Friday, July 3, 2020

Where are the Letters?

When my daughter spent half a year in Ireland, attending classes at University College Cork, it was hardly as if she had moved nearly half a world away; we kept in touch daily by emails, texts, and video calls. Our ancestors of 150 years ago, however, didn't have that convenience.

Most people in such circumstances then might have relied on letter writing to bridge the miles. If you, as a family historian, are the recipient of a rich collection of such written dialog, consider yourself fortunate. As Americans moved westward, it was the humble letter which served to keep relatives connected and informed about family news—and some of us still get to benefit from that peek into everyday occurrences from a previous century's family news.

The situation with my husband's second great grandmother, Johanna Falvey Kelly, is different. While we now know from her Fort Wayne obituaries that she had several siblings back in Ireland—plus at least one sibling who had moved all the way to New Zealand—I realized there was something that might have been missing from that scenario.

Irish Catholics, from the era prior to Johanna's immigration to the United States, likely did not have the opportunity to learn how to read and write. Thus, no matter how much they yearned to connect with the family they left back home, there likely would be no letters saved to recount the story to those of us who would most like to know that history.

That realization was just one more of the jolts which remind me that a family historian cannot overlay assumptions about modern life onto the story of our ancestors' past. Knowing that Johanna had relatives in County Kerry and in New Zealand made me wonder just how they kept up on news about the widespread siblings' daily lives.

There are other recountings of Irish men and women connecting with the folks back at home—sometimes, thanks to a neighbor willing to serve as scribe to write out a dictated letter and mail it to someone back home, who could find a priest willing, in turn, to read aloud the letter's contents to its recipient. I know that was the case with another of my husband's ancestors, whose wife kept that letter close at hand for the rest of her widowed life. Only in such rare situations does that first generation of immigrants pass along to us any record of their daily transactions from that period of their life.

Which leaves us, the stumped researchers, desperately trying to piece together records which leave us bleary-eyed and despondent. I find myself bouncing from times in which I pore through the baptismal records of County Kerry, noting mothers' maiden names and comparing them with names of the child's sponsors, to searching for DNA matches whose already-constructed trees contain hypotheses about just how they fit into the Falvey line. Besides populating the cells in a spreadsheet, the names begin filling up our hypothetical Falvey tree, both from the bottom up (with DNA matches) and the top down (from records of likely Falvey ancestors).

And yet, the process leaves me feeling so very much stuck in the big middle of nothing. Which is where I begin yearning for the sign of an impossible letter from someone, anyone, from back home in Ireland.

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