Have you ever wondered what life was really like in Clontarf around the turn of the last century? Apart from time travel, the best way to learn about daily life would be from a diary kept by a local resident. I bet many Clontarfians wrote in a diary , unfortunately these items don’t often survive. Sometimes they are intentionally destroyed, and other times they simply get “lost in the shuffle” of a move or a death.
Another way to find out about life in a town such as Clontarf would be to refer to the newspaper. Clontarf never had a newspaper of its own, so we must rely on the intermittent columns in other area papers which refer to the Clontarf vicinity. Even if there had been a newspaper, that would only provide us with the editor’s perspective of Clontarf, complete with political and social bias, not that of an “ordinary” resident.
So how then are we to learn about the day-to-day happenings of Clontarf? Why letters, of course! Letters written by Clontarf residents to their friends and family all over the United States and the world! But, locating these letters presents a major challenge, which makes the Stephen Owens Collection of letters at the Swift County Historical Society truly a treasure for anyone researching the history of Clontarf during the years 1899-1903.
This small collection of letters made their way back to Swift County when Professor Kirby Miller forwarded them to the museum while he was researching Irish immigration. He had obtained the letters from the Old Skerries Historical Society in County Dublin, Ireland. Swift County has photocopies of the transcribed letters from Stephen Owens to his niece Celia Grimes who lives in Skerries.
In a letter from December 4, 1899 Mr. Owens begins by sharing his thoughts on getting older:
26th of this month I will be 70 years of Age and I am Pretty Smart on the foot yet thanks to God. Your Aunt don’t hear so well as I do, She is Pretty Old Looking She is Able yet to do our Cooking and washing. We had to give up farming we were to Old to work the farm any Longer So I sold it and moved to the Little Town of Clontarf near the Church. About 10 Perches from the Church…we are as comfortable as Old People Can Be. We can go to Mass nearly every Day in the Week…
I guess Mr. Owens is able to forgive his wife’s diminished looks and hearing as long as she is still able to do all the cooking and cleaning! Mr. Owens goes on to tell his niece about an event at St. Malachy’s:
Our Priest the Rev. Father McDonald is holding a three Days fair in the Town Hall We have a nice one in this Town…Our Church it is a New One and there is sixteen Hundred Dollars of a Debt on it so he expects to realize About 5 or 6 Hundred Dollars at this fair and then About two more years would wipe out the Debt on the Church I think his fair will be a success there is great crowds here those Last to Nights and we Expect a Large Attendance to Night.
I have never been able to find any information on Father McDonald, only that he served St. Malachy’s for a couple of years and died of TB. Mr. Owens sheds a bit of light on Father McDonald in the letter:
Our Priest is a Kilkenny Man about 30 years of Age, a fine Man I like him very much he does come see us quite often I and him does have great times nights Playing Checkers he likes to get all the Games he don’t like me to Beat him at all…
Mr. Owens mentions the weather (“Winter is Just Begin the thermometer goes as far as 35 below Zero”), before asking his niece to pass on his greetings to people he used to know in Skerries. This section is particularly poignant because you can tell that he still misses his friends and family in Ireland, even though he has been in the United States for almost fifty years:
Remember me to John Baulf and to James Russel the Shoemaker and his Brother Mathew…All my Old School Mates I suppose are nearly all Dead, if I landed in Skerries now I would hardley no one Person in the Town…I won’t forget you night & morning in my Poor Prayers…I hope you won’t forget your Old Uncle…
Next time we will look at a letter from March 1900 where Mr. Owens describes the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in Clontarf.