ADUSTY old, leather-bound box abandoned in an attic was the beginning of a journey of discovery for Bostonian Ellen Alden and it led her all the way to County Cork.
Ellen would discover a family history wreathed in sorrow and hardship, an emigrant’s tale, the story of her great great grandfather. The letters he wrote to his wife, Ellen, would inspire her to trace her roots to Cork, befriend a local historian, and write her first novel, but it all started with her daughter, Jillian’s third-grade project.
“She needed pictures of me, as a baby,” Ellen says. Rummaging through her attic, Ellen stumbled upon something she’d never seen before: an old box of photos and letters.
“There were these tin-type photos and 19 letters; when I opened the first one, it said ‘my dearest Ellen,’ and that immediately caught my attention, because, of course, that’s my name.”
Asking her parents about the contents of the box, they told her that they were mementos of her great great grandfather, Florence Burke. Florence had left Ireland at 19, at the height of the Irish famine, and settled in West Springfield, MA, with his wife, Ellen.
But America was inhospitable for Irish immigrants and the family’s struggles were far from over. Desperate to gain a foothold for his young family and escape life as a tenant farmer, Florence, aged 35, made the desperate choice to become a substitute draftee in the civil war, the conscription act allowing wealthy men to pay another soldier to fight in their stead. Florence would receive money, but, more importantly, he would be given the deeds to a plot of land for his family.
The letters Ellen found were war-time correspondence between Florence and his wife. “The gamble did pay off, because he got his family land, which meant citizenship and higher education for his children,” Ellen says. “So my book is really about that struggle for the first generation. I had never really thought about it before. It was like, ‘oh, I’m Irish and I have red hair,’ but I’d never really thought about what they went through.”
With letters to shed light on the family’s life in the US, four years ago Ellen embarked on her own journey, to Cork, to research Florence and Ellen Burke’s Irish years: she was going to write a book about her family story.
But life doesn’t always read like a book, and Ellen encountered a few dead-ends. Instead, meeting local historian, John L O’Sullivan, in Ballinhassig, close to Cork city, Ellen decided to fictionalise Florence’s town of origin, and, on her return to the US, she set her great great grandfather’s early years in Ballinhassig.
Later, she discovered that he had actually come from the townlands between Skibbereen and Schull, one of the worst famine-afflicted areas in the country.
“Florence was 19 when he left and he was born in 1829, so he’d been through years of the famine,” Ellen says.
“Later, when I found out how Skibbereen had been wiped-out, I wondered how he survived at all.”
She was shocked to discover the extent of the impact of the famine on Ireland. “I always thought there was this spoiled crop, but I didn’t know that there was food available that was being exported; I also didn’t know just how many died and how many emigrated”.
In John L O’Sullivan, Ellen had found a friend and research helpmeet; communicating by old-fashioned mail, she sent him drafts of her book to check for historical inaccuracies.
The finished book, Yours Faithfully, Florence Burke, is self-published and has drawn significant interest from Irish communities in the US, as well as in Ireland.
Ellen thinks that the story is an age-old one, and relevant today, with immigration constantly debated: “Look at all the different groups, like the Irish who came to America; they made the country what it is today. I think that’s mostly the sentiment of the States. We’re proud of it, and it’s what made our country strong, and what it is,” Ellen says.
The harshness of immigrant life is reflected in the tragedy that befell the Burkes when they lost their youngest child to typhoid. “She died at six months, while Florence was away at war,” Ellen says. “Where they lived, in Massachusetts, was called the snow belt, and she died in January. Jeremiah was their oldest, and then Michael, and they had only referred to the baby as ‘baby girl.’ I heard that it was common not to name their babies, in case they didn’t survive. But, later, I found out her name had been Mary Ellen.”
Now, Ellen is set to return to Ireland again. Her great great grandfather’s story forms part of an exhibition, The Irish Potato Famine, running currently in Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre, and she’ll also visit Skibbereen to talk there as part of Culture Night. Of course, she hopes to uncover more family history, and possibly even a living relative or two.
“I’m really happy that people are so interested,” she says. “It’s going to be pretty emotional. I want to honour my great great grandparents, who, basically, had no honour in their own lives, and for whom things were so tough.”
The Irish Potato Famine exhibition is on the top floor of Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre and runs each day until September 30. Ellen B Alden appears as part of Culture Night on Friday, September 22, at 11.30am in Skibbereen Library, and at 8pm in The Sportsman’s Rest pub, Ballinhassig. www.culturenightcorkcounty.ie