(21 December 1934–4 May 2021)
This is my tribute to my good friend, Bernard O’Neill. As I reflect on his life and recent death, there are a few key words that come to mind:
- Our Catholic faith, that Bernard lived so well, and that was shown in his willingness to serve others, in roles such as band leader, budget adviser, and choir member;
- Faithfulness, in his 57 years of married life with Ann;
- Family, so evident in his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and cousins of all sorts;
- Farming, Bernard’s occupation for over 40 years.
But my own friendship and partnership with Bernard was as a family historian. In a 1963 radio interview, Bernard was able to name the little townland of Ballymacpeake in Ireland where the O’Neills came from, and he was always able to source his stories, often with the statement “And I know that because my mother told me so!” So his interest in family history goes back a long way.
My family first visited Bernard and Ann’s family at Springvale in 1971, on an outing from our summer holiday at Oturehua. That’s the first recorded occasion when I met Bernard and Ann.
My own interest in family history began around 1973, when I attended my great-uncle Jock Kearney’s funeral in Ranfurly. Aged 11, I had no idea who “Uncle Jock” had been! A little while later, I found some family history notes made by Mum and Dad in 1968, and so by 1976 when it came time to celebrate the centenary of my great-grandfather John O’Neill’s immigration to New Zealand, I was very interested in family history, and did the initial research to find the 1877 passenger list. The January 1977 reunion, held in Ranfurly, was organised, I think, by Dad’s Ranfurly-based cousins, Trish Hore and Joan Dowling, with their sister Neen and cousin Lucy Murphy.
Bernard’s aunt Nellie Cuttance, a little woman with a real twinkle in her eye, came to the reunion, and there told us the story of our great-grandfather’s first marriage to her own aunt, Nellie Herlihy. Nellie had tragically died of appendicitis a few months after her marriage to John O’Neill in 1892.
After the January 1977 reunion, I undertook to compile a family tree, but I soon realised that there was more to the story than just my great-grandfather and his descendants: there were his two sisters and half-sister who also came to Otago—and in order to understand the link to Bernard and his family, I had to follow up their first cousins who also emigrated to New Zealand. So in May 1977 Bernard and I had a long phone chat, and we made a deal to basically divide the task in half: I would research my great-grandfather and his siblings, and Bernard would research their first cousins, namely his own grandfather and his grandfather’s siblings, whose names he already knew. I can’t quite believe that I was a gangly 15 years old when Bernard and I made this deal, but it was a well-made deal, because it eventually came to fruition.
Over the next five years, the postie was kept very busy, as Bernard and I wrote to cousins all over New Zealand, and tracked down cousins in Ireland and the USA. My Dad funded the research agents in Ireland who helped us find the evidence for the relationships we already knew about. But we had a bit of trouble in finding the identity of the parents for the top of the family tree, and truth to tell, we still don’t know who those parents were! (In 2020 I added another three sisters to the family that I had researched, but that’s another story!) By early 1986, though, I was deciding to leave the seminary and go overseas, so I knew it was time to publish. It was only a couple of years ago that Bernard told me I had burnt out the clutch on his farm ute during a visit to Springvale to type up the family tree for publication; all in a good cause, he considered it! The family tree was printed at Alexandra in May 1986, and I am now publishing a redacted version on the Internet [see separate post].
In following years, Bernard and Ann visited Bernard’s Dougherty roots in County Donegal and his O’Neill roots in County Derry, as well as cousins in upstate New York and Philadelphia. He and I continued our family history partnership, especially on the Dougherty clan, for the 2007 reunion at Gimmerburn, which marked 125 years since Bernard’s grandparents Charles and Sarah Dougherty married in Ireland. In following years, Bernard tracked down the family of his first cousin “Young Charlie” Dougherty, who had disappeared and assumed a new identity.
Mostly our partnership involved Bernard telling me stories and my researching them and writing them down. In March 2019, just before I retired, Bernard asked me what would become of his family history archive after he died. I immediately offered to come and scan the lot! I spent a month scanning almost every photo and document in his house, including eventually all the wedding albums, and have now embedded the detail into each photo and document so that future generations will know who was who. I didn’t realise how long it would take to turn the scanned images into a permanent archive! Throughout 2020, the Bernard O’Neill Archive took shape as I peppered Bernard and Ann, as well as Steph Carline and Carol Dougherty and Karen Roughan, with questions, and photos to attach names to. Another dozen or so photos and the job will be done, and I will distribute 12 GB and about 3000 files to Bernard’s family. I hope they will pass copies to all of their kids and grandkids, and that it will be a permanent legacy of Bernard’s values of faith and family.
One of the items in this collection is Bernard’s memoirs, written in 2016. Ann has given me permission to publish these memoirs on my website, as a window into the past of our family and our region, and so here they are:
Rest in peace, good friend.