We live in the age of the instantaneous. Emails, instant messaging, phone calls and video Skyping put us in almost immediate contact with our loved ones and our friends. Even if they live an ocean away, thanks to modern technology, the means of instant communication is always at hand.

When I was a little lad the communications media was very different. In my early years we had no phone at home. Then in the early 1950s we finally got one but we used it for local calling only. Long distance was costly and used very seldom. International calls were unheard of. If someone died, the Western Union man would come around with a telegram bearing the bad news. If a baby was born, a telegram with congratulations for the new arrival would come. But the principal means of communication with the family in Ireland was by letter.

Growing up in New York I remember my parents, both Irish born, writing and receiving many letters to/from Ireland. Surely letters would be sent and received for Christmas, at Easter and three or four times more during the year. Often such letters would contain photos and of course around March 17th a sprig of dried shamrock would be tucked into the folds of the writing paper. A letter from Ireland was always the highlight of any day. We received many letters from my grandmothers, and from aunts and uncles. We were kept up to date on the achievements of the younger folks and we heard all about the ailments of the older ones. And of course, we got the news about who had recently visited the family homesteads in both Cork and Clare.

Needless to say when a letter was received, Mom and Dad treasured it. They would read it several times the day it arrived and would go back to it again at different intervals. They collected those letters keeping them in the kitchen cupboard. Every once in a while, they would go through them because they had to clean things out. They couldn't keep everything, but certain ones went into a shoebox in the bureau drawer for safekeeping. I still have a few of those letters. I even have some that were written years before I was born. And even more amazing, before the days of photocopy machines, my Dad would sometimes write a second copy of a letter he was sending for his own safekeeping if he thought it to be really important. I still have his copy of the letter he sent to my mother's parents asking for her hand in marriage along with my grandmother's letter of their response. What a treasure!

Old letters tell us of a family's history. Not only are they a joy to read but they document for us what actually happened, when and where (in the writer's perception, of course). They remind us that such and such a thing happened in a certain year, rather than when we think we recollect it happening. And a series of letters can be like a book with numerous chapters. We can see the progress of the family: the children growing up, going to school, getting married. We read about when the hay was brought in, the turf was cut, the quality of the crops that year, and most importantly how the weather was. But even beyond the events that took place, we learned of the concerns of the family, what they were thinking about certain things, what was on their minds. These old letters are a link to the past that help to keep the family story alive.

I present to you here two of our family letters that I consider to be very special, the first because it came across the Atlantic on the first airmail flight in 1939 (as is documented by the franking on the envelope) and the second because it is the oldest one I have (dated in 1900 or 1906 – the last digit is not clear).

This first letter was written by my paternal grandmother to my father in June 1939. She begins:

“As there is an air mail liner going from Eire to USA on Wednesday I thought I'd give you a bit of a thrill and let you have a letter by it as it is the first public air mail from here to US. I saw in the paper that the letter posted here on Tuesday should be delivered in NY on Thursday and that you should keep the stamp to show your grandchildren hereafter.”

At the time she wrote this letter, my father had not yet married, and unfortunately his grandchildren were only born after he himself had passed on from this life. But they have seen her letter and gotten their own thrill from it.

Grandmother's letter continues:

“We are all pretty well here at present only Rita (one of Dad's younger sisters) is not quite alright yet. I have her staying at Xhaven (Crosshaven, a village looking out at Cork Harbor where grandma had a summer place) for the past 3 months."

I don't have other letters from the preceding time period, so I don't know if Rita's ailment had been previously explained. Nor do I recollect that her ailments were ever a topic of discussion at home. Given the prevalence of TB (consumption they called it) in Ireland in the 1930's and that there would be good sea breezes at Crosshaven to clear one's lungs, I wouldn't be surprised that TB was what ailed her.

She goes on to tell that Rita ...

"got engaged at Xmas to John Kneafsy and they were thinking of getting married sometime about August or September but now she has changed her mind and won't get married atall this year. You know who John is, his Father came from Roscommon and is now living at Glengarriffe, his mother RIP was a daughter to J. Nicholas Roskerrig, his aunt Nellie Nicholas is married to Dick Hurley in America.”

Rita did not get married that year and unfortunately succumbed to her illness and died the next year in June 1940. She was just 26 years old.

The letter continues:

“You will be surprised to hear that Tom (Dad's youngest brother) is gone to England, he was intended to join the Air Force as pilot and passed both medical and educational exams but when he was called they said there was no vacancy for pilot and that they would take him on as Air Observer which only carried a gratuity of £100 after 5 or 6 years service and the pilot would have £500 so he did not accept it atall ...”

Uncle Tom never did become a pilot, so he returned to Ireland where he worked as a Garda superintendent in Dublin for many years. However, his eldest son Thomas (known as TJ), in later years did become a captain for Aer Lingus and flew their planes across the Atlantic and wherever else they went for more than 30 years. Sadly, after only two years in retirement, TJ died last August, a big loss to his family.

Before closing, Grandma informs that:

“Paddy (his other brother) has been working constant for a year and likely to continue please God."

I don't know what job she was referring to, but Paddy was a bus driver for the CIE for many years and I heard it said that he knew every lane in Cork City and all the boreens in the west of Ireland from his driving experience.

Grandma's letter concludes:

“I must close now as I want to get this away and trust ye are all well. I remain yours lovingly. Mama”

My maternal grandfather was one of nine siblings, all born in the mid to late 1800's. They lived on a small farm on the edge of the Burren in Co. Clare where their predecessors had paid rent before they took possession of the land. My mother and her 4 siblings were born and raised on this farm. In recent years an ancient dolmen and a piece of the famine road have been discovered in one of the back fields. The farm is still in our family today.

Sometime in the late 1800's two of granddad's sisters emigrated, one to America and the other to Australia. This second letter was written on May 8, 1900 or 1906 by Katie from Brisbane to her sister Maggie in New York.

Katie begins by saying that ...

“you must think me very long winded not to answer your letter before now. I was doubly pleased to hear from you.”

She continues by saying that she wishes that Maggie would

“save up and take a trip to Queensland,"

and that

“if you come I might go back with you."

She adds that

“if I had a home of my own, then I would insist on you coming, but as it is I have no home to offer to you.”

But hope springs eternal:

“Never mind things might change for both of us some day” implying that they might both get married (neither ever did).

Katie continues on:

“You never told me about Ellie (another sister who stayed at home) getting married. I do think they might have told us about it and also send us a bit of the wedding cake...”

She continues,

“Ellie was married to a Mr. O'Donohue, can you call him to mind.”

Further on she says:

“I haven't much news to tell you that is anything interesting to you. I have no notion of getting married and no likelihood of anything in this live” (sic).

At this point Katie interrupts the flow of the letter. She asks:

“Have you got the dengue fever over in America? As for Queensland every person here is either having it or is down with (it). I am over it for the last 3 weeks... There was one Sunday where there was no priest to celebrate Mass owing to their being laid up with the dengue”.

Again she changes gears:

“You never said whether you got my photo or not. I sent you one about 12 months ago, but that is all I heard about it. Surely it was worth a thank you. When you write to me again let me know whether you got it or not”.

Thinking about the family at home, she writes:

“the last letter I had from home, they said father (my great grandfather)was just about the same. Should father die, I hope they will get cards printed and send you and I one each. Their father was about 90 years old at that time. She goes on:“I do think it was very good of you to send all that money home. I know that I couldn't afford it. You must be getting good pay”.

Maggie (Aunt Margaret as we knew her) worked as a housekeeper for a Park Avenue family for most of her years in New York. As good a salary as she might have gotten, she always lived a frugal life and died with almost no assets to her name. She was always a great correspondent with the family back in Clare, so I wouldn't be surprised if she was continually sending money to the family back home.

As she continues, it is apparent that Katie is lonely for her family back in Ireland. She says that if Maggie would only come out to see her in Australia, that she would

“never ask you to stay in Queensland as it is not a good place for girls, but I would like you to come over on a visit to see me, I am sure you would find a young man on the voyage and you would be the next to be married. What do you think?”

She has marriage and relationships on her mind and is feeling the loneliness.

Katie closes her letter:

“Wright (sic) me a long letter next time. I will close now with heaps of love & kisses to Maggie. From your ever loving sister Katie”.

Family oral tradition has passed on the information to us that Katie did leave Australia but that on-board ship she fell ill and died and her body was buried at sea. Today we have no documentation to verify this, we only have the story.


Letters like these tell a piece of our family's story. And they tell it in a way much better than the oral stories that are passed down from one generation to another. The oral stories often lose something of the original or some embellishment creeps in that distorts what really happened.

Maybe you have letters, writings or newspaper clippings etc. that tell a piece of your story. Or maybe you have other things, keepsakes that you treasure, that in some way tell a piece of your family story. Share them here if you will, and let others treasure your story as well.

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Tags: Living History

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on January 21, 2014 at 8:26am

Really enjoyed this, Jim.  Thanks so much for sharing this glimpse into your childhood and into your family's communications.


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