A great-great-great grandfather’s Letter

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Family stories have always been part of my life. One of the most dramatic involved a great-great grandmother of mine. She was a teenager living in rural Ireland who one day in the early 1870s told her family she was going out to see friends. The next time they heard from her was in a letter sent from the United States. As with any family story, the details of even this snippet changed with various tellings. In the version I remember hearing when I was a child, she left the house for a trip to town for lettuce. (Pretty far-fetched given what life was like in rural Ireland at the time.)

During a trip to Ireland in May with my mother, Patty, and her sister, Mary, I learned a lot more about our family’s roots in Ireland. Some things about our little origin story rang true to everyone we met, including genealogists and historians. But some things did not.

Aunt Mary is the family member most responsible for what we know about our family history, especially the Irish side. She started her serious work in the 1970s, writing to older family members and collecting photographs and letters, and has continued to invest time and money in the effort.

A key document in tracing our Irish foremother was a letter written by Michael Connaughton, dated July 22nd, 1875. “My dear and beloved daughter,” begins the letter to Honorah (Nora) Connaughton. Though we have no birth record for Nora, her husband reported on her death certificate that she was born in 1855 and was 58 years old when she passed away on August 10th. Since her birthday seems to have been after August 10th, she was likely 19 years old when this letter was written. Michael was about 61.

The letter contains tons of information that genealogists were able to use to trace the family, including Michael’s list of his other children and reports of where they were living and what they were doing; his notation that he was writing from Bookala; his mention of other nearby towns, one, Ballymoe, where he went to collect the 2 pounds 11 shillings and 6 pennies Nora had sent home, and two, Castlerea, where he planned to go to pay his rent “to Mr. MK,” and his signoff, which included the name of his wife, Mary.

In addition, he gives details that fit into the general picture of what was going on in Ireland at the time. “The crop is doing well up to this. The summer is very wet. My turf is not dry yet. it was late the blight is beginning to fall on the potatoes.”

He reports that Mary’s “hand is none better or worse” and that “The shortness of breath is my worse (sic) complaint which I am afraid will never part with me.” He died two years later.

We know from census records that Michael and Mary (nee Dillon) Connaugton had seven children (Sarah, Patrick, Nora, Anne, Michael, John, and Mary Kate). They rented their house and land in Bookala from Sir Thomas John Burke. They could read and write English and Micheal made at least some of his living as a tailor, a skill he passed on to at least some of his sons and daughters.

Though Michael’s letter mentions that Nora was living in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1875, we have little information on her time before she settled in Ludlow, Kentucky, and married my great-great grandfather, Richard Joseph Dillon, born in America in 1853 to Irish immigrants named Patrick Edward Dillon and Bridget Healy.

We have a boilerplate letter of introduction written by a priest to be shown to prospective employers or landlords and we have Micheal’s mention that she owns a sewing machine that she is using in part to make her living.

During the Ireland trip, Aunt Mary told me that the story she had heard had never included a trip to town for groceries, much less lettuce, but that Nora had gone out that day to visit friends. Mary had also heard that Nora had walked to a town and taken a train. Mr. William Gacquinn, a historian in County Roscommon, confirmed for us that trains were running through County Roscommon by that year and that she could have gone by train to a port city like Galway or Dublin for her trip to the United States.

It puzzled the genealogist and the historian that she would leave seemingly without notice because it would have been an expensive undertaking and the family seemed to have little money. They wondered whether some of Nora’s other siblings had emigrated prior to her leaving and had sent the money for her to come next. (The only sibling we have traced to and in the United States is the youngest girl, Mary Kate, who lived in Indianapolis, married a man named Edward Kane, and had four children, Mamie, Kathern, Edward, and Bess.)

Delving into this family history has been really interesting to me, especially since the family members I grew up knowing share lots of traits with these Irish relatives: there are a lot of letter writers, teachers (which gets more relevant in the next generation in Ireland), and sewists. Just like Micheal and Mary’s family in Bookala.

*This is a first installment in my attempt to pull together some of what we’ve learned into a narrative that can be followed and can serve as a springboard for further inquiry.

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