In May 1913, Cork emigrant Timothy Sullivan approached a Commissioner of Oaths in Liverpool. He wanted the man to write and witness a letter for him. Though he could sign his own name, the 66-year-old was not confident enough to commit a full document to paper, particularly one as important as this. Its intended recipient lay across the Atlantic, and was a man who held the power to grant him an increase in his monthly payments from the United States government. Timothy’s eligiblity for that increase centred around him proving his age, so that was the topic on which he focused. His primary topic surrounded the circumstances of his birth, which occurred during the Great Famine in West Cork:
14 College Lane
May 2nd 5/13
Mr J.L. Devenport
I received your letter of Apl 16th I am very sorry to say I cannot answer any of your questions, stated in the letter. All I know, concerning my age and birthplace, is from my parents, whom are dead. I was born in a fishing village called, Argroom [Ardgroom], outward, on the West Coast of Ireland, Barehaven, County Cork. As for dates the peasants of Ireland never kept any, only after large events. I heard my parents, say I was born two weeks before Christmas, the year before the Famine, and it was in 47. I took my dates from 46, thats how I made the error on my application paper. I was forced to leave Ireland, through Famine and starvation at an early age. My father had to give up the few acres of land, he had to pass to U.S. America with his family. We settled in the [area] of Fall River, Bristol county, then a town, and remained there until my parents expired. My father was to poor to buy a bible, until later years, then got a family bible, but there are no records of births or marriages in it, and as for churches the was none then. I have now given you all details I know, hoping they will be sufficient answers to your questions.
I remain Dear Sir,
Timothy claimed to have been born on 11th December 1846, making him 66-years-old, and therefore entitled to an age-related pension increase. As he was unable to provide any formal proof of his age, he was required to state under oath the reasons he could not do so- hence his 1913 letter. Timothy’s response makes for interesting reading, not least because it directly mentions the Famine. Despite the fact that the Famine was the catalyst for many departures from Ireland, it was exceptionally rare for emigrants to ever mention that fact. Timothy’s explanations demonstrate the cloudiness over dates and ages that was common among working-class Irish emigrants in the mid-19th century; one of the reasons behind why their own age estimates often varied so much. Such lack of precision was a consequence of limited literacy, and is typical of illiterate and semi-literate societies. A particularly interesting aspect of Timothy’s letter is his assertion that “as for dates the peasants of Ireland never kept any, only after large events”. Here he is discussing how he calculated his likely birthdate, as his parents had made reference to its proximity to both Christmas and the Famine. There are interesting parallels here with other semi-literate groups, such as enslaved African Americans, who similarly tended to mark time based not on precise dates, but on the occurence of major events.
The reason Timothy was receiving payments from America was because of his service in the Union Navy during the Civil War. Records from the 1860s show that he was being truthful about his age in 1913. The 1860 Census finds the then 14-year-old in Fall River, living with his parents Daniel and Ellen, grandmother Mary, and siblings Jeremiah, Mary, Denis and Richard. The ages and birthplaces of the children suggest that the family emigrated sometime between 1851 and 1856. On 7th January 1864 Timothy left his home at Fall River’s 49 Ferry Street and made for the North Square Naval Rendezvous in Boston. As he signed on for a 12-month stint in the navy, the recruiter described him as 18-years-old, 5 feet 4 inches tall, with a light complexion, auburn hair and blue eyes. He was sent from there to the receiving ship USS Ohio, before being assigned to the USS Pequot on 15th January, where he would serve his time.
Timothy and his mates aboard the Pequot sailed from Boston in February to take up post as part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. In March they captured the British blockade runner Don off the coast of North Carolina, and later were engaged at the First and Second Battles of Fort Fisher. Timothy had not been a sailor before he signed up-he entered as a Landsman- but after his departure from the service in 1865, the sea was to remain central to his life. He returned home to Fall River until 1867, before moving on to Providence, Rhode Island, where he resided for the next six years. His work appears to have revolved around the water; during the early 1870s he spent 18 months crewing vessels that operated along the North Atlantic coast. Following a short stint in Valley Falls, Rhode Island, Timothy left America for good in 1875. He worked on boats operating out of Saint John, New Brunswick until the spring of 1883, when he switched his home to Liverpool. For the next 20 years he was a seaman aboard fishing boats that based themselves on Merseyside. He finally retired in 1904, the date when he began to receive his American pension. Timothy had first applied for it in 1903, supporting his claim with a physician’s report that outlined a series of ailments, including “weakness of legs and very bad palpatation of heart” that made him “unfit for a sea faring life or for manual work”.
Aside from his pension-and his failing health-another of the mementoes Timothy carried with him from his time at sea was a tattoo. He noted that he had a crucifix on his right forearm, which had been executed by “Stephen QuarterMaster”, one of his shipmates- it is not clear if this was during his Civil War service or afterwards. Despite his long months away from port, he did eventually marry. Even though he had left Ireland when he was a boy, when he finally tied the knot in June 1890 it was an ethnic Irish woman he wed- Susan Carmody. This was typical of ethnic Irish people in Britain and the United States, who invariably married other members of their own community. Timothy and Susan’s only child, Daniel, was born on 10th May 1898, but tragically passed away on 15th July 1900. The early years of the 20th century saw a rift develop between the couple, and by 1908 Susan had left Timothy, and was “living with another man as his wife”. They would never reconcile- indeed Timothy would later claim that Susan’s first husband, Thomas Carmody, was still alive.
Timothy spent most of his time in the early 1900s moving around different boarding houses in Liverpool. Over the years he had addresses at 21 Lonsdale Street, 4 Dimple Hill, 21 Duke Street and 14 College Lane. During the years of the First World War he was residing at 18 Hampton Street, where he was boarding with the widow Mrs. Margaret Guest at a cost of sixpence per week, paid for by his pension. In 1916 he began to suffer from bronchitis, for which he was periodically treated at Toxteth Park. It was this ailment which finally cost him his life. Timothy passed away on 17th December 1918. Informing the pension bureau of his death, Mrs Guest stated that “he has lodged with me for nearly six years and I am very sorry poor old man.” The Irish Famine-era emigrant, Union sailor, and Liverpool seaman was laid to rest at Allerton Cemetery, Merseyside on 21st December 1918.
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U.S. 1860 Federal Census
England Select Marriage Records
Timothy Sullivan Pension File