Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 11, 2008
As we left our cottage and turned north on County Mayo's N17 in the west of Ireland, the haunting song played in my head.
"Kilkelly, Ireland, eighteen and sixty, my dear and loving son John/Your good friend the schoolmaster Pat McNamara's so good as to write these words down/Your brothers have all gone to find work in England, the house is so empty and sad/The crop of potatoes is sorely infected, a third to a half of them bad/Your sister Bridget and Patrick O'Donnell, they're going to be married in June/Your mother says not to work on the railroad and be sure to come on home soon."
American-born composer Peter Jones wrote the song based on letters written to his great-great grandfather John Hunt who had emigrated to the United States. Jones found the letters - the first written in the 1850s and the last in the early 1890s - in his parents' attic. He was so moved, he visited Kilkelly and wrote the song.
The song struck a chord with me. When Art began planning our trip to Ireland, I asked if we could stay someplace close to Kilkelly during part of our time there. He agreed that we could and, before we left, Art searched the Internet and eventually found the Hunt letters in their entirety and made copies so we could take them along.
Our first stop was Urlaur Abbey, situated on the bank of Urlaur Lake. The abbey had been in ruins for centuries by the time John's father Bryan, who lived nearby, sent the first letter. Gravestones in the cemetery bore the names of several Hunt family members. We found the grave of Pat McNamara, the schoolteacher who so thoughtfully helped those who couldn't read or write by penning letters to their loved ones. McNamara had also been John's boyhood pal.
From Urlaur, we drove to Aghamore cemetery where Bryan and his wife Elizabeth are buried. We couldn't identify their stones as most are worn smooth, are covered with moss or have sunken into the ground.
We later returned to Kilkelly and stopped at the small library. Art was determined to find someone local who knew something about the Hunts. After Art explained what he wanted, Peggy the librarian, in typical friendly Irish fashion, began making phone calls. Being fairly new to the village, she wasn't familiar with its history or people, but she wasn't going to give up. She finally reached Michael Commins, a newspaper reporter who had done a story on McNamara in 2002. Commins said the owner of Tarpey's store in Kilkelly would likely have some information.
Walking into Tarpey's Supermarket in the center of the village, Art asked for Mr. Tarpey. The man behind the counter grinned and said if it was a bill Art had, there was no one there by that name, but if it was a check, it would be him that we were looking for.
Soon we were perusing bulging envelopes full of newspaper clippings, photos and other items Kieran Tarpey had collected. He, too, had heard the song on the radio one day and had to know more. In fact, he became so taken with the story that he enlisted other Kilkelly townspeople to honor Peter Jones and his brother Steve by inviting them to the town in 1995 and staging a pageant based on the song and letters.
Kieran's eyes filled with tears as he described how people from all over the world feel connected to the song. I told him it reminds me of my Grandpa Nels Mostrom, who emigrated from Sweden to the United States in 1909.
As Kieran talked and pointed out on the map where various Hunts had lived, his mother Peggy joined us and soon the conversation was more animated than ever.
A bit later, Art and I were wandering past empty old homes that had belonged to Bryan, his son Dominic and his son Thomas. After taking a few pictures, we headed back to our cottage.
But the song was still in my head. The second stanza is based on a letter where Bryan tells his son to greet his wife and four children for him and asks when he might be coming home. A later letter inspired the third verse. Bryan informs John that John's mother has died and "we hope ye will join us night and morning in praying for the repose of her soul."
Other letters spoke of Bryan's time at the annual festival at the abbey, his visits with Pat McNamara, what others in the area were doing and the state of farming. One even mentioned The Western People, the newspaper Michael Commins would work for 120 years later.
John Hunt was a young man when he left for America, and the father and son wrote to each other over almost 40 years, transferring money, news and pictures in those letters. They were usually filled with good cheer, but often with a wish they could be together again.
Perhaps the most touching letter was not from Bryan at all, but from John's brother Dominic. It inspired the last verse.
"Kilkelly Ireland eighteen and ninety-two, my dear brother John/I'm sorry I didn't write sooner to tell you that father passed on/He was living with Bridget, she says he was happy and healthy right down to the end/Ah, you should have seen him play with the grandchildren of Pat McNamara your friend/And it's funny the way he kept talking about you, he called for you at the end/Oh, why don't you think about coming to visit, what joy to see you again."
Like John, my Grandpa learned first of his father's passing and later his mother's death in letters. He also had plans to return to his native Sweden, but, as in John's case, life got in the way. Many of our ancestors left their homelands to find new lives in America while harboring thoughts of return visits. But few ever made it home again.