COUSINS Peter and Raymond Burke both began their lives in Bangor but it has taken 77 years and a United States cruise ship to bring them together for their first ever meeting. The men and their wives fittingly met up at the Titanic Hotel in Belfast last Wednesday where Raymond’s mother once made history as the only woman to work in the drawing office of Harland & Wolff in the 1930s. The story of how the cousins found each other has its roots in a genealogy search begun several years ago by Peter. Heally began researching his mother’s side of the family and by chance was contacted by Kayleigh Bealin, a research manager with the Irish Family History Society in Dublin, who correctly surmised that she and Peter might be cousins.

Peter decided to employ Kayleigh’s expertise to help him to find out if he had any cousins on his father Joseph’s side, as he knew that his father had had a brother called Ignatius who had studied mechanical and electrical engineering at Queen’s University, Belfast. Peter focused the early part of his research on the records held at St Vincent’s College, Castleknock, the Dublin boarding school attended by his uncle and father. “I checked the school records and discovered that my uncle was evacuated from Dunkirk and was awarded an MBE for gallantry while serving in north west Europe,” says Peter. His research also revealed that Ignatius had three sons, all of whom lived in the United States.

Just as the trail was heating up, Peter received a call from Raymond Burke in Massachusetts, the eldest son of Ignatius whose own research through the Irish Family History Society had led him to Peter. Between them they were able to piece together large chunks of Ignatius’s history, much of which was unknown to Raymond because his father was so often taken away on army manoeuvres. Says Peter: “My uncle went to Queen’s University, Belfast, and he then did an apprenticeship course at Harland and Wolff where he met his wife, my aunt, who was likely to have been the only woman to have worked in the drawing office at Harland and Wolff in the 1930s.   “I knew that my uncle had got a bursary to Sandhurst Army College and was a lieutenant colonel when he was awarded an MBE for his gallantry. “Meanwhile my father went into the insurance business, met my mother and along with my brother and two sisters we moved to live in Bangor in 1956.”

Peter and Raymond got to know more about each other and their family history in a series of transatlantic phone calls, but their lives took a significant step closer when Raymond emailed to say that he and his wife Mary were taking a cruise around the British Isles and would be stopping in Belfast at the end of August. “He said they would love to meet up as we both have missed out on 77 years not knowing that either of us existed,” says Peter. That meeting took place at the Titanic Hotel last Wednesday where manager Adrian McNally welcomed Kayleigh Bealin, Peter and Carol Burke, and Raymond and Mary Burke for morning coffee. “Adrian was fascinated by the story and welcomed us as if we were royalty,” says Peter, adding that Kayleigh also took the opportunity on Wednesday to make a podcast for the Family History Society about the history of the Titanic Hotel as well as Peter and Graham’s family history. During their meeting Peter says he was stunned to learn from Raymond’s birth certificate that when he was born on September 12, 1946, the family were living in Bangor despite the fact that Ignatius was based in barracks in Londonderry. The years spent so far apart, there is a certain irony that not only did their lives run parallel through the Bangor connection but they were also born just weeks apart, Peter slightly older with his birthday on June 6, 1946.

Peter was able to pass on in person to Raymond a file of information about the family which he had collated over the course of 18 months. Says Peter: “Incredibly he was unaware that his father had been evacuated from Dunkirk and received an MBE. I also found photographs through their school of when my uncle and my dad were prefects there.” The cousins talked about the family and of Raymond’s son Patrick who lives in Boston and Peter’s daughter Jennifer who had lived in Australia before recently moving back home to Northern Ireland. Says Peter: “Raymond talked about his school days and of his father being in the army in 1950 and being sent on a mission to the States on the Queen Elizabeth. “I have the records and Ignatius had a diplomatic pass, which is quite something in 1950, and it was to do with trying to standardise screw fittings for the equipment which both the British army and the US army were using. “He did that mission and then he moved to Florida and got involved with a boat building company. Then he retired and went to live in Philadelphia.” Peter describes Raymond as quietly spoken but says he talked of his time studying to be an optician and setting up his own optometry business in Boston. Peter continues: “Then he decided he would do night classes to do what his dad did, some mechanical and electrical engineering, just as a sideline. “Then he joined the US Coastguards and the reason he joined was at the time the US government were recruiting anyone in sight to join the US army because Vietnam was still very active. “He said no way did he want go into the army so he decided the easy way around that was to join the Coastguards. “Since he retired Raymond is building a 27 foot fishing boat. He built a big greenhouse to house this boat and it’s incredible.”

If anyone wants to contact the Irish Family History Centre in relation to their own genealogy search the email address is Kayleigh advises that the Centre only helps with searches for the deceased and not the living and recommends that any search should begin with a conversation with older family members to get help with specific dates and locations.