AT 7.30am on July 1, 1916, whistles blew along the lengths of the British trenches on the Somme. Thousands of men climbed out of their trenches, poured over the top and rushed into the morning mist - and headlong into the German shellfire.

By nightfall, there were nearly 60,000 casualties.

The Tyneside Irish battalions were the hardest hit. More than two-thirds of their 3,000 soldiers fell wounded or dying, but at least they were ushered forward to their deaths by something more musical than the shrill blast of a whistle and the chilling whistle of a shell.

"At Albert (a French town on the Somme), an Irish Piper from Tyneside found himself compelled to leap out of the trench at the signal to advance, and play his company over the parapet into action," records a historian of the battle. "He marched ahead through a storm of bullets which were wounding or killing his comrades all around him, until he himself fell among the wounded."

The fate of the unnamed piper is unknown, but the pipes were picked up and made their way back to Willington in County Durham. In the 1920s, they emigrated to America but, yesterday, completed their first journey back to the North-East of England. Tomorrow, they will play Minstrel Boy - the tune that piped the Tyneside Irish over the top - at a service in Newcastle's Roman Catholic Cathedral where their colours will be re-dedicated after restoration.

As the trans-Atlantic arrangements for the service were pieced together, an extraordinary story fell into place of how a Willington great-great-grandmother connects men from New York, Newcastle and Darlington.

"When I tell the story at work, people just go 'wow, that's amazing'," says Vincent Robinson, who has travelled from America with the pipes, which he will play during the service.

The story begins with the Irish potato famine of 1847. The potato crop failed, the Irish had nothing to eat and so were forced to flee. Those that could afford the fare went to America; many of the poorer ones reached the North-East of England where they found work in County Durham's coalmines. They included Elizabeth Rice and her husband Francis, who came from near Omagh. They settled in Willington. Francis worked at Brancepeth pit; Elizabeth had six children.

In 1914, when the First World War broke out, Durham's mines were all but idle. The men were on three-day weeks and close to starvation. The Army offered a quick adventure - "it'll be over by Christmas" - and a square meal; for married men, it paid a separation allowance.

With their families secure and their futures suddenly exciting, they signed up in their thousands - enough to form four battalions of the Tyneside Irish. Each battalion had 1,100 men, nearly all of whom could trace Irish ancestry. By July 1, 1916, they were in France. By now they had discovered it was no quick adventure. In fact, it had turned into a grim slog through the mud of the Somme. And it was about to get worse. When the whistles blew - and the pipes played - 3,000 of them went over the top. Twenty-two officers and 574 men were killed; 53 officers and 1,522 men were wounded; fewer than a third survived unharmed.

It was the brigade chaplain, Father George McBrearty, himself wounded, who picked up the pipes and brought them home to his church, Our Lady and St Thomas, in Willington. He later gave them to one of Elizabeth Rice's grandchildren, William Robinson, who had served with the Durham Light Infantry.

"He told my grandfather 'make sure they stay in your family'," says Vincent, who is Elizabeth's great-great-grandson. So, when William Robinson and his family emigrated from the Durham coalfield, ailing once more, to the States, in 1927, the pipes went too. As none of the Robinsons played the pipes, they were passed from one generation's attic to the next's.

Five years ago, with no idea of the treasure stashed in the family archives, Vincent, a roadcar inspector on the Long Island Railway, started to play. "I've always loved the sound," he says. "It's phenomenal."

When the rest of the family heard - of his learning, not his droning - they traced the pipes to Aunt Moira's attic. "They had a hide bag of leather and it was like a mummy - everything was dried up and shrivelled," he says. "It was a mess, and some of the ivory on top of the chanter was chipped."

Vincent had the pipes restored and was told they were made by Henderson's of Edinburgh between 1890-1900. "Guys dream of finding a Henderson set of bagpipes in a fleamarket," says Vincent, enthusiastically.

In 1998, the Robinsons in New York heard that John Sheen of Durham City had written the definitive book on the history of the Tyneside Irish. They tracked him down via the Internet, and he said the best person to talk to was Jim Connor, one of the people who'd proof read the book. Jim came from Willington and had Tyneside Irish connections - he'd be able to help.

And yes, Jim, now 71 and living in Darlington, could remember the Robinsons before they emigrated and, in researching his family tree, Jim had discovered that they shared the same great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Rice. He even e-mailed them a picture of Elizabeth, standing outside her house in Nelson Street, Willington, sucking on a clay pipe.

"It was unbelievable," says Vincent. "In the States, most people can't go back that far. It's all the more fascinating because I'm telling my own kids that that's their great-great-great-grandmother. They're amazed."

Meanwhile, in Newcastle, the publication of John Sheen's book spurred city councillor Barney Rice into action. He knew that in 1921, Newcastle City Council had been given the colours of the 4th Tyneside Irish battalion for safe-keeping. He knew that 30 years ago, the town hall in the Bigg Market had been demolished. He knew that Beamish Museum had rescued the colours from a skip outside and put them in storage.

Barney, Lord Mayor of Newcastle in 1995, put wheels in motion. He raised £1,200 and had the colours restored. But then, he too discovered that he could trace his family tree back to his great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Rice.

And so yesterday, Elizabeth Rice's great-grandson met two of her great-great-grandsons with the pipes and the colours of the Tyneside Irish in attendance.

Fittingly, the meeting took place at the Cathedral Church of St Mary. It was here, shortly after the end of the First World War, that Fr McBrearty, the man who retrieved the pipes from the battlefield, held a mass in front of the colours.

He told the survivors and the families of the men who were lost: "Many eyes will fill with tears as a mother, wife or sister says a prayer for a dear, dead one whose body lies in a foreign field."

Tomorrow, even though it is 90 years on, there won't be a dry eye in the cathedral - particularly not among the great-great-grandchildren of Elizabeth Rice - when Vincent plays Minstrel Boy on the pipes from the Somme:

"The Minstrel Boy to the wars has gone.

In the ranks of death you will find him."

l Tomorrow's service starts at 11am in the Cathedral Church of St Mary, opposite Central Station in Newcastle. All are welcome.