Irish Letters of Lamentation

Ever since I discovered them, a pair of letters my great-great-grandfather received from his mother has haunted me. Written more than a century ago, these sorrowful letters have made me want to know more about the author’s plight and about my Gilfoil–originally Guilfoyle–heritage.

It’s not entirely clear when H. Stapleton was born, but it was likely around 1800. She married Patrick Guilfoyle and baptismal records, starting in 1821, exist for many of the children they had together. After his death, she married a man named Meara, with whom she had a son. Her second husband had apparently died, leaving her a widow, by 1865. It was in December of that year that she wrote the first of my two letters, which starts as follows.

A Haunting letter

My dear Son,

Your late letter has made my desire of wishing yourself and family a happy Christmas wholly ineffectual. My dear Patrick, I thought before I received your most lamentable history that my own situation was most deplorable, but the thought of what you have suffered, but above all the most painful loss of your dear children have made an impression on me that to my latest breath I cannot forget. My dear Son I lament for—I truly pity your hard fate. But what God wills must occur. May Heaven grant you patience to be able to bear up against your hard trials.

My dear Son, it is true you did not before send an empty letter and so I expected your late letter would also convey some cheering news to me as the others, for never before did I stand in such need of some assistance, but I see it was not your fault and I know it will make your trouble greater to hear how I am situated, but I cannot conceal my distress from you. I have been ejected out of my last and remaining portion of land, together with my house and premises, and I know not now the moment I will be turned out of doors. My dear Son what will become of me. My health is gone, my little property gone. My twelve children all gone away and have not one to write to me but yourself. What is to become of me. … But my time here will be but short and may Heaven be my support.

An Irish Guest

As an Airbnb host, I meet people from around the world. So when Eimear O’Meara came from Ireland, I asked her about Moneygall, the place where the letters were written, and she was able to tell me more than I had anticipated. 

She said Moneygall was a tiny place between Dublin and Limerick, whose main claim to fame is its connection to Barack Obama, who had ancestors in the area. She explained that her parents’ home was nearby and put me in touch with them. They, in turn, shared my information with their friend Dolores Whyte, who is interested in genealogy. Dolores works through Ireland Reaching Out (IrelandXO), which uses “reverse genealogy” to connect people of Irish heritage everywhere with their ancestral homes. People of Irish heritage anywhere may contact the organization through its website,  

In 2019, I had a chance to visit Moneygall. Eimear’s parents, Catherine and Brendan O’Meara, invited me to stay with them and arranged a meeting with Dolores, which took place at Barack Obama Plaza, a truck stop with tributes to Obama and to other presidents with Irish roots. As a special surprise for me, a somewhat distant cousin, Jim Guilfoyle, was also there. 

Dolores had documents that filled in some of the blanks about Hannah and the Guilfoyles and we all went on a tour. We saw where my ancestors went to church, a cemetery where one was buried and the place where the family home and forge were on adjacent properties. 

Our tour ended at Jim’s home, where he presented me with a rare copy of a 1988 book that contains the history of the nearby parish Dunkerrin starting in 1200. I look forward to reading it and learning more about the community and times in which Hannah and my other relatives lived.  Already, Brendan has provided context about settlement by Celtic peoples, the Norman invasion, English domination, the Great Hunger and the Irish diaspora. 

Hannah ended her first letter writing the following:

“…I also have deeply felt, if not the loss, yet the perfect absence of all who are dear to me. May our regrets here prove a source of consolation hereafter …”

A Second Letter

The second letter from Hannah is dated March 30, 1872. The handwriting is not as neat or legible as it was in the earlier letter but the tone is similar.

She wrote, “I thought you were dead and gone like the rest of them. I did not get up during the winter … Only for Anne I would be in the poor house … John G. got me into a cabin opposite to my own house …”

The letter ends on a happier note, stating, “It cheered me whenever I got your letter and think that I can get up and send my love to you and your son that I was so glad to hear that you are living.”

The letters still leave unanswered questions, but it’s clear that circumstances never improved for Hannah. A death record shows she died a widow and a pauper about a year after the second letter was written. It’s also clear that her sad story of loss, sorrow and poverty was repeated many times throughout Ireland.

If you have a story to tell and you’d like some help, I’d love to hear about it.

Dennis Dube, who was a classmate at the University of Colorado boulder School of Journalism, reviewed this post and made suggestions for stylistic changes. His publishing career incudes leadership at several Boulder publications, including the Straight Creek Journaland Colorado Daily, as well as work for trade magazines including Newspapers & Technologyand Media Business News. He helped in launching the free school movement in Boulder and guided University of Colorado professors into the digital age. In 2019, he was finishing up in preparing the archives of Colorado Free School for donation to the Museum of Boulder. On a personal note, Dennis happened to inform me—after my sons were named Patrick and Michael—that Pat and Mike were the bumbling brothers who were subjects of supposedly Irish jokes.