Family reunited - eight decades later

By Tara Mills
BBC News NI

Published
image captionDenis Black found his long-lost relatives after his support worker began the search

Denis Black was placed in care when he was a baby in 1943.

Growing up he always wanted a family, but there was no trace of any relatives. Until now.

He is 77 and has lived in various institutions, though for the last 12 years he has been in supported living in Newcastle, County Down.

His support worker, Jennifer Stone, started the process to find Denis' family.

"At Christmas time other people that Denis lived with were always going home to their families and he would have to stay and be with staff," she said.

"Christmas was a very special time for Denis but he would have to buy his own presents.

"He would have talked a lot about wanting to find family and wanting someone in his life."

image captionDenis' half-sister Joan knew when she was growing up that her father had another child

Ms Stone traced his birth certificate and enlisted the help of a genealogist.

"It's been a long process and I've had a few sleepless nights along the way worrying about the reaction of the family and whether or not they would want to know Denis and how Denis would react," she says.

It was a complicated process as Denis' mother and father were not married when he was born and Denis' father, Henry Black, already had a wife and three other children.

His father died when he was one and Denis and his mother were left penniless as Henry Black's wife claimed the estate for herself and her children.

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It is those children that have been traced to their homes in England and New Zealand.

One of them, Joan Fannan, is Denis' half-sister and she says that growing up they knew there had been another child but they did not have any other details.

"Our mother would never have told us anything - those were the times - seen and not heard," she said.

"I knew there was a child but I didn't know if it was a boy or a girl.

image captionJoan's granddaughter Kimberley Bradshaw has made sure the whole family know about Denis

"Then over the years I just put it to the back of my mind because there was nothing I could do anyway."

Joan first met Denis last summer.

"He kissed us all about a dozen times," she recalls.

"I couldn't believe the likeness to my brother, Alan. It's just a miracle."

Wanting answers

Several other visits have followed, along with phone calls and cards.

This month has been particularly special as, for the first time, Denis has celebrated a birthday alongside his family.

Denis has limited speech but he told me he had always wanted to get answers.

"I missed my family and I tried to contact them," he said.

"I knew I had a mum but I knew nothing about my dad. Now I know he was a sergeant in the Army."

Joan's granddaughter, Kimberley Bradshaw, has been the driving force behind bringing the family together now they all know Denis exists.

image captionJoan says finding Denis has been an uplifting experience for the family

The 24-year-old said the whole experience had been incredible, involving "plenty of tears".

"I think they've gone from sad tears to happy tears and we want to make the most of it and make up for the time we didn't have," she said.

"The things you take for granted - knowing your roots, someone being there and things like birthdays and Christmas. Just knowing who you are and even just having someone to talk about you and having someone to talk to you.

"When I found out when his birthday was I thought: 'There's no chance we're going to miss it'."

So the family gathered in a cottage in Annalong to help Denis celebrate his 77th birthday.

'The world of good'

Brian Watson, the genealogist who found Denis' family, said a sad part of the story was that there has been no trace of his mother.

"She called herself Elizabeth Black even though she hadn't married Denis' father and that's how her name appears on his birth certificate," said Mr Watson.

"There are many other people of that name from that time but, it seems, when Denis was placed in the home she disappeared.

"And not knowing anything more than her name it's been impossible to trace her."

Joan said the whole family had been lifted by the discovery of a long-lost brother.

"I love him, we all love him but looking back he had an awful life," she said.

"In those days there was nothing but homes or the workhouse but I feel sad for the life he has had.

"But he's got us now and I'm content knowing that we can see him and he's having a good life."

When asked how he feels now, Denis said: "It's done me the world of good."

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