Articles of Interest


by Tom Roberts

At some point in our lives most of us wonder where we came from, how our families arrived in this country, this state, this town. For me it happened fifteen years ago, when I was losing my first-generation parents, aunts and uncles. All four of my Irish grandparents had emigrated and neither they nor their children had spoken much of where they came from or why.

In the early 1990s I began my search for answers to those unanswered, sometimes unasked, questions. It took me through birth, marriage and death records, shipping manifests, citizenship forms, rectories and offices over here and over there, where they either embraced my curiosity or found me another thorn in their crown. My search produced a few “Eureka!” moments and even more frustrations. It still goes on.

On a rainy afternoon in 1993 at 2nd, I shared shelter from a storm with another actor, Gerard Campbell. Ten years earlier he had done what my grandparents had undertaken a century before, left Ireland and come to Rhode Island. From our damp conversation that day came an idea to create a play about the passage we shared in some time-warped way. Our investigation led us to the noted historian Kerby Miller, who had amassed thousands of letters from and to those daring Irish men and women who had risked everything on the hope that life across the ocean offered opportunities beyond the famine, disease and oppression that were their prospects at home.

Some never made it to America. Others did but met disillusionment no better than what they had left. Most clung to their hope and found, if not the life of their dreams, a reality that would sustain them and their descendants. We are the testament to their hope.

While they are gone and their memories with them, they left behind some remarkable documents that collectively tell their story. Their letters home to Ireland range from vaunting testimonials to gold-paved streets to abject apologies for failing to send money. The correspondence from Ireland reflects a level of deprivation and desperation that we can barely imagine. Some of them are single letters, leaving today’s reader unable to fathom the fate of the writer. Other exchanges go on for years and provide full family histories, with outcomes both sad and satisfying. Families are reunited, newfamilies begun, people are born and people die. Life goes on.

The immigrant experience is one that virtually all Americans share. Many leave behind some record. What these Irish letters afford us that most other nationalities’ do not is that the words we read today more than a century later are their very words, written in English. For accounts in other languages, most Americans must rely on skillful translations made many years after the fact, undoubtedly accurate yet missing the pain or the passion of the original authors. Take these letters then as a glimpse into lives we will never fully know, but lives that reflect the state of hope that brought our ancestors here to our own State of Hope.