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First person on Moon mourned by relatives in Co Fermanagh

Published 27/08/2012

Andrea McKernon

A FAMILY from Co Fermanagh linked to pioneering astronaut Neil Armstrong are quietly mourning the death of the first person to walk on the Moon.

Armstrong, who became the most famous man in the world with his words "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" when he walked on the moon in 1969, died on Saturday aged 82.

He knew he had family links to Northern Ireland.

The veteran astronaut's family confirmed his death in a statement on Saturday saying he had died from complications after surgery to relieve four blocked coronary arteries.

His family praised him as a "reluctant American hero" and urged his admirers to honour his example of "service, accomplishment modesty".

"The next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the Moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink," they said.

US president Barack Obama - who has family links to Moneygall, Co Offaly - paid tribute to the astronaut.

"Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time but of all time," the president said.

Many of Armstrong's colleagues and friends also paid tribute to him as a modest man who never sought the limelight.

Michael Collins, a pilot on the Apollo 11 Moon mission, said: "He was the best and I will miss him terribly."

Armstrong famously refused most requests for public appearances and interviews.

Cathal Magee of Irvinestown - a distant relative of Armstrong - had a brief conversation with him in London in 2001 and it was "one of the proudest moments of my life".

The sound engineer said the meeting with Armstrong came about when Mr Magee was working at a conference.

"I was working at the Barbican where a big American company had booked the conference hall for a team-building exercise and they had Neil Armstrong booked in as guest speaker," he said.

"I was aware we had family links to him on my mother's side."

Mr Magee's mother Una (nee McElholm) is a grand-daughter of Sarah McElholm.

Sarah's mother was Mary Armstrong from Clogher in Co Tyrone.

Mary married John McSorley from Trillick, Co Tyrone, who had a brother who emigrated to the US. Neil Armstrong was his grandson.

Mr Magee recalled summoning up the courage to speak to Armstrong in London.

"I had spoken to Neil's wife the night before and told her that I believed my family was related to Neil Armstrong," he said.

"Then the following day I was backstage doing the gig.

"He had just given an hour-long speech which was fascinating and which I recorded on video.

"When he came up on stage, the crew were egging me on to speak to him so I did and he said his wife had told him about me and that he knew he had relatives in Northern Ireland.

"I had a brief conversation with him. I had a camera in my hand but I was too nervous to ask him to pose for a picture with me.

"It's one of the biggest regrets of my life.

"He was just the hero he has always been. He was about 70 then. I remember him referring to the people who said the whole Moon landing had been staged.

"He had said he wished they had walked in his boots - they would then know it was true.

"It was a fastastic experience and a great honour to meet and talk with Neil Armstrong, not just because he was related to my family but also for everyone in Fermanagh and Tyrone and of course because he was the first man on the Moon." ■ RELATED: Cathal Magee of Irvinestown with his one-year-old son James. The sound engineer's mother is a relative of Neil Armstrong, the first person on the Moon ■ FLIGHT: Astronaut Neil Armstrong attends a graveside service on June 1 this year for Wilbur Wright on the 100th anniversary of the burial of the powered flight pioneer in Dayton, Ohio ■ MOON LANDING: Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface on July 20 1969 ■ ASTRONAUT: Neil Armstrong sits during a suiting-up exercise in Cape Kennedy, Florida, on March 9 1966 in preparation for the Gemini 8 flight PICTURE: AP