Belfast Telegraph

How a murder in 1874 united Coleraine man with long-lost relatives in US

Brad and Alicia
Brad and Alicia
William Church
Alicia Church
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

A murder in Co Londonderry almost a century-and-a-half ago has united a Coleraine man with long-lost relatives.

Andrew Kane (51), who now lives in Templepatrick, was helping the Causeway branch of the North of Ireland Family History Society (NIFHS) celebrate its fourth decade over the weekend.

But the club has also brought the past into the present for the amateur historian.

It is through Mr Kane's 10-year association with the society and an interest in the murder of Stephen Church that helped him uncover his American connections.

The 1874 murder in Kilrea saw Mr Kane's family tree branch off in two directions, some remaining here and others heading to the US.

According to the burial register in Kilrea, Church was "shot dead by an unknown assassin" and buried on December 28 1874.

Shortly after the murder, for which the culprit was never caught, Church's daughter Alicia left for the United States.

At the time Mr Kane's great-great-grandfather William Church lived on the adjoining farm, across the road from Alicia, his cousin, and her brothers.

Mr Kane's research culminated in assisting his US cousins Brad and another Alicia to visit the scene of the crime over the summer.

"My mother got me involved in all this," said Mr Kane.

"I got her a membership of the group as a present, then she insisted on bringing me along with her one night. Since then I was hooked.

"I'd always known about the murder in the family history. Relatives would have talked about it, but there was never any way of telling fact from hearsay.

"It was through being involved in the group that my American cousins found me. In America they seem to embrace family history with a lot more passion that we do.

"I don't know if we're just too lazy to bother, but I know there are a lot of people out there who maybe need a little help in being pointed in the right direction of where to find the information.

"That's what this society does. Everyone involved has had plenty of experience in searching their own families and can help, particularly if someone doesn't know where to start. Well, here is where you can start."

Connecting with his US relatives has helped Mr Kane with his own family history research.

Irish records before the 20th century are notoriously patchy and the parish records for Desertoghill, where the Church family lived, were among those lost in the burning of the Four Courts in the Irish Civil War in 1922.

"But by identifying where our family members moved to in the US we can find information in the American records to fill the gaps, for example, where the parents of emigrants are named in birth, marriage and death certificates or naturalisation records," Mr Kane explained.

"There is the added opportunity to share family photographs and even family Bibles that were taken across the Atlantic and preserved by our relatives there as a cherished link to 'home'."

The greatest find for Mr Kane was an 1862 photograph taken in Derry of the original Alicia Church, after whom both the emigrant and her great granddaughter were named.

"None of us living here knew what she'd looked like and it was a wonderful discovery for us," he said.

"Those of us with ancestors whose brothers and sisters left Ulster for the New World need to understand what we can find about our own families in American records, which often survive when local equivalents have been lost, and then trace family members in America.

"I'm delighted to have met Brad and Alicia as well as getting a copy of such an early family photograph. I'll definitely be looking at other branches of the family in the US to find out more about my own ancestors who stayed behind."

Mr Kane added that many people in Northern Ireland might not even be aware of family living in the US.

He said the society is "a fantastic way of finding relatives you never knew you had around the world, and maybe finding new places to visit and family to stay with and get to know".

Mr Kane now gives talks on how to get started in researching your family history, telling his own story and offering help to others.

Last weekend, as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations, the NIFHS hosted a lecture at the Hilton Hotel in Templepatrick by professional American genealogist Donna Moughty.

"It was a wonderful occasion for us to have her with us," said Mr Kane.

"It's fascinating to discover where you come from and have contact with family around the world you never knew existed.

"And there are plenty of secrets there to be discovered.

"But I think the trail of whoever committed the murder in Kilrea in 1974 will have gone a little cold by now, so I probably won't be solving that mystery."

  • For further information on the North of Ireland Family History Society visit nifhs.org where you can find contact information for 11 branches across Northern Ireland.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph