‘All Abouth Home’: An Illiterate Emigrant’s Letters from America to Kerry in the 1850s

As I often reiterate, the greatest value of the widows’ and dependents’ Civil War Pension Files lies not in what they contain about the American Civil War, but in what they tell us about 19th century Irish emigrants and emigration. There are few finer examples of this than the file associated with Charles Greaney. The documents within it allow us to trace his origins in Ireland down to the laneway he likely grew up on, and the road on which he walked to work. They allow us to meet his family and friends, and learn how they interacted with each other in Ireland. His 1850s letters– after emigration– reveal the ties between east Kerry and Massachusetts, while the statements of others show the same connections between east Kerry and Chicago. In their words we can ‘see’ 19th century Kerry accents, and discover how entirely illiterate family groups could communicate across oceans.

Turf being taken home in Kerry at the turn of the 20th century. A scene that would have been familiar to Charles (Library of Congress)

Turf being taken home in Kerry at the turn of the 20th century. A scene that would have been familiar to Charles Greaney (Library of Congress)

Charles Greaney was 22-years-old when he enlisted in the Union army on 11th June 1861. The young Irishman turned 23 just three days after joining the service, having been born on 24th June 1838. He became a private in Company C of the 9th Massachusetts Infantry, a ‘green flag’ Irish unit. Charles had his ups an downs as a soldier. His service records show that he was tried by court martial on 5th December 1861, charged with being absent without leave from camp for a period of four days the previous November. He plead guilty, and was sentenced to forfeit ten days of his pay and “to drill with a heavy knapsack under a guard for six days, from reveille to retreat” with just one hour break for his dinner. Fortunately, he managed to avoid any further run-ins with his superiors, and was with the regiment when it embarked on what would be the toughest trial of their three-year military service– the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. The darkest day of the war for the 9th Massachusetts came on the Virginia battlefield of Gaines’ Mill on 27th June 1862. Engaged for the majority of the action, the 9th had the dubious honour of sustaining the highest casualty rate in the Union army that day (you can read an account of their action here and more about the men in the regiment whose live’s it ended here). One of the 82 soldiers in the 9th who died as a result of Gaines’ Mill was Charles Greaney. Charles’s immediate family were not with him in the United States. They still lived back in Ireland, near Castleisland in Co. Kerry. Their claim for a pension– caused by Charles’s death– offers a remarkable insight into communications and connections between emigrants and those at home in the 1850s and 1860s. (1)

Charles Greaney’s parents Timothy and Eliza spent their lives in and around Castleisland. It seems almost certain that Timothy is the same man  recorded on the 1853 Griffith’s Valuation renting a house and garden from James Hoare in the townland of Bawnaskehy. The home was a poor affair, valued at only 9 shillings a year, and taking up just 33 perches– around a fifth of an acre. Indeed, utilising the map that accompanies the valuation, it is possible to identify a potential location for the family’s home, which you can see as it appears today in the image below. We know from the pension file that the Greaneys rented a shanty on a farm, and had a close relationship with the family of one James Hoare, both of which point to this being their property. (2)

Charles Greaney, killed in action at Gaines’ Mill, probably grew up just down this now grassy lane in Bawnaskehy. Their house was in the general vicinity of the two-storey structure now visible. When Charles thought of home on the battlefields of Virginia, it was here his mind likely turned. 

Bawnaskehy is around 2.5 miles from Castleisland, the main town in this part of Kerry. If Charles did live here, he would have walked into the town to go to work (his likely route can be traced, as seen in the image below). From the time Charles was 13 or 14, he was employed in the grocery store of James Hoare in Castleisland (it is not clear if this is the same James Hoare who owned the land). He started off there on three shillings a week, but over the course of the next few years his wages steadily rose, until eventually he was taking home five shillings. He gave all the money he could to his parents, particularly as his father suffered badly from rheumatism, a debility that caused him to walk with the aid of a staff. From around the middle of the 1850s, Charles became one of their major financial supports; despite his earnings, his parents still occasionally relied on charity. Eventually, Charles decided to emigrate. As with so many Irish, he did not go in isolation. He went to join a group of emigrants from the Castleisland area who were already living in the town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, where most worked in the town’s boot and shoe industry (as did many other Irish in Massachusetts). Charles left Castleisland behind for the last time around April 1857. Like many emigrants, he was illiterate, as were his parents. Though there is a widespread misconception that illiteracy prevented communication, as we shall see, it most certainly did not. (3)

Knowing the potential starting point, it is possible to track the 2.5 mile route that Charles Greaney probably used while walking from Bawnaskehy into work in Castleisland each day (the same grassy road on which the Greaney house lay). No longer extant in it’s entirety, this portion is in the townland of Knockaunbawn. 

A few months after Charles landed in Hopkinton, Timothy and Eliza got a letter from their son. It was written in response to one they had already sent across the Atlantic:

Hopkinton August 12th 1857

My Dr Father,

I recd yours of the 9th inst which hurry’s me to drop you a line with which you will find enclosed three pounds which is all I can spare at present. I am sorry that you did not let me know the whole particulars about the kind of sickness that Thos & Timthy has the good luck of being laid up with= you left me uneasy not knowing whether it is a favour or whither it is the same as Thos was & how[?] he feels now therefore I hope that you will not make a moments delay until you will let me know the whole particulars=I have not heard from John since he favours me with so much kindness that he writes very seldom= you will be sure to send my my Uncles address when you are writing I trust in god that this will find Thos in better health than when you wrote= you can tell him that i live in the same place still=too tell him that they send him their best respects I suppose you do wish to hear that James Grant and family are well= also all the friends in Hopkinton are all well=you will give my best respect to James Hoare & family= also my Uncle Thos & John & their family’s= and too my Aunt and all the well wishers= remember me to Dennis Shanahan & Family= Edwd Loughnane and family= I suppose you are aware that I am impatient for the answer to this

I am your son

Charles Greany (4)

The first of the Charles Greaney letters home to Kerry from Massachusetts (Fold3/NARA)

The first of the Charles Greaney letters home to Kerry from Massachusetts (Fold3/NARA)

It is not possible to determine who many of the individuals in this letter are, but Thomas and John are perhaps brothers. John also appears to be an emigrant, though not one living in Hopkinton. It is also apparent that one of Charle’s uncles is already in the United States, again in a different location. Charles’s request to “send my uncles address” is an indication of how 19th century emigrants to the United States made use of shared family in Ireland to keep track of relatives and friends on the vast North American continent. Charles’s father Timothy Greaney obviously knew many of the people in Hopkinton, even though it is unlikely he had ever been to the United States. Presumably “all the friends in Hopkinton” were from around Castleisland, and the Grants may well have been also. We know that Charles joined other Irish working in the leather industry. He is recorded on the 1860 Census for Hopkinton living in the home of 60-year-old Irish widow Bridget Campbell. In the household were Bridget’s 24-year-old daughter Margaret, who had no occupation listed, Bridget’s four sons, all boot makers, and five other young men (including Charles) who were also boot makers. Only one of the household had been born outside of Ireland. Indications that Charles was illiterate came with his next surviving letter, which is very apparently in a different hand to the first. In addition, it uses English in a very different way, and is one of those wonderful examples of a 19th century letter where the Irish regional accent of the writer comes out in the phonetic spelling of the words. Whoever wrote Charles’s first letter for him, there seems little doubt that the second was written by a Kerry emigrant:

Hopkinston April the 8 1858

Dear father and mother sisthers and brothers I take the opertunity of riting these few lines hoping to find ye all in as good state of helth as this leaves me at present thanks be to God for his mercy to us all dear father you will find the thrifling some [sum] of three dollers as this is [as] much as I can spear [spare] you at present as this was t[h]e dullisth winher came for the lasth thwenthy yearse [dullest winter came for the last twenty years] dear father do not think that this forgeting you I am as long as gos spears [spares] me my helth never shall forget ye dear father let me know if thomas is mar[ri]ed as I herd he was dear father I havnt heard nothing from John sinch [since] you rothe [wrote] to me I senth a lether [letter[ to my uncel and no answer dear father let me know all abouth home in your nexth lether all the frinds in hopkinton ar[e] well at presenth John neligan died the twenthy seventh of desember James trant and family ar[e] well & Patrick oconnr an[d] famely ar[e] well let me know how my uncels ar[e] geting along Give my love to Mr James Hoare and famely my uncel John and famely and my uncel thomas and famely and my aunt margret and all the frends and let me know when ye herd from chicas [?]

So now more at presenth

from youre afectinate son

Charles Greaney

Dont blame me for my writhing (5)

The second letter from Hopkinton to Castlisland. Written phonetically in an Irish accent (Fold3/NARA)

The second letter from Hopkinton to Castlisland. Written phonetically in an Irish accent, Charles apologies for the writing (Fold3/NARA)

As is often the case with these letters, the huge additional burden that winter brought is referenced. This was a result of the large financial outlay required for fuel to keep warm during these months, which was obviously exacerbated by it being the “dullisth winher” of the past twenty years. Rumours were circulating in Hopkinton that Thomas, the friend or brother who had previously been ill, was married, further evidence for the vibrancy of the Castleisland community there. All of the “frinds in hopkinton” were probably from around Castleisland; for example the 1855 Massachusetts Census reveals a 24-year-old bootmaker called John Nelligan and his 27-year-old wife Margaret, both from Ireland; the 1860 Federal Census records 45-year-old bootmaker Patrick O’Connor and his 35-year-old wife Bridget, together with their children James (10), Ann (9) Mary (6) and Jane (1) and an 85-year-old widow Eliza Halpin. In the case of the O’Connors, their emigration year can be dated to c. 1850, as James had been born in Ireland, with Ann born in Massachusetts. The pre-eminency of boot-making among these Irish emigrants is apparent. Charles signs off this letter with “Dont blame me for my writing.” Although this suggests he wrote it himself (and his accent would certainly have fitted), later testimony suggests he did not. In any event, he would most certainly have recognised the difference in quality from the earlier letter he had sent. (6)

How do we know so much about the literacy levels of Charles and his parents? The affidavits present in the file present a wonderfully detailed account of how the correspondence was created and disseminated, together with the process by which Charles remitted money home. These affidavits, from individuals who had known the Greaneys intimately, were provided by Kerrymen who lived neither in Castleisland or Hopkinton, but in Chicago, Illinois. Here another significant community of Castleisland emigrants had been established, and it was there in 1869– seven years after Charles’s death– that they revealed the most information on the lives of this Irish family. Their affidavits were connected with the two letters transcribed above. These letters travelled the Atlantic not once, but twice. Initially sent home in 1857 and 1858 by Charles, his parents sent them back to the United States years later– evidence of how they cared for them. They gave them to Charles’s uncle James Greaney who was then living in Chicago. James was dealing directly with the pension agent for his brother and sister-in-law in Ireland. He didn’t come alone– he brought a small army of his nephew’s contemporaries with him. (7)

Hopkinton town common. The town was home to sizeable number of Castleisland emigrants working in the leather trade (John Phelan)

Hopkinton Common. The town was home to a sizeable number of Castleisland emigrants working in the leather trade (John Phelan)

The young men started by stating that “They are at present residents of Chicago Illinois but their native place is Castle Island, County Kerry, Ireland” and “they lived at Castle Island from the time they were born until they came to America”. The first of them to tell their story was John Hearn, aged 25 in 1869. He said he had for fifteen years lived within 40 rods (c. 200m) of the Greaney home in Kerry. Though he wasn’t related to Charles, he attended the same school as him (presumably where Charles had learned to sign his name). John Hearn was not seeing the two old letters for the first time in 1869. He had still been living in Kerry when Charles had sent them, and distinctly recalled that Timothy and Eliza Greaney “brought [the letters] to the father of this deponent [Hearn] to be read by him.” He also stated that  “the said letters are not in the handwriting…of Charles Greany…Charles could write his own name but could not write a letter…all of his letters to his friends were written by others for him.”  In addition to John Hearn, three other young Castleisland emigrants in Chicago gave statements. They were 27-year-old Timothy Greaney (presumably a cousin of Charles), 26-year-old Edward Loughnane (likely the same Edward Loughnane Charles asked to be remembered to in his first letter) and 27-year-old John Nolan. Both Edward Loughnane and John Nolan had still been living in Ireland when Charles had first emigrated. Indeed, the Loughnanes were yet another family in the community who were associated with the Greaney letters. Edward recalled how “his own father was accustomed to write letters and do other business for…Timothy Greany.” Edward had worked on the farm beside the Greaney’s Kerry shanty, and had been a frequent visitor to their home. There he had “heard the letters from…Charles read” and often heard his parents talk of the remittance that Charles was sending them. In fact, Edward Loughnane’s own father occasionally took the checks and drafts sent home by Charles to Tralee or Cork to cash them for the Greaneys. In completing their statements, the last three men gave the years that had left Kerry for America. Edward Loughnane had been there since 1863, Timothy Greaney since 1865 and John Nolan since April 1868. (8)

A failure to properly understand the pension process had prevented Eliza Greaney from receiving her payments for nearly seven years, but it was eventually approved. Timothy’s health continued to deteriorate, and he became a regular visitor to the public hospital in Tralee, a few miles from Castleisland. He seems to have died around 1870. About that time Eliza gave her address as “Ballinahown, Castleisland” which is near the village of Knocknagoshel. When her payment was approved, Eliza appealed to the Pension Bureau for a lump sum back-payment dated to 1862. She stated that at this stage in her life she “has to procure the attendance of a nurse to take care of her” and that she would be “unable to pay said nurse unless she gets the arrear of the pension.” She called on a number of the locality’s senior figures to support her appeal, including Castleisland’s Rector, Reverend Denis Moriarty and the Parish Priest, Father James Irwin. Her claim appears not to have been successful. Eliza passed away of “natural decay” at the age of 90 on 18 July 1895– more than 33-years after her son had died at Gaines’ Mill. In a bizarre postscript to the story, Eliza’s grandson James penned the final letter on the file from in his home in Rathass Cottage, Tralee, Co. Kerry. Although undated, it is stamped as received by the Bureau in August 1903. In it, James warned the Bureau of an odd “grayhaired old vetran” of the Confederacy who seemed to be on the lookout for Eliza’s back monies. Whatever became of him remains a mystery.

Just two years after giving their affidavits, the Great Fire destroyed much of Chicago, a scene the young Castleisland men likely witnessed (Library of Congress)

In 1871, just two years after giving their affidavits, the Great Fire destroyed much of Chicago, a scene the young Castleisland men likely witnessed (Library of Congress)

Rathass Cottage

Tralee, Co. Kerry

Department of the Interior Bureau of Pensions Washington D.C.

My Grandmother Eliza Greaney Certificate No. 139,152 was drawing a pension from her son Chrales Greaney late private Co. C 9th Mass. Vols, At the beggin[in]g of the pension there was about 600 $ kept from her for not filling her papers properly. I am the nearest heir to that money she died 18th July 1895. There was man came around here said he was a citizen of the USA he was making inquiries about that back pay. He gave his name as James P. O’Shaughnessy he is 65 or 70 years of age, about 5 ft 4 in in height has a broken finger, it is turned back, he is grey & a full whiskers. he will surely go [im]personating, said he fought for the Southern States in the Civil War. look out for that grayhaired old vetran.

Awaiting your reply

James Greaney

Charles Greaney lost his life in the American Civil War. However, the pension file associated with his service is one of the clearest examples as to how the information they contain can provide us with huge amounts of data about how Irish emigration actually worked, and how loved ones communicated. Very little of the detail within the file relates to Charles’s war service. Instead it allows us to look in detail at this illiterate Famine-era emigrant’s life. We can seek to identify where he grew up, how he may have got to work, who his friends were, what he earned, and all this before he had ever left for the United States. His surviving letters are pre-war, and enable us to track elements of Castleisland’s emigrant community working in the leather-trade of Hopkinton. His death resulted in the identification of another Castleisland emigrant community in Chicago– one which contained many of his childhood friends– and revealed the process by which illiterate families could communicate across the Atlantic. It reinforces how different an experience letters are for those who are literate and illiterate. While literacy enables privacy, illiteracy requires publicity. Indeed, the communal reading of letters among different members of a given community– be it in Ireland or the United States– must have been an event that was widely anticipated. News of those who had left, or those who had stayed behind, was of value to all Castleisland people, both at home and abroad. It certainly was to Charles Greaney, his friends, and his family.

The Battle of Gaines' Mill, 1862, where Bernard Quinn and other U.S. Regulars Excelled (Alfred Waud, Library of Congress)

The Battle of Gaines’ Mill, 1862, where Charles Greaney lost his life (Alfred Waud, Library of Congress)

* None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.

(1) Charles Graney Pension File, Charles Graney Service Record; (2) Charles Graney Pension File; Griffith’s Valuation; (3) Charles Graney Penion File; (4) Ibid., (5) 1860 Federal Census, Charles Graney Pension File; (6) Charles Graney Pension File, 1855 Massachusetts State Census, 1860 Federal Census; (7) Charles Graney Pension File; (8) Ibid.;

References & Further Reading

1855 Massachusetts State Census, Hopkinton, Middlesex, Massachusetts.

1860 Federal Census, Hopkinton, Middlesex, Massachusetts.

WC139152, Pension File of Eliza Graney, Dependent Mother of Charles Graney, Company C, 9th Massachusetts Infantry.

Charles Graney Service Record.

Timothy Greaney Griffith’s Valuation Record.

IrishGenealogy.ie Eliza Greaney Death Record.

Civil War Trust Battle of Gaines’ Mill Page.

Richmond National Battlefield Park.

John Phelan Wikipedia Page.

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Categories: 9th Massachusetts, Battle of Gaines' Mill, Kerry, Massachusetts

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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6 Comments on “‘All Abouth Home’: An Illiterate Emigrant’s Letters from America to Kerry in the 1850s”

  1. September 10, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

    Wow…what a great story….and tracing right down to the living community. And one wonders about the tomorrows without today’s letters!

  2. John Murphy
    September 10, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

    Another great story. Wonderful that you can pinpoint the exact village and lane of the family. Keep up the good work.

  3. September 12, 2016 at 8:10 am #

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

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