Tag Archives: John Ware

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 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 Struggles 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, both of them working as household servants, perhaps also sending remittances. He concluded the letter to his son with wishes for a Happy New Year, a year that in six months would bring a truce to the fighting and conclude with a treaty that created the Irish Free State.

Irishmen registered for U.S. draft 100 years ago

One hundred years ago, on 5 June 1917, the United States conducted its first military draft to support the war in Europe it entered two months earlier. Many Irish-born or Irish-American men lined up to sign up, including my grandfather, Willie Diggin, and his future brother-in-law, John Ware, both emigrants of Kerry. Below is an edited chapter of my book, “His Last Trip: An Irish-American Story,” about draft day in Pittsburgh. MH

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The United States tried to isolate itself from the war that erupted in August 1914, but American industry was closely tied to events in Europe. Pittsburgh steel mills operated around the clock to meet the demands of the unprecedented military buildup on the continent. Carnegie Steel alone hired 8,000 additional workers in 1915 as Willie began his career as a streetcar motorman, two years after his arrival from Ireland.

When America finally entered the war in April 1917, Congress quickly authorized a draft to build the military. The first round of registration set for June 5 required men ages 21 to 31 to sign up, including non-citizens. This presented a conflict for Irish immigrants with strong nationalist views who had openly supported Germany against England, Ireland’s historical oppressor. Such a position now became treasonous.

Only a few people openly opposed the war in Pittsburgh. In the final days before the draft four men ages 19 to 21 were arrested and charged with treason for distributing fliers opposing the conscription. Churches asked the mayor to close bars so that “young men under the exhilaration or depression of the day may have removed from them the temptation of drink.” The president of the liquor retailers association promised his members would voluntarily go dry for the day because “it was the least we could do and patriotism demanded it from us.”

Willie Diggin, undated.

Willie registered at the Hazelwood Police and Patrol Station at the corner of Hazelwood Avenue and Lytle Street. The two-story brick building was located a half mile west of the streetcar car barn where he worked. Uniformed police officers bustled about the station, enhancing the military atmosphere. American flags snapped in the breeze as showers and thunderstorms raked across the city. News accounts reported that most registration lines were “orderly and cheerful.”

Nearly 3,200 men registered in Hazelwood between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., a pace of 228 per hour. Many of the men were workers from the nearby B & O Railroad switch yards and J&L steel mill. They shuffled through the lines with smudged faces, dirty hands and soiled clothing. Willie was joined in the line by other streetcar men in their Pittsburgh Railways uniforms.

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