“HEY, Jaq” I called out to my wife, “I think there’s a grave underneath this tree.”
The Current Mrs Feeney and I were standing in a quiet Welsh churchyard. We were looking for my grandfather, Edward Feeney.
My decision to start researching the Irish side of my family history had been made in unusual circumstances. The British public had just voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. The Daughter Who Left (but returned) was unimpressed by the prospect of losing her right to freedom of movement in the EU. There was the possibility, however, that her Irish ancestry would enable her to get an Irish passport, which would allow her to remain an EU citizen.
All I had to do was establish our Irish roots. It was something my father had never talked about. He, like his father Edward, had been born in Wales. It was Edward’s father who had emigrated from Ireland.
But when? And from where exactly? Those were the questions I set out to answer. I signed up to the Ancestry subscription website, and made progress.
I found out that William Henry Feeney, my great-grandfather, had married Elizabeth Protheroe in Pembrokeshire in 1870. By the time of the 1881 UK census, they had moved to a house in Fleet Street, Swansea. The census returns for 1891, 1901 and 1911 show a growing family living at various addresses in the village of Waunarlwydd, which is where I was brought up.
But those same census returns only confused the issue of William Henry’s own early life. They recorded his birth variously as 1843 in Dublin, 1841 in Belfast, or 1840 in Trimley (or possibly Frimley).
Online searches of all of these variations produced nothing. There was no record of a William Henry Feeney being born in either Dublin or Belfast in any of these years. As for Trimley/Frimley, it appeared that neither of these places even existed in Ireland.
In the meantime, however, I had established that my grandfather had five siblings, including a brother called Thomas Henry – the same Christian names as my own father. When I discovered that the elder Thomas Henry was a coal miner who was killed in an underground accident just months before my father was born, it seemed reasonable to conclude that my father had been named in memory of his recently-departed uncle.
Unable to make any further progress in my search for my great-grandfather, I decided to come back a generation and find out more about my grandparents.
I knew that my grandmother had died in childbirth, and subsequently my father had been raised by two maiden aunts. I thought it was very probable that Edward and his wife were buried in St Barnabas churchyard in Waunarlwydd.
And that is where Jacqui and I were on Friday. It is not a very large churchyard, and we decided the simplest thing would be to split up and walk up and down on either side, checking the inscriptions on the gravestones.
Jacqui set off, but something made me turn back towards a large bush that was growing in front of the first row of graves. Just visible beneath the thick foliage was what looked like a rail, and a decorative piece of metalwork.
I called over to Jacqui, and went to have a closer look. On the other side of the bush was a slender Celtic cross, sticking out from the branches that totally obscured the grave below.
I scraped the leaves away from the plinth at the foot of the cross. I read the words “Thomas Henry.” I twisted a branch back to see more: the name “Mary Jane Feeney” appeared. That was the name of one of the aunts who had raised my motherless father.
“Jacqui, this is it! It’s the family grave!”
I plunged further into the bush, twisting to see if there was anything written on the rest of the plinth. One side said “Elizabeth” – William Henry’s wife’s name. The other side said “Margaret Anne” – the second aunt.
With some effort, I managed to get far enough into the foliage to scrape away the branches covering the front of the plinth. It said William Henry Feeney. I may be no closer to knowing where my great-grandfather came from, but I had found his final resting place, together with his wife and three of his children.
There was more to discover. Further into the churchyard we found the grave of Edward’s tragic wife, Beatrice Ellen. The inscription on the stone revealed that she died on December 26, 1914, twelve days after giving birth to my father, at the age of 24.
Imagine Edward’s anguish that Christmas Day; his first-born son in his arms, his wife slipping towards death before his eyes.
But here was a strange thing; there was nothing to suggest that Edward’s remains were also laid to rest here. And there was no mention of him on the family grave we had found.
So where is he? It is too late to ask my father (who never became close to his own father after the dislocation of his childhood.)
We will have the family grave restored. Perhaps there are clues hidden there, waiting to be uncovered.