The Irish in America


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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.