READER REPORT:

A 140-year-old family secret

JUSTINE ORME
Last updated 10:00 20/03/2014
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FAMILY HISTORY: Auntie Belle

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A 140-year-old family secret

I think it was my grandmother who kindled my obsession to know more.

All her stories were of long ago and far away, stories of princes and power, fortunes won and lost, and distant places, so I guess when I started researching my husband's family there was no shock to me at what was unearthed.

The Irish famine forced many to either emigrate or starve.

Thomas Greenaway, born 1837 in County Armagh, Ireland, chose to emigrate in 1861.

He settled in the Martinborough region, marrying an Irishwoman and populating the new country of New Zealand with seven children.

One hundred and forty years later, the family was shocked.

With my passion for genealogy, I had put the meagre bit of information I had on this family on every available family history site I belonged to online.

Elizabeth, of Wisconsin in the United States, found it and contacted me. She said my Thomas Greenaway was also hers, that he was her great-great-great-grandfather. His daughter, Rachel, was born in 1865 and she emigrated to America in 1881.

I was confused.

It couldn't be, as my Thomas Greenaway had left Ireland in 1861. Did he go back to Ireland and have a little fling? Searching the shipping records showed nothing.

Further research turned up that Rachel had lied about her age. She was not 16 when she went to America, but considerably older.

Then letters started to surface, written between Rachel and Auntie Belle, Thomas's daughter Isabella, my husband's great aunt.

My poor mother-in-law was shocked.

"This has never happened in OUR family."

Sorry, Mum, but it had.

The blood relationship between mother-in-law and Rachel was very, very close - Rachel was her half-aunt, Mum's father's half-sister. 

It turned out that Rachel was conceived with another woman before Thomas left Ireland to start his new life. Thomas and his children kept in contact with her, but in typical fashion for that time, the information was never passed on to the younger generation.

And so it was arranged, in October 2003 that Rachel's descendants would come to New Zealand and meet the family.
But before they could get here, my mother-in-law fell ill and died just two months before the planned visit.

Since then there have been visits back and forth between family members, and more information continues to be unearthed.

I wonder what boat-rocking information I'll find next? 


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