The Irish in America


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Skerries is a Great Old Town

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!

Main Street Skerries, ca 1900 (courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland)

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.

Grimes Family of Skerries (courtesy of the Skerries Historical Society)


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Letters from North America

The New Brunswick Archive in Canada has a great collection of letters to and from Irish emigrants to the area.  You can read the actual hand-written letters, or if you prefer not to struggle with nineteenth century script, transcriptions are available for download. The collection contains items from the nineteenth century, as well as some from the early twentieth century.  Also included are a diary, family histories, and other documents.  Take a look around the site…fascinating stuff!

An example of what the New Brunswick archive has to offer…

The Laurence Hughes collection (MC2618 :: Laurence Hughes fonds) contains several letters written to Laurence Hughes of Fredricton, New Brunswick from relatives in Ireland and elsewhere in North America.  I think these letters are particularly interesting for they demonstrate the networks of Irish emigration and how that support facilitated further migration from Ireland and within North America. The letters span seventeen years (1837-1854) and see several relatives in Ireland considering emigration and dealing with the decision to stay.

In 1837 Laurence’s brother Thomas writes from Newry sharing the news from home.  Thomas encourages Laurence to move to Boston and gives him advice on how to be successful there:

Now before you go to Boston enquire of every respectable person that knows you if
they can give you a line or two of recommendations to any person they may be acquainted with…[damage]…the Catholic Priest of Fredericton…

Good advice, I would say.  Thomas provides his brother with options, outlining a plan for Laurence’s return to Ireland since, “It is only natural to expect you would prefer living in Ireland.”   Laurence stayed put in Fredricton, at least until 1854.  Thomas mentions that he had four children and was looking forward to more…”We calculate on having one every 13 or 14 months that’s not bad trade thank God.”

In the 1837 letter, Thomas mentions another brother, Edward, who had also gone to New Brunswick.  By 1852 he was living in Pennsylvania with a large family and looking to move west to Iowa:

I some times think of selling it to go live in the west. There is a fine
colony of settlers from Carlow in loway State sent out by Rev. James Heigher and they have fine schools there now for boys and girls. I think dear Lawrence if we would go there it would be a fine chance for our children but I am afraid it is not healthy there.

Read Edward’s full letter here.  I wonder if Edward ever made his way to Iowa?  Establishing Catholic colonies in the midwestern United States was popular during this time (until the mid-1880s.)  The goal of such projects was two-fold: provide opportunities for Irish immigrants to escape congested Eastern conditions and own land, farm, and raise families in a Catholic community, and to strengthen the American Catholic Church by populating the West with Catholic settlers.

These letters are full of interesting observations.  Edward comments on his fellow Irishmen who work on the railroad, a job many felt lucky to get:

There is a great deal of railroads making here but the most degrading characters work on them now. Some of this is a disgrace to the land that gave them birth.

This comment is important because it reminds us that all Irish immigrants were not treated equally in America, even by their fellow countrymen.  Clearly Edward was educated to some degree, and from his letter it is apparent he was a religious man who did not approve of drink.  Irish in America like him would have had little time for the poor, uneducated, Famine-era emigrants.  Edward and his brothers made the decision to come to North America before the worst years of the Famine hit Ireland while for many of the million who came during the Famine, the alternative was starvation.  This is not to say that conditions in Ireland were favorable at the time of the Hughes brothers emigration, but judging from the letters, it was not a case of emigrate or starve.

Research Help Requested…

Edward mentions a “Catholic Almanac” in his letter to Lawrence.  Has anyone ever heard of that before?  I would love to know where I could find 19th century copies!


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Emigrant Letters Help Tell the Story

The most frequently searched topic that brings visitors to The Irish in America is emigrant letters, those rich and rare sources of historical and genealogical information.  Over the next week I will explore some internet resources available to those interested in the often elusive emigrant letter.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is home to the Curtis Family Collection.  The Curtis family emigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from Mountmellick, Queen’s County in waves, from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s.  The collection includes letters from Ireland to Philadelphia, as well as from Philadelphia to Ireland.  Click here to read theses fascinating letters.  This link will take you to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s website and a listing of the letters – once there simply click on the links to open each letter.

Also included in the Curtis Family Collection are several historical documents, including a membership certification to the Saint Patrick’s Beneficial Society of Philadelphia and citizenship papers.  Click here to view all items.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has a few other items related to Irish emigration on their website.  The words to eight immigrant ballads are posted, as well as examples of missing emigrant listings found in the Catholic Herald newspaper.

These resources were put together for an education course on ethnic history and settlement of Pennsylvania.  It is an excellent way of teaching this topic using primary sources preserved in their archive.  The collection provides tremendous insight into the lives of Famine-era emigrants to the United States.  Many thanks to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania!

Reading List…

Journey of Hope

Check out this great book by Kerby Miller and Patricia Mulholland Miller titled Journey of Hope: The Story of Irish Immigration to America.  The book utilizes emigrant letters to tell the story of Irish immigrants and includes many photographs.  It is an “interactive book” containing copies of handwritten letters and other reproduced ephemera central to the immigration journey.


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What’s Whit Week?

Whit Week Procession (postcard sent to Annie Hill Regan)

Whit Week is here and that can mean only one thing…hmmmm…I wonder what that could be?  If this was the early twentieth-century in Manchester, England, odds are it would mean donning a new white dress and marching in a Whit week procession like the ladies pictured above.

Since the demise of the Whit Monday bank holiday in the UK in 1967 and Ireland in 1973, I am not sure how much attention is  paid to the week following Pentecost (read more about Whitsun by clicking here.)

This photo of a Whit Week parade appears on a postcard from the early twentieth century, and survives in a small collection of photos and cards that belonged to my great-grandmother Annie Hill Regan (born in Kildare, emigrated to Minnesota 1899.)  With no postmark, no address, and rather ambiguous greeting and signature (both are Push), this little card is a bit puzzling.  My best guess is that the card came to Annie from her younger sister Bridget Hill Reynolds of Manchester, England.  From what I have read, processions like this were more popular in England, and the postcard mentions “our Maggie” – Bridget had a daughter named Maggie, who eventually emigrated to America joining her Aunt Annie in Minnesota.

The card mentions looking forward to a visit “next year.”  I wonder if Annie ever did travel from Minnesota to Manchester, England to visit her sister’s family?  Did she return home to Ireland on this visit?  I have searched for possible documentation of such a journey, but so far have come up empty.  I will have to keep at it and see what I can find.

Reverse of postcard

Maybe you can help me figure this photo out…

  • Have you seen Push as a nickname or slang in correspondence from the early 20th century?
  • Do the dresses provide a more concrete date to this photo?
  • Is Whitsun or Whit Week still observed in Ireland and England?

Any ideas?  Please leave a comment!

Have a good week!


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Heaps of Love: A message from home

I am always interested to see what internet searches bring people to The Irish in America.  Here are some of the recent search topics:

  • Irish beginnings in America
  • Irish people searching for American relatives
  • What was the life of an Irish immigrant like in America?
  • Irish emigrant letters
  • Irish immigrants able to read and write?

Emigrant letters can be an important tool for Irish seeking information on relatives who came to America.  Many Irish people who have contacted me for assistance on locating relatives have some memory of letters from these emigrants.  Either the actual letter, or stories of the letters received over the years.  Some people still have the letters and can refer to them for details of the relative’s life in America.

In Irish family history research census data, passenger manifests, and birth and death certificates provide the pertinent information you need to complete a family tree.  If you go a little further, obituaries and newspaper clippings will expand your understanding of the individuals you are researching.  Photographs can put faces to the data, but letters can provide intimate glimpses into the lives of your ancestors.  The emigrant letter is fast becoming a treasured source for information on the experiences of Irish emigrants (see this article on a recent donation to the Cork City and County Archive.)

Of course, for those of us researching in America, we won’t find the emigrant letter, but rather, if we are lucky we might find a response to that letter.  I often day-dream of discovering a dusty box of letters in a long-forgotten attic, letters written to one of my ancestors that would provide some insight into the life they left behind in Ireland.  Alas, I have yet to find such a stash, but I do have a little something.

My great-grandmother Annie Hill Regan would have been my best bet for saving such correspondence.  We have many of her things – china, furniture, and photographs – but no letters, only a tidy envelope containing two Christmas cards and several postcards.

Christmas card, Katie Hill Howe to Annie Hill Regan (front)

Christmas card, Katie Hill Howe to Annie Hill Regan (inside)

The card pictured above was sent to Annie in 1930 by her sister Katie from Ireland.  I can only imagine the cards and letters the two sisters exchanged during the thirty years that passed since Annie left County Kildare to begin a new life in Clontarf, Minnesota.  Because people did not often save their correspondence, that makes this small packet of my great-grandmother’s so important to me.  Obviously the contents were important enough to her that she set them aside and saved them.  This tells me much about my great-grandmother, as well as provides a peak at the family she left behind in Ireland.

Katie Hill Howe and family, Johnstown, County Kildare (photo from MJ Harshmann)

I wanted to mention a great little book, The Reynolds Letters: An Irish Emigrant Family in Late Victorian Manchester.  This collection provides a glimpse into an Irish family’s emigration experience – from County Leitrim to Manchester, England and on to Chicago, Illinois.  Great read for anyone interested in the Irish who emigrated to England and America.

Next time I will address another item on the most common searches and how that may contribute to an absence of letters.