By Margaret M. Johnson
Last May, during a family holiday in Ireland, I wandered into Bricín, a Celtic art and crafts shop/book store/gallery/restaurant on High Street, Killarney. Personally, I was more interested in the menu than in the pottery and crafts on sale, especially the house specialty, boxty, a traditional potato pancake that I knew was more a County Leitrim dish than a Kerry one. But Johnny McGuire, proprietor with his brother Paddy, told me that in keeping with Bricín’s Celtic theme they wanted to include a variation of the traditional dish on their menu, so Bricín boxty comes cooked on the griddle with fillings like chicken in tarragon sauce, seafood in a white wine sauce, or a lightly curried lamb. End of food story. Enter Andrew and Jeremiah Moynihan.
"I’ve got a better story for you than boxty," McGuire told me, "and one that I think should be told in America. It’s about the sad side of Irish emigration, and it’s told from someone who lived in this very building. Maybe you’ll tell it for me."
Later that night, McGuire told me the story of how he and his brother became involved in Bricín and, ultimately, in the lives of the Moynihans.
In October 1990, Johnny, then a Dublin school teacher, and his brother, who was working in the computer field, decided to return to Killarney to set up a small Irish crafts and coffee shop. The 200-year-old building that now houses Bricín was offered at auction and the brothers bought it. Abandoned for several years, the stone building at 26 High St. was last occupied by Andrew Moynihan, who died July 27, 1983.
Although the McGuires thought the building had great potential, it had no electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. Andrew Moynihan was always thought of as an eccentric, "a Killarney character" some called him, but few realized he lived in these conditions. His father, Timothy Moynihan, a cartmaker and wheelwright, had died in 1915 leaving his wife, Julia, née Tangney, with five children. Andrew was the only one to survive the tuberculosis epidemic of 1920, and lived with his mother until her death in 1932. He never married. In later years, he was cared for by local charities, but at his death at age 84, he left £20,000 in cash and two pieces of property that netted £250,000 after auction. All the proceeds went to local charities.
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After extensive renovation, the McGuires opened Bricín in November 1991, but in the process, opened up the lives of the Moynihan family as well.
"We were taking down some walls in the front of the building," Johnny told me, "and there we found family memorabilia, photos, Timothy Moynihan’s ledger book with his wheelwrighting accounts, and a packet of letters from America. They were written by Jeramiah Moynihan, who would have been Andrew’s uncle, and were incredibly sad. Imagine a father having to send money to a son in America, one he’d sent there to be better off? Imagine reading, ‘I am very sorry that I have sent to you for money for I know money is scarce,’ or ‘Any person having any sort of way at home it would be better for them to stop at home the old country is much better than this country.’ He told his father, ‘I would not advise any person to come to America.’ Ten years after he left Killarney he still said, ‘I expect to be home for Christmas myself with Gods help."
It appears that Jeramiah and two sisters, Mary and Johanna, were sent to America sometime around 1867. Moynihan brothers Eugene, Tim, Con and Andrew remained in Killarney. The trio first arrived in New York, where Mary found a job in Brooklyn. Jeramiah and Johanna then went to relatives in Boston, where Johanna found work in "a country place, Briton" (Brighton). The brother didn’t fare as well as the girls, and from 1867-77, he traveled to California and New York, and later went south to Charleston and Atlanta before returning to Boston sometime after 1880.
McGuire showed me a photo of a rather prosperous-looking Jeramiah, outfitted, possibly, in a suit provided by the photographer, with the studio name printed in the corner. "McCormick, 22, Winter Street, Boston," it read, like so many other photos sent by sons and daughters as evidence of how well they were doing in America. The photo arrived in an envelope with a return address of a factory — Hubbard Chair Factory, Wm. White, Successor, No. 885 Washington Street, Boston. It was postmarked Boston 1886.
The last letter in the packet was written four days before Christmas 1903, and after nearly 40 years, it appears that little had changed for Jeramiah Moynihan, sent by his father from Killarney to America. "I will soon be able to give you some help when I go there which I hope will be befor another Christmas," he wrote to his sister-in-law, and "I am very sorry I cannot send a Christmas goft (sic) at present but I hope to do so one day and make up for all . . . I wish you and the children a happy new year."
These are the letters sent from Jeramiah Moynihan, America, to his family in Killarney. They are printed exactly as he wrote them:
July 3rd 1867
My Dear Father, Mother & Brothers,
I hope you will excuse me for not writing home before now. I had so much tossing about from poast to pillar. I was for five weeks in Jersey city at worke and I could stop their for a long time. I wrote to Boston to my uncles and aunt and they were most impatient until I came to Boston. I went to worke to Uncle Michael and I could not stand him or his wife. I came up to Timothy Callaghan and he gave me work cheerfully and gave me more wages that I was wort. I suppose you know him he is Mick Callaghans son he takes large contracts and employs a lot of men to work. I have nothing at all to say to him everything is done different in this country from home. Girls can do a great deal better than men. I left Mary after me in Brooklyn that is in New York she got a very good place and I am very glad she remeant their. Johanna got a place outside Boston called Briton it is a country place. There are a great many of the friends their it was one Mrs. Walsh that got Johanna the place out their her own name is Mara from the Rock Road.
You gave me too much entirely in sending three of us into a country with doubth manes or money and every person was surprised how bare we were. Every person was very kind to us but Michael Mara that is my uncle but I deny him to be my uncle. My Uncle Gerry was very kind to me and Aunt Hanna is very she don a great deal for Johanna she dressed her out in great stile she is on the look out for a good place for Johanna. Mary is very well she writes very often once a week to one another. I am very thankful to Gerry Counihan he is very well and not forgetting Ned Counihan.
Let me know is their much doing any person having any sort of way at home it would be better for them to stop at home the old country is much better than this country. I hope ye will hold yere grip, if I could get any thing to do at wheelwrithing I would do a great deal better. I am at floor laying with John Lusid he is very well.
I would not advise any person to come to America I could make up as much as would take me home again if you like. Timothy Callaghan is going home 20th July. Tell Denis Keefe and his friends his health is not good.
Dear Mother you need fret nor be troubled about us it is now used to us. I cried and fretted a great deal when I landed at the Castle Gardens when I knew now one their and I had now place to go to. Dan and Michael Moynihan of Gortroe behaved very well to us that is Michael the black smith. I am very sorry that I came to Boston but it cant be healpt. If Johanna was in a good place I would go to some other place. Every person had great blame to you for sending Mary but she is lucky enough. I had a great deal to do on board the ship they were so sick and knowing no one they were sick all the time nearly I was very sick for the first week and from that out I got strong thank God.
I suppose you have Eugene to work Tim and Con are well hope Andrew will mind the work. My best respects to all the friends and well wishers. I would write long ago but for Mary writing so often she did not send that letter down to me she told me their was so much grief in it. You can direct to Mary and she wills end it down to me. I remain your affectionate son
We might be able to end you a little money in a few months but we were so bare for clothes.
July 20th 1877
My Dear Father, Mother and Brothers,
I wish to let you know that I arrived in New York 14th. I hope you will excuse me for not writing all that time i was tossed around so much that writing never came into my head. I see that there is nothing to be got in New York. I camde dead broak. I was to see Mary I think that she will not live very long she looks so delicate.
I had some very good jobs in California but when you get out of one job you could spend all you had earned and a little more.
Must conclude for the present hoping that you are all well write quick. If I had money I would go home to Ireland there is no employment here.
I remain your affectionate son.
August 27th 1877
My Dear Father
Received your letter and check for £ seven pounds I am very thankful to you it is money I oight to have sent you in place. Dear Father I feel very much displeased at myself but America have got so bad that when you make a few hundred dollars it goes again. I earned some money in California the first year but money goes very quick there, If I had taken the notion to come to New York I could have come easy and home too. I am very sorry that I have sent to you for money for I know that money is scarce. I hope soon to be able to send you some. I have not got any work yet but I expect to get sum.
America is about the poorest country you would want to live in to day. Mary has no notion of going home I expect to be home before Christmas myself with Gods help. Feel very sorry that I came from California, it is a very ruff country to live in where you must have your blankerts and sleep out. I travelled hundreds of miles to look for work. Tell Eugene that if he was in America he should have to get up early or either sleep in the streets for your nearest friend would not give you one meal. I often think how liberal the Irish people are at home. I hope mother is imprived in her health I hope Tim and Con are well. If there is anything to do mind it. for ther is as many starving in America as there was in the bad times in Ireland. Dear father I hope soon to be able to send something home. Must conclude for the present answer this as soon as you have time.
I remain your affectionate son.
N Carolina Jan 13th 1879
My Dear Father Mother and Brothers
I hope these few lines will find you all well as this leaves me at present, thank God. I came down South last May 78 I like it first rate the climate is very nice down here. Worke is getting so scarce that I have to shift from one place to the other. I would like to go home but I can see by the papers that times are harder in the old country. Dear Father I am sending you four pounds or twenty dollars. You can write to Mary if you have received it. I have just received the letters that you wrote this month I see there is a big lot of growling at home. If they took my advice they would stop that and tell them in plain english that they are better off at home than in America or Australia.
When I was in California I had to carry my blankets on my back if you would not get work you would then have to sleep out doors. It is the same in Australia in all thos new countries. I suppose you give them a littlej pocket money once in a while not to be as tight as you were with me.
I hope mother is in good health she spoke about a shawl, I might be able to send her a shawl or the price of it after a while. I see that Con is not for the world I think when his eyes were well that he had a right to take care of them. I expected Eugene was in Australia before this time but I think if he was to mind himself at home he would be much better off. I see that Timothy is following the sample of Eugene. If they were in a foreign country they would not have such a soft itme of it.
I hope to go to Ireland after a year or two I shall be able to say more about the latter part of this summer. I must conclude for the present wishing you all good health.
I remain you affectionate son,
P.S. If you should direct a letter to me you can address it Andrew Moynihan for I have changed my name. This time you can write the same way that I have written it.
Sept 14th 1880
My Dear Father,
Received a letter from Mary on 12th Sept. I can see that you are failing fast. I cant see under heavens why that you have so much trouble with your children. I expect that you could send Eugene to Australia I would not like that, he should come to America wages is so small and it is so hard to find work it is impossible. If he were to know as much as I do he would stay at home and aught to be glad to have a home. I cant see what he wants
I could not expect to go home before next summer I am living down in the state of Georgia. The climate down here is very mild Winter and Summer is party much about the same. I would cost as much to New York as it would from New York to the old country. My advise to you all is to try and keep your home. If it is the will of God that you have to leave them what all must do some day. I hope that you will be much improved when I here again from you.
I suppose business is very dull in count of famine. I suppose there is lots of wheelwrights in the town. If you are better I would wish that you would let me know all particulars. I hope mother is well I will be impatient until I get an answer. You know that it makes a person very careless and neglectful about their friends you are all the same among strangers.
Dear Father & Mother I must say good boy for this time. So let me know what is the fare to Australia from Ireland. Direct your letter to Mary and she can send it to me.
I remain you affectionate son,
I deeply regret your great loss and I sincerely acknowledge a brotherly sympathy towards you and your dear little family. I cant write in words how I felt for your excellent husband and how affectionate he was towards Patrick. Now I tell Julia I never saw a child in my single days I thought more about as I did your Patrick.
Julia I was going to write to you long ago but I saw so many deaths in the family I could not know what to do. I dont write to no one but my parents, but when I saw from your letter your dire suffering I done the best I could to see Abby Mike Denis and myself we are sending you one pou nd each. I did not ask Thomas as he is loafing this long time he is suffering from fheumatism but is just gone to work.
Julia if I should go into details you are a lot better off than some of your friends here. What are you and your children in comparison to your sisters children. I tell you to go to work and start a store or some little business and support your children and if you would be satisfied I will send Patrick a passage and I take as good care of him as my own Patrick. He would be the dearest boy I would want to take care of. Now accept a small gift and always let me know how you are getting on.
10 Nassau Street
21 Dec 1903
Dear Sister in Law,
I was sorry to hear that you poor little boy died some time ago. I got the news through Con Riordan. I would like to know from you what was the matter with him and if he was long unwell. Let me know all the particulars. I would like to know how you are getting on and how you are doing at the business. I will soon be able to give you some help when I go there which I hope will be befor another Christmas.
I am very sorry I cannot send a Christmas goft at present but I hope to do so one day and make up for all. Let me know my sister Mary’s address when you answer this letter and when you write to me I want you to address the letter to 10 Nassau St. and not the factory where I am working.
I wish you and the children a happy new year and I hope you and they are quite well. Let me hear from you as soon as possible.
Your affectionate brother in law