Tag Archives: Listowel

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 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.

Catching up with modern Ireland: September

Before getting to this month’s roundup, I want to thank the Irish Railroad Workers Museum in Baltimore and those who attended my 15 September talk on Ireland’s Famine Children ‘Born at Sea’. Also this month, year-to-date traffic on the blog surpassed last year’s total. Thanks for reading. MH

  • September began with the 99th annual Dublin City Liffey Swim, a 2.2 K (1.3 mile) “towards the sea” race underneath a dozen key bridges.
  • A confluence of events has shunted unification on to the political agenda.” From Talk of a united Ireland is rife. But is it a fantasy?
  • The four-volume Cambridge History of Irelandpublished in April, received its American launch this month with events in Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston.
  • For a few days early in the month it appeared that U.S. President Donald Trump was going visit Ireland as part of trip to Paris to mark the end of World War I. Within two weeks, the Irish leg was cancelled.
  • By almost every measure Ireland today is a more inclusive, progressive and safer place to live than it once was, and the oppressive control exerted by church and State have been dramatically lessened. People live longer, cars are safer, roads are better, homes – if you are lucky enough to have one – are warmer and food is better and cheaper than it was.” From Is Ireland a better place to live now than 20 years ago.
  • The BBC reported on the dwindling number of iconic red telephone boxes in Northern Ireland, though some have been re-purposed as mini libraries, defibrillator kiosks, and information centres.
  • Travel to Ireland increased by nearly 8 percent in the eight-months through August, compared to the same period in 2017, the CSO said.
  • Listowel, in Kerry, the home of the late John B. Keane and the annual “Writer’s Week,” is this year’s All-Ireland Tidy Town, topping 883 entries in the 60th annual competition.

“Tidy Town” winner Listowel, from the Listowel Connection blog.

Aspects of the Famine in north Kerry, 1845 – 1852

Continuing the Famine theme of the previous post, I’ve been reading and studying a new book: “Teampall Bán: Aspects of the Famine in north Kerry,” by John D. Pierse. As regular readers of this blog know, this part of Ireland is where my maternal grandmother and grandfather emigrated from (1912 and 1913, respectively) and is of great interest to me.

“The graveyard which has come to symbolize the Famine for the north Kerry and Listowel areas is undoubtedly Teampall Bán, located on the outskirts of the town off the Ballybunion Road, just beyond the old Lartigue railway overbridge,” Pierse writes in his Preface.

Back, left and front, right, of the book.

Back, left and front, right, of the book.

The Kerryman reports:

Seven years in the making, “Aspects of the Famine” focuses on the Listowel Union area comprised of the baronies of Iraghticonnor and Clanmaurice – encompassing pretty much all of rural Kerry north of Tralee. John along with his son Maurice, historian Kay Moloney Caball (My Kerry Ancestors), researcher Martina Flynn and former Institute of Advanced Studies Professor Pádraig de Brún painstakingly analysed as many records as they could find pertaining to the Listowel Workhouse, where so many perished, Listowel Presentation Convent and much else.

The book is to have its formal launch on 22 January in Listowel and will benefit the local Tidy Towns organization. For book orders contact Mary Hanlon at maryehanlon@hotmail.com.

Reaching Out Ireland/North Kerry

My maternal grandmother and grandfather were both from North Kerry; she from Kilelton townland near Ballylongford; he from Lahardane townland near Ballybunion.

So I was excited to find the North Kerry Reaching Out heritage project, which is affiliated with Ireland Reaching Out.

The national effort is described as “reverse genealogy” and “entails the tracing and recording of all the people who left and seeking out their living descendents worldwide. Those identified or recognised as persons of Irish heritage or affiliation are invited to become part of a new extended Irish society.”

The Kerry effort focuses on people with ties to these villages: Listowel, Ballyduff, Lisselton / Ballydonoghue, Ballybunion, Asdee, Ballylongford, Tarbert, Duagh, Lyreacrompane, Lixnaw, Moyvane/ Newtownsandes, Knockanure, Finuge and Kilflynn.

Here’s the website’s Guide to North Kerry.

As much as I love all of Ireland, there something unique about North Kerry. I get a special feeling whether walking the beach at Ballybunion, hiking to the top of Knockanore Hilll or ambling through the narrow streets and books shops of Listowel. There’s something in my DNA that knows this is home.

Ireland’s military history archive, 1913-21

Irish Volunteers on parade in Tralee, County Kerry, on June 14, 1914.

More than 1,700 witness statements, plus photographs, audio recordings and other documents from Ireland’s revolutionary period are now available online through the Bureau of Military History.

Here’s a news story about the release. Here’s a link to the BMH home page.

I’ve just started reading the witness statements, focusing on people and events around Ballybunion, Ballylongford, Listowel and other north Kerry communities, which were IRA strongholds. Here’s an example from the statement of IRA man Thomas Carmody about the February 1921 reprisal of the Black and Tans after the republicans killed two of their members at Ballylongford.

The next morning the Tans turned out of the barrack and, a short time after, were joined by lorry loads of Tans from other towns in the area. They looted and raided almost every house in the village. They filled the lorries with groceries, whiskey, cigarettes and anything they could lay their hands on. They then went from one house to another setting fire to each. The women were terrified and many of them threw their children from the top windows into the street. In all, 14 houses were completely burned out, while several others were partly damaged.

Keep in mind the witness statements were made in the late 1940s and early 1950s, more than 20 years after the actual events. The collection also falls short on material from the country’s civil war period following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.

Kerry’s Lartigue monorail

The unique Lartigue monorail, shown above, operated between the market town of Listowel and the seaside village of Ballybunion from 1888 to 1924. The odd railway drew attention to north Kerry and became the focus of newspaper stories inside and outside of Ireland.

“It seems strange, but it is not less true that a remote village on the coast at Kerry should have been selected for the first experiment in a railway system which promises a revolution in the construction of our iron roads,” the Irish Times wrote at the line’s opening on Feb. 29, 1888, a leap year day. “The Lartigue system is about as different from all preconceived notions of railways as it is possible to imagine.”

The Lartigue figures prominently in a manuscript I have produced about late 19th and early 20th century Kerry, and some of its residents who immigrated to Pittsburgh, Pa.