Monday, January 21, 2008

Touching letters from a "strong & feisty" old Irishman to his son

A few decades ago an American named Peter Jones made the discovery of a family treasure in the attic of his parents' home. Tied together in a box was a series of letters sent from the 1860's to 1890's by Jones' great-grandfather, John Coyne of Kilkelly, Ireland, to his son John. John had immigrated to America and the letters from his loving father tell the story of his concern for his son and his family and of the lives of the family that remained behind in Ireland.

Jones, overcome with emotion at this personal glimpse into his great-grandfather's life in Ireland, took the words from the letters and turned them into a song. The result is Kilkelly, a haunting melody that cannot help but tug at the heart of anyone who wonders about their own immigrant ancestor's impact on family at home.

by Peter Jones
©1983 Green Linnet Music

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 60, my dear and loving son John
Your good friend the schoolmaster Pat McNamara's
so good as to write these words down.
Your brothers have all gone to find work in England,
the house is so empty and sad
The crop of potatoes is sorely infected,
a third to a half of them bad.
And your sister Brigid and Patrick O'Donnell
are going to be married in June.
Your mother says not to work on the railroad
and be sure to come on home soon.

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 70, dear and loving son John
Hello to your Mrs. and to your four children,
may they grow healthy and strong.
Michael has got in a wee bit of trouble,
I guess that he never will learn.
Because of the dampness there's no turf to speak of
and now we have nothing to burn.
And Brigid is happy, you named a child for her
and now she's got six of her own.
You say you found work, but you don't say what kind
or when you will be coming home.

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 80, dear Michael and John, my sons
I'm sorry to give you the very sad news
that your dear old mother has gone.
We buried her down at the church in Kilkelly,
your brothers and Brigid were there.
You don't have to worry, she died very quickly,
remember her in your prayers.
And it's so good to hear that Michael's returning,
with money he's sure to buy land
For the crop has been poor and the people are selling
at any price that they can.

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 90, my dear and loving son John
I guess that I must be close on to eighty,
it's thirty years since you're gone.
Because of all of the money you send me,
I'm still living out on my own.
Michael has built himself a fine house
and Brigid's daughters have grown.
Thank you for sending your family picture,
they're lovely young women and men.
You say that you might even come for a visit,
what joy to see you again.

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 92, my dear brother John
I'm sorry that I didn't write sooner to tell you
that father passed on.
He was living with Brigid, she says he was cheerful
and healthy right down to the end.
Ah, you should have seen him play with the grandchildren
of Pat McNamara, your friend.
And we buried him alongside of mother,
down at the Kilkelly churchyard.
He was a strong and a feisty old man,
considering his life was so hard.
And it's funny the way he kept talking about you,
he called for you in the end.
Oh, why don't you think about coming to visit,
we'd all love to see you again.

I was happy to read that Peter Jones, the writer of the song and the grandson of the immigrant son that never returned, was able to make a visit to Kilkelly a few years ago. I understand that he was greeted warmly by the village that his grandfather had left almost a century and a half before.

You can read more about the background of the song and the story of Pat MacNamara, the Irish schoolmaster who handwrote the letters for John Coyne, at this Irish Identity webpage. The song was recorded by Moloney, O'Connell & Keane on their album "Kilkelly" in 1988, not to mention a variety of other recording artists' versions. Look for various arrangements of Kilkelly on iTunes.


Bill West said...


I have that "Kilkelly" album on
cassette (like so many of my albums)
and I could hear the music in my head as I read the lyrics.

I'm going to have to dig it out of
the racks in the closet tomorrow and play it!


barbara said...

Hi Lisa,
It leaves me quite speechless...
What a treasure to discover in one's family. I sure do think that he's a lucky man.
Have a nice day.


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