The Letter

Excerpts from a letter written by a friend to my grandmother on 12th November 1941. They were both in their early 60s so were born in 1880.

“Have you ever considered what to my mind is the poverty and inferiority of the present day education, not only in the National schools, but also in the secondary schools. Why the English grammar, spelling, and handwriting are deplorable. I know University Graduates and Leaving cert pupils who are unable to write even a decent letter. Their composition as well as the other subject I have mentioned would be unworthy of a fourth class scholar in our day. No doubt English education is been sadly neglected now-a-days. The intensive attention to Irish is not a success either. Oh for our days of Arithmetic, Geography, including hand writing, poetry, agriculture, even Latin. Do you remember our Arithmetic Cards we used to work at home”.

Further down the letter he writes,

“I was at the wedding, all the family were assembled, even May came home from London for it. She went back after 3 weeks stay. Freddie who was in dole office in Claremorris is going to London soon, he is getting a clerical job there, seemingly a good one. I am glad to hear your son plays his grandfather’s fiddle”.

Near the end of the letter he writes,

“I am sure you must work pretty hard yourself, but be careful of your health, don’t surrender to the tyrant Time until all fails.”

They both died in their 80s back in in the 1960s.

When I was a child we did not have computers, and the words “email” and “texts” were not even invented. Most families did not have phones, all communication between families was via the letter. Family members were dispersed around the country, also in England and America.

The song “The Mountains of Mourne” written by Percy French and sung by “Foster and Allen” and from the lyrics;

“Oh Mary this London’s a wonderful sight,
With people here working by day and by night,
They don’t sow potatoes nor barley nor wheat,
But there’s gangs of them digging for gold in the street”

So many families had members who had immigrated to England and America usually to some older family member who had emigrated earlier. Training as nurses, joining the police force or gaining employed in Clerical jobs, and some family members joined the priesthood or became nuns abroad. Many joined the labouring force and gained employed on the building sites and some girls in Domestic service in the Hotels and private homes in big cities.

In Ireland, Dublin was the hub for employment, we were still a mainly agricultural country so many family members went to Dublin and gained employment there. After paying for accommodation, food, and clothing, there was not much money left for expensive train and bus fares home so the letter was their way of communication. We all remember our postman from our childhood cycling into the yard on his bicycle with his big post bag on the front. Everything came by post, it might be an important letter from some government agency at that time, bills for purchases made, the most exciting letter was from some employer who had interviewed you for a new job, telling you that you had been successful or had failed in your hope to get the job. Letters from a family member were usually in the white or blue envelope, the letter from America came in an envelope with blue and red stripes and had an Air Mail stamp on it, for some families this was the most exciting letter to open as it might have some dollars in it. The stamp was checked first and some had an image of Queen Elizabeth on them so we knew this was from some family member in England. Some letters had photographs of a brother or sister who had married in a church in America and we noted the different fashion, the white suit and dickie-bow, and many of these lads and girls had married a girl or boy who had also emigrated from Ireland. These must have been lonely as well as happy times, travel to America would have been impossible for the majority of families and a while later the photo of the first child would arrive. We also received “Post Cards” form a relative who had travelled to some sunny part of Europe on a holiday and our mantelpieces were adorned with these images of sunny skies and blue seas something we did not have much of here. Some love letters still exist between our parents who were living in different parts of the country who might have met at a wedding in Dublin and from these letters we can see “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”.

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