A letter from troubled Kerry, January 1921

On Jan. 24, 1921, widowed farmer John Ware of Killelton townland, Ballylongford, mailed a hand-written letter from the rural County Kerry community on the south shore of where the wide mouth of the River Shannon empties into the sea. It was addressed to his same-name, bachelor son, a streetcar motorman in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a noisy, smokey manufacturing city of more than a half million people, a hub of Irish immigrants, including two of his sisters, with a brother on the way.1

The 87-year-old father2 began the letter by thanking his 35-year-old son for an earlier postal order for £3, equivalent to about $200 today.3 Such remittances from immigrants were vital to the Irish economy and perpetuated still more departures.

Your prosperity in America is a great consolation to me. Your generosity and kindness since you left home.

John Ware of Pittsburgh in World War I military uniform.

John Ware the younger left home in 1910. Sisters Nora4 and Bridget followed him to Pittsburgh in 1912 and 1916, respectively. He was naturalized in 1917, entered the U.S. Army as as private in April 1918, and shipped to France two months later. John survived the Great War and returned to Pittsburgh in February 1919.5

The father reported that another son in Ireland had just welcomed a baby girl to his family three weeks earlier. A third son had sailed from Queenstown four days before he wrote the letter, also destined for Pittsburgh.

We all felt so happy he [was] able to get away giving to the present state of the country. That state of the case in Ireland at present is very bad.

War in Ireland

Ireland was in turmoil in January 1921. Two years had passed since Irish separatists established the first Dáil Éireann in Dublin. The Irish Republican Army’s guerrilla war against British authority, typically followed by military and police reprisals, had escalated steadily since summer 1920.

There was a policeman shot in Listowel a week ago. There is a fear there will be great damage done the town of Listowel through envy.

D.I. Tobias O’Sullivan

District Inspector Tobias O’Sullivan was shot multiple times at close range mid-afternoon Jan. 20, 1921. He was only a few yards from the Listowel barracks. The victim was accompanied by his 5-year-old son.6

In Pittsburgh, John Ware may have read the next-day, front-page newspaper coverage of the O’Sullivan killing,7 which occurred about eight miles from his father in Killelton, Ballylongford. The city’s papers reported several of the shootings and fires deliberately set to houses, creameries, and other businesses that occurred in North Kerry since fall 1920,8 one episode only a few weeks earlier:

At Listowel, in the marshal law area, crown forces  were fired on by civilians while arresting men wanted. They returned the fire, killing one and wounding two who were captured and sent to a hospital. Five arrests were made.9

The most notorious event in the area, however, flared a month after John Ware’s letter, on Feb. 22, 1921, when two constables were ambushed and killed at Ballylongford, followed by retaliation from the authorities:

In the history of reprisals no place has proportionally been visited with such wholesale destruction as the prosperous little town of Ballylongford. What was one time the business center of North Kerry, the wealthiest district in the county because of its port … is now little more than a smoking ruin. … The houses remaining are shattered and the people occupying them are confined indoors. Those whose places were destroyed and who fled in terror in the dead of night with no notice save the discharge of rifle, revolver, and machine-gun fire,  the rattle of petrol tins and crackling of flames found refuge with their country friends and are afraid to return.10

These and other episodes of violence against civilians, but not IRA attacks on military and police, were cataloged by the Dáil in a document titled “The Struggle of the Irish People,” presented in May 1921 to the U.S. Senate.11 A century later, the burning of Ballylongford “has still not been forgotten locally.”12

Agricultural distress

War violence was not the only trouble John Ware mentioned in his letter from Kerry:

The past year in the country is the worst that was ever remembered. The most of the year was all raining, the farm produce was never before so bad.

Farming in Kerry in the early 1920s.

His assessment is confirmed in Kerry newspapers of autumn 1920, which reported the impacts of a “late spring” and “continuous wet weather” that created a “black outlook not only for the farmers but for the people in the towns as well.”13 Government reports also recognized the decline in agricultural activity that year, though quantifying it was complicated by the war and relied on estimates and summaries. “In 1920 it was not found practicable to obtain particulars of either crops or livestock on all farms.”14

John Ware in Kerry did not mention his two daughters in Pittsburgh, who worked as household servants and perhaps also sent remittances. He concluded the letter to his son with wishes for a Happy New Year, a year that would soon bring a truce to the fighting and end with the treaty that created the Irish Free State.

  1. The sender was my maternal grandmother’s father, the recipient her older brother. I own a copy of the letter, not the original.
  2. Thanks to genealogist and author Kay Caball of My Kerry Ancestors for help with the correct age, which is older than shown in the 1901 and 1911 Irish census returns.
  3. Bank of England Inflation Calculator and XE Corp. GBP to USD conversion, Dec. 24, 2020.
  4. My grandmother. See: Her emigration, 100 years ago.
  5. Travel, naturalization, and military records held by the author. See: An Irish-American’s most perilous summer, 1918.
  6. “Listowel D.I. Shot Dead In Sight of Barracks”, The Kerryman, Jan. 29, 1921.
  7. “Irish Official, 5 Constables Slain in Trap … Second Inspector Slain”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 21, 1921.
  8. Dwyer, T. Ryle, Tans, Terror and Troubles: Kerry’s Real Fighting Story 1913-23, Mercer Press, Cork, 2001. See Chronology, pps. 21-29.
  9. “Three Die In Fighting”, Pittsburgh Daily Post, Jan. 3, 1921.
  10. “Almost Wiped Out Ballylongford Ruined” Irish Independent, Feb. 26, 1921.
  11. The Struggle of the Irish People”, Address to Congress of the United States, Adopted January 1921 Session of Dáil Eireann. Attacks on people and property in Listowel and Ballybunion, pps. 15-17, 20, and 28-30. Presented in the U.S. Senate on May 2, 1921, and recorded in Senate Documents, Vol. 9, 67th Congress, First Session, April 11-Nov. 23, 1921, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1921.
  12. O’Callaghan, Tony, The Kerry Coast, Tony O’Callaghan, Blennerville, Co. Kerry, 2016, p. 31.
  13. “Kerryisms”, The Liberator (Tralee), Oct. 7, 1920.
  14. Farming Since the Famine: Irish Farm Statistics 1847-1996, Central Statistics Office, Ireland, 1997, p. 31.