny vines. Robby couldn’t get the gate opened, so I climbed over it, landing precariously upon my left ankle. After a moment to catch my breath, I trudged up the hill to see what I could find.
There was a single, large tombstone over the family plot. Broken apart, purportedly during “the troubles” when ammunition was often hidden in graves, the stone’s engraving was still intact.
Seamus waited faithfully to take us onto the next stop: the family home.
Driving down the narrow road, he said that the Neelleys had been generous people, and had donated land for a Catholic Church, even though they were Protestant. We came upon an old, vacated stone home with a carving “RN 1862,” signifying that it was built by Robert Neelly. Seamus said that he remembered those who had lived there long ago.
A bit further up on the right, Seamus said, “We don’t want to be taking pictures of somebody’s home without them knowing. Let me go and talk with the owner.” Overlooking the “Beware of Dog” signage, even as two large German Shepherds lanked about, Seamus got out and introduced himself to the man working near the old barn. His little boy was standing near, looking in awe at the strangers who’d arrived.
We were told that the home had been connected to what had once been the barn, and that the stables were used now for storage. Standing upon the land once held by Neelleys, I took a picture of the home and the view they would have had. Beautiful. Simply beautiful. A carving above the door once again had the initials, “RN 1861.”
Seamus drove us on to Ballynasaggart to see the cemetery where a Neelley simply could not rest. On past the grist mill and yet another cemetery, where he explained that landlords were not buried next to the peasants, but would have either their own graveyard, or a plot set aside from the rest. An old church had fallen apart, and the inside was used for more graves…the large stone cross which had sat atop the church, now set aside in the graveyard. He showed me where the priest would have spoken mass and the mourners would have gathered round.
This graveyard, too, high on a hill, overlooking beautiful fields of green and homes that one can imagine were once filled with warmth and laughter.
Seamus said that Mr. Thomas McKenna (who was an avid reader) could tell us all and more that we would need to know about the Neelleys. So off to his home we drove. Upon arrival, we noticed the lovely landscaping and a chicken in the front yard. Seamus walked to the door, then around to the side when it went unanswered. A head popped up at the window and I introduced myself. But Mr. McKenna heard Seamus around back who explained what in the world we were doing there. The front door opened, and Robby and I were welcomed inside the home, where this lively man with big bright eyes lived.
Mr. McKenna, a young man at 91, began to tell us about the last Neelley he knew there in Glencull. “Willie” Neelly would come to visit and sit by the fire. He said that the Neelleys were generous people, and that they gave not only the land for the Catholic Church, but also the land where the school was built. He too told the story of the disquieted soul who could not rest buried apart from his family. When I laughed, he looked at me quite shocked and said, “They had to exhume the body!” Perhaps this story isn’t just one built upon the imaginations of village folk.
Leaving the room for a moment, Mr. McKenna walked back with an envelope marked “Neely Family.” “You can take it with you, if you’ll post it back to me when you’re done.” Inside this envelope lay the history of the Neellys of Glencull, who first made their way from Scotland, lived as landlords – owners of the land, and who eventually scattered to seek a better life elsewhere. In the meantime, they had been generous to those who were persecuted because they were Catholic, and they had fought against tyranny, losing their land and regaining it. Within this history lay a connection to what I think may have been our ancestor James Neelly – the sixth son of the first laird of Glencull.
To say this day was magical is an understatement…I had an angel, and his name is Seamus.