The Irish in America


3 Comments

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)


1 Comment

The Next Best Thing

I know I am not the only family historian with dreams of discovering a cache of old letters, hidden away in a dusty attic. These letters would answer all my questions and lead me to finally solve the mysteries I have pondered about my ancestors’ lives.

Well, this has not happened. In fact, my research seems to lead to all sorts of letters from and to everyone but my family! Reading these letters is fascinating, and they provide a ton of contextual information, but can they really be as good as the real thing?

For example, I came across several letters from Stephen Owens , a nineteenth-century Irish immigrant to Clontarf, Minnesota, to a niece back home in Skerries, County Dublin, Ireland.  The letters are in a file at the Swift County Historical Society. The letters were shared by Kerby Miller, professor of History at the University of Missouri and the preeminent authority on Irish emigration (see his book Emigrants and Exiles.)

The first letter in the collection is dated December 4, 1899. Mr. Owens is about seventy-years-old, has been in the United States for over fifty years and is very happy to have received a letter from his niece back home in Skerries. He writes, “I Thought I would never hear from my friends in Skerries again…”

Mr. Owens goes on to describe his family and his community. Here’s an excerpt:

I am pretty smart on the foot yet thanks be to God. Your Aunt don’t hear so well as I do, She is Pretty Old Looking. She is Able yet to do our Cooking and washing. We had to give up farming we were to old to work the farm any Longer So I sold it and moved to the Little Town of Clontarf near the Church…

Main Street of Clontarf, Minnesota - 1920

More than fifty years have passed since Mr. Owens left Ireland, but he still asks about old school friends, neighbors, and family:

When you write again Let me know iff your Uncle Michael Owens wife is living in Skerries or Daughter. Remember me to John Baulf and to James Russel the Shoemaker and his Brother Mathew and their sister Margret iff Living. All my Old School Mates I suppose are nearly all Dead, iff I landed in Skerries now i would hardly no one Person in the Town the would all be new People to me  my Generation are all Passed away Well Dear Niece Ceila I wont forget you night & morning in my Poor Prayers and I hope you wont forget your Old Uncle…

On March 19, 1900 Mr. Owens writes to his niece and thanks her for the shamrock she sent him. He goes on to describe the large St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Clontarf, and wagers that, “yous did not celebrate like this in Skerries.”

Mr. Owens has this to say about the Boer War taking place in South Africa:

We are all Irish to the Back bone out here and all Boer sympathizers out here. We are sorrow to hear of so many of our countrymen being slain in the war…the English will give them the Post of honor on the Battle field, but won’t give Home Rule.

In the letters Mr. Owens shares much with his niece about his American hometown of Clontarf, Minnesota. He talks about Church activities, the priest, and building projects in the town. When Mr. Owens says “We are all Irish to the Back bone out here and all Boer sympathizers…” I realize he is speaking of my ancestors – his neighbors in Clontarf and all fellow Irishmen who helped establish the community twenty-five years earlier.

So maybe my great-great-grandfathers Patrick Foley, John Regan, and Francis McMahon were Boer supporters, too? Clontarf was a small town, I imagine they all ran in the same circle – St. Malachy Catholic Church, the Hibernian Hall, McDermott General Store…actually there probably was just the one circle!

So, these letters were not found in a relative’s dusty old attic, nor do they even directly reference my ancestors. But they are the next best thing to finding my own family’s letters. It is often the small discoveries that keep family historians and genealogists going.

I will feature a few more excerpts from the Owens Letters in a future post. There are plenty more insights to the Irish experience in America that this nineteenth century Irish immigrant has to share!