HAVERHILL — It is considered to be the largest collection in the country of previously unpublished letters from rural Irish people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to family members who immigrated to the United States.
Years in the making, former Bradford College history professor Patricia O’Malley, a well-known local historian and author, has brought the struggles and hardships these people faced to light in her latest book, “So Far from home: Letters from Ireland to Family in America.”
The 554-page paperback documents a treasure trove of letters from families in Ireland writing to family members in this country as well as letters to her grandmother from other Irish immigrants living in the Boston area and other areas that tell her about their new lives.
The roughly 200 letters, which range from a half page to just a few pages, reveal how they lived, worked and socialized at home in Ireland and also provide a glimpse at how Irish immigrants lived in the United States.
Spelling oddities are deciphered by O’Malley, as in a letter written in 1885 to Daniel Donovan of Haverhill in which a family member is said to be ill with the “yellow ganders,” which O’Malley explains as yellow jaundice.
“It took me years to interpret some of the spelling as many of the letters were from people with minimal formal education,” she said.
One letter, written in 1885 and difficult to research, was from a girl in Ireland to Donovan in Haverhill in which she writes, “Remember me when this you’ll see though we be far apart, while others have my company tis you that have my heart. Also, that the dove of love mitent ever loose a feather until you and I will be in one bed together. Amen. Good By darling from your affectionate Mary Anne McCarthy. Kisses. XXX big ones. Send me the same.”
O’Malley said her book is a gold mine of information for scholars, amateur historians and general readers, offering insight on the hardships and happiness experienced by those who immigrated to the United States, whether working as housemaids in the homes of the wealthy or as laborers on railroads, canals, and in local community public works departments.
Donovan and Nora McCarthy of County Cork, Ireland, saved the letters sent to them and hid them away in their home in Bradford. They were found by O’Malley in the 1990s in her mother’s attic, where the letters were stored after Nora died.
“Most of the women who wrote to my grandmother, Nora, were friends from Ireland who had also come to America and most worked here as housemaids for wealthy families.
“As one example, Nora’s older sister was head housekeeper and cook for the Spaulding family, who lived on Summer Street in what now is the Farmer & Sons Funeral Home.”
In other letters sent to Nora by her friend Hannah Collins, Collins tells about working as a housemaid for one family and then another in Elmira, New York.
“She found herself working for a Jewish family and in another instance a Protestant minister,” O’Malley said. “The variety of experiences was beyond anything that could have been imagined had she still been in Ireland. These Irish girls learned to be American, how to set a table, use electric housekeeping equipment, and other things you would not have found in a tiny cottage in Ireland.”
In writing her new book, O’Malley researched, transcribed and annotated the letters and included her personal and professional observations of visits to relatives and locales in Ireland. The book is lavishly illustrated with original family photographs.
Since its release in September, O’Malley’s book has captured the attention of scholars as well as people researching their own Irish family history, and people researching immigrants from other countries who tearfully left family behind for a new life in the United States.
O’Malley previous historical books include “The Irish in Haverhill, MA, Volumes I and II,” “Haverhill, Massachusetts: From Town to City,” and “Italians in Haverhill,” all of which are published by Images of America and available at the Buttonwoods Museum in Haverhill, select books stores and online.
“So Far From home: Letters from Ireland to Family in America” can be ordered from any favorite bookseller, including Amazon, using the title and author’s name.