from Derby in England
When she was in her seventies, my great aunt, Rebecca (Neely) who was in England, had needed proof of age to draw her pension. She had not been able to obtain a birth certificate because she was born before the civil registration of births and so she obtained an affidavit from a Justice of the Peace in her home village of Ahoghill, County Antrim, close to Ballymena.
One of my first tasks on arrival in Ahoghill was to find the Brookside Presbyterian Church and to explore its cemetery. I found it easily enough. Ahoghill is arranged around a central point called The Diamond and nothing exists more than a few hundred yards from there.
It has three Presbyterian Churches reflecting the strength of religious fervour that has been seen in the village over the years, and the inevitable factions and splits that arise where beliefs are dogmatically held and passionately adhered to. They are all within walking distance of each other.
In 1859 there was an evangelical awakening in the region that had spread from Connor to Ahoghill. It became known as the 1859 Revival.
I had remembered hearing about it from a friend who was very interested in the subject. There was apparently such a religious fervour that people were breaking down in public and crying out for repentance, quite oblivious of their surroundings.
The membership of the churches grew rapidly at that time, but both before and since, people have moved between the churches, as charismatic leaders have arisen demanding a following, or personality differences have resulted in a falling out between pastor and members of the congregation. Small wonder the Catholics and Protestants cannot get along when within the camps there are divisions and factions.
On my visit there were clear signs of the old ways and the preparations for the July Orange Order marches were already underway. These commemorate the Battle of the Boyne which took place in July 1690.
There were Union flags flying from every lamp post and all the kerb stones of the pavements were painted red, white and blue. There were biblical texts displayed on the sides of buildings, as well as (unfortunately) some sectarian slogans. Ahoghill is a staunchly Protestant stronghold and it was very plain to see.
Brookside Church was the third Presbyterian church in the village and although the church building was quite large, the churchyard was small and easily walked.
No Neely Gravestone
The soft Irish rain was falling but not deterred I began the task of systematically walking up and down each row looking for the headstones that had been quoted in my great aunt Rebecca’s affidavit.
They should be clear to find and recorded the deaths of the two oldest children of my great-grandparent’s family, Robert, the eldest son who died aged 34 and his sister Sarah who was just 16 when she died.
How surprised and disappointed I was to find no trace of any Neely graves let alone the specific one I was looking for. I even enlisted the help of a passing local who was obviously curious about what I was doing. We struck up a conversation and he joined me in the graveyard for a second search, but again, nothing at all.
Many of the headstones had been made of sandstone and had deteriorated to the point when they had to be removed but this was small comfort to me. I was beginning to think that the whole story of the affidavit, and what it contained, was a fabrication with no foundation in fact. How could I believe it, when I couldn’t confirm it?
Brookside Parish Records
My second task was to make an appointment with the Pastor of the church and ask his permission to see the parish record books. He was most obliging and despite having his wife in bed following an operation and two very small and lively children to care for as well as a parish to run, he let me see the books in the manse.
I balanced these old and delicate books on my knee while trying to keep small sticky, enquiring hands from touching them, and at the same time make a thorough search to be sure I didn’t miss anything.
I found three entries in the baptism book for Neilly. These were for Thomas John Neilly and Letitia Neilly, twins and a younger child William James Neilly, all children of Thomas and Sarah Neilly. This was the first variation on the spelling of the Neely name that I would come across.
GRONI – General Records Office for Northern Ireland
The last day dawned. I said my goodbyes and set off to return my car to the hire firm at their airport depot. The flight wasn’t until the afternoon and they let me keep the car those few hours longer. This gave me time to go into Belfast and pay a last visit to the General Records Office in the city centre. I hadn’t realised that I should have made an appointment but my luck was in and they had a person free to help me.
I started with the Neelys and almost straight away was able to confirm the deaths of my grandmother’s two oldest siblings whose grave I had not been able to find in the Brookside cemetery. The words in the death register were almost exactly those that were quoted in Rebecca Neely’s affidavit, confirming the truth of the existence of Robert and Sarah Neely and their untimely deaths.