Letters home from the New World

By Dan Buckley - Saturday, December 24, 2011

A sense of isolation was felt keenly by the Irish diaspora in the USA in the late 1800s whose sole means of communication was the letter home. Dan Buckley dips in to some of them

TO preserve from desecration the remains of 6,000 immigrants who died of Ship Fever," reads the commemoration, chiselled out of bedrock to mark the place where, in 1847, thousands of Irish immigrants drew their last breath while fleeing the ravages of famine at home.

The words are inscribed on The Black Rock, a large, granite boulder perched on a hillock near Goose Village in Montreal, Canada. It was placed there in 1859 as a salute to Irish immigrants whose remains were found during the construction of the city’s Victoria Bridge. The immigrants, quarantined with typhus, known as ship fever, had died in the fever sheds built there to prevent the spread of disease.

Like the hundreds of thousands who sought to escape hunger, they had pinned their hopes on the ships, seeing in Canada, as in Australia, Britain and the US a place of rebirth. For many, the new terra firma became a final resting place.

Now a new wave of emigration is in full flight, as tens of thousands again choose a ticket-of-leave as their only way out of penury and an uncertain future. Though better fed, educated and blessed with instant communication, leaving for work abroad is an emotional experience for those who go as well as those they leave behind.

The 21st-century emigrant has much in common with those who fled Ireland in the 19th and early 20th century. Facebook is no substitute for flesh-and-blood friends, while watching the All-Ireland or Heineken Cup matches on a TV in Boston will evoke a wistful longing for home.

That sense of isolation was felt by the Irish diaspora which had grown hugely in the late 1800s and whose sole means of communication was the letter home.

Writing from America in 1889 to her parents-in-law in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, Bridget Chamberlain reflected on her and her husband’s longing for home.

"James is often wishing to be back in Mitchelstown + I wish to be back in Limerick... we are tired of Boston especially holidays it is so lonely."

She and her husband were well off compared to many Irish people who settled overseas at the time, as Bridget explains.

"As for happiness + comfort we could not wish for any more. James holds a good job + makes good pay + I work all the time at my own business so I think we have no reason to complain."

Included in the letter was a postal order for £2. Being the dutiful daughter-in-law, Bridget was anxious not to offend.

"Dear Mrs Chamberlain enclosed you will find a post office order for £2 which you will please accept + get yourself a Xmas present for it as I thought you could suit yourself better than I could send. Please don’t feel angry with me for sending it as I only want you to get a present to suit yourself."

The letter is among the Chamberlain collection of hundreds of letters and notes sent home to Mitchelstown. They form part of research being undertaken by historian Alan Noonan, who struck a rich vein of immigrant letters while working on a dissertation on Irish miners in the US from 1845-1920.

Bridget’s husband, James, was a prolific letter writer. In August 1891, he wrote: "Dear Mother, I enclosed for you in this letter an order for the small sum of £1.0.0. It is the best I could do at present perhaps after a little time I hope to be able to send you Some more) these months ar our dull season & when trade open again I will send you a little more Please God.

I expect please God an increase in the family next month... which I hope will turn out all right to such cases in America cost at least from £8 to £10.0.0 Wm. is getting Board wages At present & I leave him keep 12 shillings per week for him self So as that he might send you some little or much next month and have a little pocket money for him self.

"I remain your ever fond son in Christ Our Lord J.C."

In another, James bemoans Irish employers’ greed.

"Better than I can now the menast part of an Irish Boss is when a person have a holiday out of the week or half day... if you work by the week each ½ hour you give the sucker it means 25 or 30 cents to him nothing for you... that is the Irish every time.

"I felt sore when the Yankee Bosses I had went into other business. It is the Jews & the cheap Irish that hold the trade now... they landed in the country when any kind of thing could get work & they hold it through cheap labour & gall.

"I am sending some papers read of the strikes I remain your ever loving Son in Christ our Lord With best love from wife & children Please God we all live until Saint Ptk Day. Send Shamrocks in Envelope they hold fresher & greener they go in to dust in a Box & it cost you more to sent them. Send me Cork Examiner."

A particularly moving letter was sent by James Chamberlain to his parents, dated September 20, 1881:

"My Dear father and mother

"I received your papers on the 19 and your letters on the 20 which I can’t express in words how thankful I am to you for your generosity and goodness to me... No-one can tell the love that I have for you, my dear father and mother, brothers and sister, and I would never leave home were it not for you...

"I remain Yours Ever Fond Son in Christ Our Lord J.C."

Later letters reveal that the family prospered in America. A letter dated January 2, 1889 reads:

"Dear Mother & Brother in Christ our Lord,

"I write this letter to you hoping with the Blessing of God we will Enjoy the new year in the fear & love of God & thank God for his goodness to us all I never had better health in my life than I have had since I came to america as regards beings thin I got a little thin in July & August When Every person get a little thin but if there be any good in fat the clothes that I Bought in August the [they] are so small for me that I did not ware them since October & I have now bought another suit. It is a dress suit £8.10.0 worth and I have money enough if I wanted to go home and what would bring me to America again, thank God.."

Although historically significant, the letters are not kept in a museum. They were gathered by generations of Chamberlains and shoved into a biscuit tin, then placed in the attic of the Mitchelstown family home.

That’s where Sean Chamberlain, 72, found them.

"I was about nine or 10 back in the 1940s... I found a load of old letters stuck in a Jacob’s biscuit tin. There were a few photos there as well.

"The letters were vaguely exciting for me because they came from America. My father knew nothing about relatives in America.

"Most of the letters were from my two great-granduncles. There were three brothers in all who went to America. Two of them got on well but one, John, who used to be a monk in Listowel, was a right tearaway. He went to America and spent most of the time there on the piss. He was finally deported from there in 1920."

Although Sean’s father ran a family bakery on Main Street in Mitchelstown, his son’s passion was music and he too took the emigrant boat.

"When I did my Leaving Cert in 1957 I went straight to England to make sure I would never be a baker. We had a little showband and I played the accordion and saxophone."

However, he was persuaded to return home and he and brother Paddy continue the bakery business.

Twenty years ago, a bus of US tourists passed the bakery when the name attracted their attention.

"One of them decided to take a chance on writing, because it was an unusual surname.

"One woman, a Mrs Norton, made initial contact and my brother, Paddy, wrote back. Mrs Norton has died since, but her brother, Robert, came to visit us and we have been out him. Bob lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Paddy and I have been out there a couple of times."

ANOTHER batch of letters unearthed by Alan Noonan includes the Hurley collection. This involves the brothers Michael and Denis Hurley, from Clonakilty, Co Cork, who emigrated to the US in the 1870s.

Michael sailed to America around 1871 and settled in Carson City, Nevada, and then moved around working for railroad companies. He first worked for Oregan Railway and Navigation Co but lost his job for taking part in the Pullman Strike, a national conflict between unions and railroads.

Denis landed in Boston in 1873 and teamed up with his brother, working on the railroads between San Francisco and Carson City. While Michael lost all his savings on bad investments, Denis was luckier and ran for the Nevada legislature in 1905. Although defeated in that contest, he was later made chairman of the City Council and died in 1938, leaving $10,000.

Denis had a quirky sense of humour, as a letter dated May 25, 1873 to his cousin Denis Ryan in Clonakilty attests.

"This climate is fatal to the longevity of shoes on account of its extreme drought. Before a month’s wear, the soles and uppers of store boots apply for a divorce — whether at the instance of the sole or the upper I cannot tell, and the divorce is readily granted. Why not in a country in which the marriage tie between man and woman is so easily severed? Why not the shoes in a like manner when they become tired of so close a relationship between them, wish for a separation, each desiring to go its own way..."

He was also a fine observer of people in the melting pot of America.

"Men from every nation under heaven may be found in Carson. The long-tailed, sombre-looking Chinaman; the black-haired red skinned Indian, with chalk lines drawn across their face on each side of the nose, with their women called Mahalies, having their infants called Papooses wrapped on their backs. The swarthy, copper-coloured Mexican; the slow thoughtful-looking German; the more lively Frenchman, with Swedes, Swiss, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese etc.."

It was a spirit of adventure and seeking their fortune that drove Michael and Denis Hurley to emigrate, rather than penury. Their father was a landowner and their parents well-off, so much so that the brothers, exhibiting shades of the future Celtic Tiger, wrote home looking for a loan of £100 (then worth $500) to invest in gold and silver mines in Nevada.

Like many an emigrant since, the brothers had notions of making a quick buck to fund their early retirement from the tedium of daily manual work. In May, 1877, Denis wrote:

"Working all a man’s life is played out. Big men have made work scarce and money tight in order to be master of everything. We know half a dozen mines that are known to have large ore-bodies whose stock is selling today for $10. That will undoubtedly go up in the hundreds before next November."

He urged his father to send the money at once in case the opportunity passed them by.

"If you intend to send, lose not a day, no excuse is worth a cent. We are neither drinking nor rawdying nor squandering but a rare chance has presented itself, and we want to avail of it."

Like the so-called "Aer Lingus carpenters" over 100 hundred years later, they dreamed of returning home.

"We have several thousand dollars at stake, and with your loan we are almost morally certain that next Fall would render us independent of works and Christmas find us home together with a handsome fortune."

There is no account in later letters of whether that particular investment succeeded or not, but the likelihood is that it didn’t as Denis and Michael Hurley never saw their homeland again and ended their days 5,000 miles from home.


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