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Thursday, April 30, 2015

In Search of the Irish Past - Part 6

This week, my 19th publication will be released. A Thin Slice of Heaven takes place in Northern Ireland, where the heroine, Charleigh, travels with the intention of meeting up with her husband for a second honeymoon. When she arrives, however, she receives a text from him informing her that he is leaving her for another woman.

Stranded in a remote castle three thousand miles from home, a snowstorm cuts off all access to the outside world. She is soon joined, however, by the grandson of the original laird of the castle, Sean Bracken. She quickly falls head-over-heels in love with him. There's just one problem: he's dead.

Soon she is whisked into a mass haunting as the castle comes alive with secrets hidden for centuries. It takes her into the politics of the potato famine, of lives and loves lost and found, of tragedy and triumph. Her world begins to blend until she no longer recognizes the veil between the living and the dead.

And when she discovers her appearance at Castle Brackenridge is not by accident, it will change her world forever.

I began writing A Thin Slice of Heaven more than a year before its release. I selected the site for the castle approximately 50 miles west of Belfast. The name Brackenridge was derived from the castle owners' last name - Bracken - and the fact that it sit high atop a cliff, or ridge.

When my sister, Neelley Hicks, journeyed to Dublin in 2014, she asked for information about our Neely ancestors, who had originally lived in Ireland prior to emigrating to the United States in the early 1700's. I asked a distant cousin if he had anything and he sent me a packet, which I forwarded to her.

It turned out that he had traced us back to Ballygawley, Northern Ireland, a site approximately 50-70 miles west of Belfast in Northern Ireland. When Neelley traveled to Ballygawley from Dublin, she was astonished to find that our ancestors had once been the Lairds of Glencull, an area just outside of Ballygawley. The castle was long gone, the stones reused in other dwellings and the ruins reclaimed by the earth. But it might have looked similar to this one, owned by the Stewart family, who would have lived in the area at the same time and presumably have been friends with my ancestors.

High atop a hill lay the Neely family cemetery. The stones were broken and rumor had it that the British had destroyed the cemetery while they looked for IRA weapons during the time of The Troubles. The last of the Neely clan to live in the region was Robert Neely, who died in the mid 1800's. His body originally was buried in the cemetery near Ballygawley but when the family arrived back at his home after the services, they were astonished to find his spirit there waiting for them. They quickly had the body exhumed and moved to the family cemetery, and his spirit was never seen again.

It was said that Robert had told close friends and relatives that when he died, he wanted to be buried at the top of the hill where he could keep an eye on his property. In the video and picture, you can see the lands beyond the hilltop - all Neely lands at the time he died.

Four years ago, I began having dreams that begged me to journey to Ireland. I didn't know why until I stood at the top of the hill and saw the sad shape the cemetery is in. The property had passed into the hands of someone who not only did not care about the upkeep of the cemetery, but had even boasted that he could destroy the graves within. Perhaps Robert Neely was asking for my help in preserving their final resting place. I have contacted the governing authority in Northern Ireland, asking for assistance in preserving the cemetery, and my hopes are that they will step in to ensure that the graves are not destroyed.