NEARLY three decades after he set out to trace his long-lost family, an Australian man has finally met the sister he never knew even existed growing up.

Derek Maguire, 56, met his sibling Marie Withers, of Chiseldon, for the very first time at the arrivals terminal in Heathrow on Tuesday night, 26 years after he embarked on a journey which would take him to Ireland and England to uncover his roots.

Derek emigrated to Melbourne from England in 1966 at the age of eight with his mother Philomena and sister Alison following the death of his father Dermott. As he reached adulthood, he grew curious about his heritage. At the age of 31, after some prodding, his mother revealed what little information she held: her late husband had had children from a previous marriage before they met.

This was the unlikely start of an often fraught search for his brother Terry and sister Marie.

Despite countless dead ends, he finally tracked down his half-nephew Gavin in Somerset in March last year. That same week he made contact with Marie. After a year of thrice weekly Skype conversations and innumerable emails, Derek travelled to the UK for a long overdue meeting with his sister, nephews, nieces and their children. The first glimpse of her sister-in-law Annette at the gate on Tuesday sent Marie into fits of laughter intermingled with tears.

“We were looking and looking for ages and I saw Annette first,” said the 73-year-old. “I was sat in a wheelchair and trying to get out to walk towards them. I kept touching him to make sure he was real. We didn’t stop kissing each other all the way out of the airport.

“We have a lot in common, even the foods that we eat. We are both organised and we write lists for everything. We are twins in a lot of ways.

“It’s just unbelievable and the funniest thing is that it is as though we have known each other for years.

“Everybody is so excited to meet Derek and Annette. I’m glad it happened in time before I was gone.”

Derek added: “It was exciting at the airport, that first contact. It completes a journey and it’s just fantastic to be part of the family.” In 1992, Derek moved to Ireland for two years, but later returned home none the wiser. Discouraged by privacy laws, mounds of red tape and inconclusive leads, in 2006 he gave up his investigation. But in March 2013, his sister-in-law spotted a link on a genealogy website listing a Terence Maguire as dead since 2006, and set up by his son Gavin. This was the clue which led the mystery of his heritage to finally unravel. He contacted Gavin, who confirmed that Terry had passed away, but told him that Marie was alive and well. “In 2006, I felt I had done everything I could possibly do,” said Derek. “It takes a lot out of you, especially when you get road blocks. I was frustrated and it had affected my health. Privacy laws made it hard to find anything. I felt I had hit a brick wall. I couldn’t believe it in the end when we found out about Gavin.

“What I want to do now is complete the family tree.”