The moving letters of a family to their son in America after the Famine
As Mayo-Ireland.ie points out, Kilkelly a small town in County Mayo is probably best known in modern times for the poignant emigration song entitled ‘Kilkelly Ireland’, penned by American songwriter Peter Jones, whose great, great grandfather was John Hunt, from the general Kilkelly area.
Back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, Peter found a box of old letters in the attic of his parents home in America.These were a series of letters written between 1860 – 1890, to John Hunt by his parents from their home in Kilkelly in Ireland. The letters chronicled family news of births, deaths, marriages and were written on behalf of the parents by local schoolmaster Pat McNamara.
The letters had all been posted in Kilkelly and as Peter Jones read through them he was overwhelmed with the emotion that re-united him with the land of his ancestors. As a result, Peter used these letters to compose a ballad, which he called ‘Kilkelly Ireland’.
The song is a moving reminder of the sadness suffered by one Irish family with the effects of the Famine, poverty and emigration, but it has universal appeal as it reflects the saga of countless other families torn apart by emigration never to see one another again.
The song was first recorded in Ireland by Danny Doyle and has been covered by a number of other artists, including The Dubliners, Mick Moloney, Seán Keane and Ciara Considine.
Peter Jones, the writer of the song, visited Kilkelly a few years ago and was honoured by the locals on that occasion.
Here is the first letter from Brian Hunt, written for him in 1858 by the local schoolmaster Patrick McNamara. There are links to all the other letters at the end.
My Dear and Loving Son
Received your long wished for letter on the 22nd instant and I felt very much delighted at hearing that you are enjoying good health as I and your mother your brothers and sisters are at present thanks be to God. I am happy to state to you that your mother’s health is very good at present and she is desirous to lay it as an obligation on you to avoid going to work in a railroad or any dangerous work. Your brother Thos. and wife are in good health and they got another son called Michl. Denis Kern’s wife and family are quite well at present. The Clooniron people got no letter from America since May went.
I am surprised that you forgot mentioning about your comrade boy John O’ Connor, or is he still along with you or not. We are all very sorry that you did not come home before you went off it grieved your mother very much, whereas you did not come to pay her a visit and see the friends and neighbours before your emigration and we very lonesome after you but we expected that the day will come that we may see you in your native land in joy and happiness.
I mean to inform you that the friends and neighbours feel very happy at the good account we have received from you. I will expect that you will abstain from the drink in that Country as well as you used to do when in this Country. Let cheapness of it not induce you to have any recourse to drinking and intoxicate you at anytime.
I hope that as you went to that Country you will make the most of your time that you possibly can and consider in yourself that it is not to remain during life you emigrated but to realize your fortune so that I can expect that after spending 4 or 5 years in that Country you may come home amongst your friends and neighbours amongst whom you would find pleasure, not withstanding the consolation and comfort you would derive from being among your brothers, who feel very sorry for your absence, but we hope that it is not a departure during life that you will have some nights of pleasure as yet in your own native village.
I am sorry that I have not some news of importance to state to you, but I am of the opinion that in answer to your next letter I may have some news to relate. I am of opinion that after the Shrovetide there might be some marriages or some news besides, the hearing of which might be some interest to you. There are none of us yet, except Denis Kern’s daughter, who stopped in Clooamma, who got married to a boy from Glanvolley, and I hope that you will write to us frequently as we would wish how often we could get a letter from you and always stating to us about the state of the Country, and that things that come under your notice as what may appear insignificant to you may interest the relations and the rest of the family.
I hope that when you are writing again you direct it to Mr. O’Grady, fearing that you might forget, you will direct as thus In Care of Francis R. O’Grady Esq., Tavrane, Kilkelly by Swinford County Mayo Ireland, for Brian Hunt of Orlaur, and I will expect you to write to us very often as you can write yourself. I hope that you will not leave us long uneasy at any time I, and all the family join with love and best respects to you and you will accept from friends in general who are to numerous to insert. Peter Farrell talk of coming on Eastrickmas, but you know coming on the time of writing another letter to you if he does I remain your ever loving father, Brian Hunt.
Please excuse this paper we could not get large enough paper at Kilkelly. Potato rates at 4s and meal 11s and pigs and cattle cheap oats about 18s and all other things according, no frost or snow during this winter, Brian Hunt.
Dear John, I it is with joy and pleasure that I write these lines to let you know that I feel happy at hearing of your good state of health and believe me, I feel lonely for your absence for I thought that you would be along with me this winter now past. I am in good health and the family of the house and they are very happy to hear of you being in good health.