By now you must all know how much I love letters, so let’s take another look at the Stephen Owens Collection. Discovered at the Old Skerries Historical Society in County Dublin in the late 1970s by well-known Irish Emigration historian Kerby Miller, this is a small collection of letters sent from Stephen Owens of Clontarf, Minnesota in the USA to his niece Celia Grimes in his native Skerries, County Dublin, Ireland. The letters are from the first few years of the twentieth century.
I began to look at the letters of Stephen Owens in an earlier post (click here to get caught up.) I will pick up the action with a letter dated July 20, 1900.
Mr. Owens starts right out with the weather (typical Irishman and Minnesotan!) It is the hottest and driest summer in over twenty-five years in Minnesota. No rain and scorching heat have left the farmers with little in the way of grains to cut come harvest time:
Corn and potatoes are Pretty good but the American likes to live on flowers instead of potatoes.
Mr. Owens writes of his younger cousin, a daughter of his Uncle John, who works for a family in Lynn, Massachusetts. He had a letter from her in which she describes her employer and their summer holidays in New Hampshire. She wants very much to come out West to visit her cousin which leads Mr. Owens to write, “I would like to see all my friends before I Die, God bless us all.”
The next letter to Celia is dated April 1, 1902. Mr. Owens tells her of the new priest in Clontarf and how the beloved Father McDonald died of consumption. He goes on to tell Celia that she may miss her brother who recently left home for America, “but it is 49 years last February since I seen your Mother, my sister Eliza.” All those years later, Mr. Owens still misses his sister and family. He even misses Celia, and she was not even born when he was last in Skerries!
In a previous letter Celia must have told her uncle that there is something of an Irish language revival in Skerries because he writes:
Skerries is a great old Town. It is getting very patriotic. I am glad to hear the young People are learning their Country’s language. It is a good sign…
The last letter from Mr. Owens in the collection is dated November 10, 1903. The tone of this letter is less than up-beat. He has been ill for five weeks and sometimes is unable to stand for the pain in his back and legs.
Mr. Owens is pleased to hear that Celia was reunited with her brother who came back from America, and he comments on the latest wave of migrants from Ireland:
…you sent 11 people out from Skerries lately. Them is the kind that is wanting, Old People is only in the way here in America they don’t want them. I suppose it’s that way in every country…
Mr. Owens is clearly facing the fact that he has reached the twilight of his years and he has apparently given up the notion of returning to Ireland to see all of his old friends and family – “I think when we meet next it will be in heaven.” It was another two years before Mr. Owens passed away in December 1905.
I contacted the Skerries Historical Society to see if they had the originals of these letters – I only have copied transcripts. Maree Baker, the librarian at the Society got right back to me and said that they did not have the original letters. She sent along a couple of items from the Grimes family that are part of their collection – a photo from the late 1920s and two memorial cards. Celia’s brother James is on the left in the photo and Maree said Celia could be one of the women to the right.
July 11, 2013 at 9:17 am
Áine, a chara…
“Tá go maith cúpla againn”… I think were the words of Seán the postman when I asked him how many Grimes were now living in Skerries. “We have a good few” he was saying… “mostly farmers up the country”. Meaning they lived on the modest hills, away from the coast… he reeled off the names… plotting his postal route in his head as he checked off the houses… I’m two minutes from the harbour wall, and always on one boat or another, so he would expect me to know the fishermen. But, in answer to your question, yes there are a good few Grimes still in Skerries. A couple on the water, a couple in the town (shops and services) and a “good few” at the farming.
Last year the town came second in the Irish Times “Ireland’s Best Place to Live” competition. Beaten only by Westport in Mayo, there’s lots goes on here through-out the year and tourists just have to jump in; the craic’s not put on for the tourists, it’s put on for us, but everyone is invited to share. So we have a couple of motorcycle road racing events, an arts festival, a trad. music festival, we host the final stage and last day of the Rás (around Ireland Cycle Race). So always lots of street parties, “iron-man” challenges, fun cycles, picnics and lots happening on the water (for all ages) and there is always a session on somewhere in the town.
The Irish Times published a piece on how I, myself, came to live in Skerries. It’s fairly short, so if anyone want to read it, they’ll find it here: http://anthropeloquence.com/tag/skerries/
Slán go fóill,
July 5, 2013 at 8:56 am
I enjoyed the post, thank you.
In the days after 1922 many of the street names in Skerries were changed and that first shot of Skerries (Main St) is now called Church St, after the Catholic Church and bell tower you can see mid picture. It’s actually one of three “main streets” in a simple triangle, and the harbour and strand (beach) are only a couple of hundred metres away.
The National School, just past the church on the left, is now a series of brightly coloured traditional 19C shop fronts, with a brasserie, pottery and picture framing workshops. Some of the smaller cottages are now small two story buildings, and the cottage in the foreground on the left had a re-thatch in the last ten years. There are a few white lines on the road, the pavement is now partially lined with trees, and the wild chickens (right foreground) have now taken to living by the railway line outside of the town centre.
Otherwise it all looks pretty much the same… and I was shopping there only 30 minutes ago.
Although we are less than 30km from Dublin, two wide estuaries that penetrate deep inland separate us from the city; “squished” as gently as Skerries is, between the coast and the railway line, we are well protected; the road from Dublin goes beneath a small and narrow stone dressed railway bridge and prevents access to larger trucks and lorries. As a result, we all still enjoy much of that 19C charm exhibited in the picture.
I think I even recognise the yard where the group photo was taken.
If anyone is dropping by for The Gathering… they’ll get a warm welcome in the town.
mise le meas
An Trá Theas
July 9, 2013 at 10:53 pm
Thank you so much, David, for sharing what Skerries is like today. I have never been, but am definitely adding it to my list for next visit to Ireland. Sounds like a delightful village – no wonder Stephen Owens missed it so all those years ago. Any Grimes family that you know of left in Skerries?
Thanks again! You painted a lovely picture for us!
November 4, 2022 at 7:51 pm
Yes, they are, lots of them!! I think that’s my friend’s grandmother in that photo.