June 20, 2017. Most certainly an AnceStory of unintended consequences and lifelong implications.
My parents, sister and I just returned from the trip of a lifetime, the "Last Great Nuclear Family Vacation" - a 16-day odyssey to the homelands of our ancestors in Ireland and Scotland. While my parents had always had some interest in visiting "someday", two factors conspired to bring it into startling real-time relief. One, when they found out their two "far far away from independently wealthy" children were plotting and scheming some way to get them to go (and stow away in their suitcases), and two, when the "family historian" unearthed a host of details of the McKnight branch of the family tree and its roots in northern Ireland as well as Scotland.
I'll spare the details of planning a trip with my dad a year in advance, but suffice it to say he was fairly well ready to go in November for a May 24th flight. We had plenty of time to work out details and anticipate challenges, while still leaving wiggle room for spur of the moment decisions to account for weather and fatigue. And it truly was an amazing, epic experience - one that will be shaping my life and work for some time to come.
We'd always known our McKnight family to have emigrated from Scotland; after all on my great-grandfather Andrew McKnight's grave it states quite succinctly, "Here lies a Proud Scot". (For those keeping score, in my line I am the 4th Andrew McKnight in 5 generations, or as Dad refers to me, simply "No. 4".). To our surprise, in the past couple of years I traced that family back across the 13 miles of Irish Channel to Newtownards in County Down near Belfast, where our family’s origins first come into records in the 1830s with Dad’s great-great grandfather George McNeight.
My research brought me into email contact with Dad’s 3rd cousin Paul, whose family has lived in and around Newtownards. Paul and dad are DNA matches as well as descendants of two different children of George McNeight, as inferred from what few records exist. So of course, we had to plan a day to visit Newtownards and meet family on our trip. Many, many months in advance.
About three weeks before our trip, we got an email out of the blue from Eileen, another DNA match in Northern Ireland. Being the wife of a minister, she is blessed (and cursed) with the experience of interpreting handwriting on lots of church parish records. After some back and forth and sharing of what we'd each pieced together, plus the DNA, we excitedly realized that she descends from a third child of George McNeight.
So it was only natural that she came to join us in Newtownards. Having local guides with family ties is an amazing experience indeed! We visited the Church of Ireland where our ancestors likely married (a requirement for it to be legal), and the Presbyterian Church where they worshipped and had their children baptized. It was a beautiful day, we had lunch, explored, shared pictures and tidbits from our ancestry, and thanks to a tip from a friend of Eileen's, we found this stone in the cemetery by the ruins of the 13th century Movilla Abbey, “Erected by Geo. McNeight”.
Eileen’s husband the Rev. Mark and her brother John joined us for a lovely dinner at a local restaurant. While we chatted, laughed and ate, my view out the window was over the harbor and across the Irish Channel towards Scotland, the same route that Dad’s great grandparents Andrew McKnight & Sarah Milliken sailed across when they emigrated to Scotland in 1862.
After a lovely dinner, Eileen said that she wished that she could hear me play, and I lamented not having brought a guitar. Not to worry - not only had she made all the arrangements for our visit, Mark had brought a guitar along for me to play, a beautiful Lowden. Taking advantage of the grand piano in the foyer in the restaurant, Dad and I gave a little impromptu performance including a take on "Stormy Monday" in honor of Gregg Allman, who'd passed away earlier in the day.
Imagine my surprise when we finished playing - our cousins insisted that I take the guitar! I was pretty far beyond flabbergasted, and of course so were my parents (as well as being worried about the luggage restrictions on the small planes we had to navigate twice in the week to come). But they were gently persistent, and lovingly generous. Not only is it a beautiful Lowden Guitar, made by a highly respected Irish luthier I’ve been well familiar with for two decades, but this particular guitar turns out to have been made right in Newtownards!
Afterwards we went down by the water to take a parting shot together, and raise our regards to the ancestors who made our day together possible. To say that this is a day I'll remember the rest of my life would be a gross understatement. The sounds that come out of that guitar make my fingers dance in new ways, as well as keep me in touch and tune with the bonds of family far away. I played it on the post-trip vidcast, and thus the first song I performed on it was, fittingly, "Count Your Blessings." I am a lucky man indeed.
But I do have to sell a guitar to make a space for the new one....
While we can't be sure George McNeight or any of his family are buried there, this stone was "Erected by Geo. McNeight". You can see the 13th century ruins of the Mozilla Abbey behind Eileen.
Dad and I commandeering the foyer at the Stables Restaurant by the bay in Groomsport, County Down.
All except my mom on the right end, descendants of George McNeight and most likely Ann McClement as well, in front of the Irish Channel, across which my family sailed to Scotland in 1862, likely never to return. With a Lowden Guitar made in their hometown, ready to make its journey to America.
And welcome home wandering troubadour, and an extra special welcome to our family's most recent immigrant!