World Stamps

Trove of letters offers an intimate look at the lives of Irish immigrants and their families

May 31, 2024, 7 AM
Ken and Tom Boyle have published a book detailing a century of correspondence between Boyle family members who immigrated to the United States and those who chose to remain in Ireland. This 1925 Christmas card is an example. Image courtesy of Tom Boyle.

Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel

“I hear very discouraging accounts from the old sod, there must be a curse on that country,” a man named Boyle wrote from Chicago to his kinsmen at home in Ireland. It was September 1912, back when the sea was a one-way path, and letters were all we had for sharing news.

The sender was Johnie Boyle in Chicago. The recipient was his brother James in the tiny townland (village) of Killaneen in County Leitrim in what still was British Ireland.

“I only wish you were out of it working there from year to year and then see everything spoiled with rain,” Johnie penned in a fine, curving hand. “Well James, we have the hottest weather we had in fifty years, 120+ in the sun, 96 in the shade but we have the finest crops this country [has] ever seen, six times more [yield] than last year.

“You will find enclosed P.O. order. Buy clothes for the little ones ... ”

Multiply a million times the boast of American productivity and the dutiful remittance from Boyle to Boyle, and the result is the saga of a scattered nation, the annals of rovers and those who stayed at home, available now on a website for our digital age to read.

The site is called Imirce, the Irish word for emigrant, and it went live on the web portal of the University of Galway in April.

The online collection includes a trove of letters gathered by Professor Kerby Miller of the University of Missouri, plus the attic gleanings of great-grandsons and great- granddaughters of Ireland scattered around the globe — enough to fill a poignant archive of what Irish historian Breandan Mac Suibhne calls “our long century of leave-takings.”

“People used to gather at the post office and watch the postmaster sort the mail to see if there were many ‘Americans’ (distinctive little yellow envelopes),” wrote Mac Suibhne, director of the Academy of Irish-Language University Education at the University of Galway in an article that he shared with Linn’s Stamp News.

“Great responsibility was attached to the delivery of those letters,” Mac Suibhne said. “Neighbors would join the family to hear the letter read aloud, with the reader, often a schoolchild, careful to pass over anything sensitive: In every family letter, there is always something which strangers have no right to know.”

Few families preserved their private postal history more carefully than the Boyles of Killaneen. Their letters have been collated and published by cousins Ken Boyle, an author, one-time stamp collector and retired banker in Dublin, Ireland; and Tom Boyle, a retired software developer in Hingham, Mass.

The letters are available in The Boyles of Killaneen: A Leitrim Family and its Diaspora; The Letters, a large-format softcover book Ken and Tom published Jan. 20, 2023. The book is available for purchase on

The letters’ yellowed pages bring us achingly close to their forebear Johnie in the Windy City as he received two heart-rending letters from Leitrim within a six-week span in 1895.

“Poor dada, passed away to heaven, on Thursday last he received your letter a week before he departed,” read the first letter. “He suffered terrible pain during the last seven months. It was a happy story for him as he got a long time to repent ... ”

More heartache followed in the second letter.

“The last time I wrote to you I didn’t think I’d have more sad news for you today,” the second missive said. “Poor mama has passed away to heaven on Sunday night at 11:20 past and was interred on Tuesday after a week’s sickness. Sacred Heart of Jesus have Mercy on her soul ... ”

“History doesn’t get any more accurate than letters from the hands of those who lived average lives,” Tom told Linn’s via email from Massachusetts. “I think the message for those who are not Boyles, or even of the Irish diaspora at all, is one of a documented history. I can tell you that the primary message I got from the letters is that the seemingly insignificant details of my own life will be so interesting to readers two and three generations from now.”

“My Grandfather stayed, Tom’s left,” Ken said in an email from Dublin. “It appears that our Boyle relations emigrated to the U.S. and England in the hope of obtaining better employment opportunities and a better life. There is little sign of regret in any of the letters back from America.”

“The family members who left Killaneen for other parts of Ireland, England or the U.S. definitely had more fulfilling lives,” Ken observed. “I wouldn’t envy the lot of those who remained behind.”

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