Sunday, 13 April 2014

Work | Selected quotes from historical emigrant letters

When you search through approximately 5,000 historical letters from Irish emigrants for linguistic features you are bound to stumble upon some interesting quotes. In fact, I keep a separate document where I save anything worthwhile. This is actually one of the reasons I started this blog. I am really looking for spelling variation which reveals phonological features of Irish English, but these are the experiences and thoughts of real people and, even though some historical works have been written based on some of these letters, I wanted to share some of their jokes, observations, and heart aches with you.

Read on to experience some of the funny (intentionally or not), sad, and interesting passages I have found. I have not removed spelling 'mistake' unless they make the quote unclear. Original punctuation, capitalisation, and line breaks have been retained.

A bit of haha

I have not encountered a lot of humour (letters to family back home might not be the best medium for this when postage is expensive and space dear), but occasionally someone shows a nice, dry sense of humour.

Mr Mosquitoe 
is a spanish gentleman of rather dissipated
habits. He loves to get up early in the morning (about
two or three O'clock) and as he no doubt, thinks
this is a virtue that ought to be shared by
all creation he takes particular pains that
you should not sleep either. 
(Alexander Robb, 1865)

I had a good
time of it in coming over in the vessel being
surrounded by Germans, Italians, French, English,
Scotch and of Course Irish - They all jabbered
in their own languages but I noticed when that when
they got sick they all expressed themselves in the same
language over the side of the vessel 
(David Williamson, 28.10.1875)

Unintentional humour is the best kind (with random commentary from me)

P.S. Put this in the fire when
(Roland Redmond, 03.02.1875)
I guess they didn't. For which linguists and historians are grateful.

P.S. Whoever directs my letters in future
will please not put Esq to my name
it appears to be so very ridiculous
(Alexander Robb, 17.09.1870)
'Esq.' (esquire) is an unofficial title of respect, although it is also used to address a member of the gentry. In the US it is used for lawyers. Robb must have felt it somewhat redundant in his new home in British Columbia, Canada.

we are all in
good health at present
Martha is a great big
girl now she is very fat
and she goes to school every
(Mary A. Sinclair, 11.02.1880)
It is important to eat well.

A few days ago, on the approach of an
individual, he was assailed by a number of half-famished
cats; which would have devoured him had
he not fled for security. 
(Unknown, 08.09.1822)
Cats: lethal in hungry packs. To be fair, this was during an outbreak of the yellow fever in NY.

I am now going to take a ramble with my guide
who tries often to play tricks on me, and [?]
me, but I am not to be tricked by [her?]
she gathers wild fruits, and pretends they are something
very delicious [?] I have tried them, and pronounced
them very bad. 
(Isabella Allen, 14.11.1838)
Her guide must have had the time of her life.

in your former
letter you requested to know the reason why Bro [Brother] G [George]
& myself requested the date of our birth, it was just
to know our age as neither of us remembered it 
(John Anderson, 04.08.1845)
Well, celebrating your birthday wasn't always that important (they say).

with best love to you all
Believe me
your att [attentive?] nephew

Francis W Kirkpatrick

As I finished this. I begin to have
an idea that I wrote to you not
long ago - Is it true? 
(Francis Kirkpatrick, 08.12.1864)
Waaait a minute...


Over to something completely different

an oldish kind of lady
apeasingly  came in the waiting
room where we were she asked me if I was from
Charlemont or if I knew any one there I said I
was well aquaint there she asked
if I knowed any of the Clarkes I told
her they were all friends of my own for my
Mother was Clarke she then asked me what was
my name I told her she asked if my Mother was
dead I told her and then how many Brothers I
had and their names and also Sisters and if
they were living or dead she (sic) a asked me
if there was any of my family in America I
said I had one Sister Mary came out when I was
a child Married to a man the name of I [?]
Tobias but I had no account of her this long
time I thought she must be dead the tears
rolled down her cheeks and got me in her arms
and said you must be my Brother John 
(John Miller, 28.03.1857)
This is an amazing little story. Apparently, four per cent of the Canadian population is fully or partially of Irish descent. In many cases, several family members emigrated, sometimes years apart. Combined with sporadic or waining contact between the emigrating members and those still in Ireland, situations like the above could of course arise. Although very few must have been as lucky as John and Mary.

The foreigners which I most
admired were the Swedes. In many ways
they resemble well to do village people
here at home. They are generally fair in
Colour. They were highly respected, being
quiet, honest and hard working. Their
language is akin to what we hear from
our scotch neighbours, for instance, their
word for nice is bra, church =
churka (Compare Kirk) now = noo,
while tongue, hand
and finger are pronounced nearly as in English.
Water = Vatter. Their Singing is soft
and sweet. You well remember that
Jenny Lind the famous Singer was a Swede. 
(George Graham, 06.10.1848) 
Such observations are fun to read for someone interested in linguistics, of course.


There are a fair few heartbreaking stories and passages. I will return to a particular one in the future which really gripped me. The contact between family members on either side of the ocean meant that letters were often full of news about marriages in the family, but inevitably also deaths.
oh William
alas alas our Father, my Dear Dear Father is no more
Dear William it was melancholy for you all to watch
him from day to day suffering but oh William
the pang that shot through my heart; in one
moment my loss was made known to me as soon as I
caught the first glance at the letter I screamed
out My Father My Father 
(Anne J. Walters, 24.11.1845)


I love to think on thee as one
With whoom the strife is oer
and feel that I am journing
on wasted and weary and alone
to Join thee on that shore
Where thou I know wilt look for me
and I for ever be with thee
Jane Johnson

(Jane Johnson, 11.04.1849)

Jane Johnson's husband Henry emigrated to North America, leaving Jane and their children in Ireland until he had saved up enough money for them to follow him.

Oh what would
I give to have the one I love
where I could embrace him tonight 
(Ada C. Edgar, 06.10.1890)

Living in Spain for a few months, I can only imagine how hard it must be for families and couples to be forced to be apart for many months or years without the benefits of modern communication.

Kisses for the (weans) the Big ones
as well as the little ones x x x x x x
x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x
x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x
x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x
P S tell them to divide them fair
according to age 
(Charles Mullen, 08.12.1884) 

Fair is fair. 

I wonder what the remains of our emails, Facebook messages, Instagrams, and tweets will reveal about us in the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment