Marie Oxx, a reader of  my blog Quakers during the Great Famine in Kerry – reminded me also of the Prendergast letters, for another contemporary insight into the Famine in Kerry and the area around Milltown,  The original letters The Prendergast Letters: Correspondence from Famine-Era Ireland, 1840-1850, edited by Shelley Barber (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006) deserve to get greater prominence.

James and Elizabeth Prendergast of Milltown, County Kerry, Ireland, had six children. They dictated letters, including the excerpt below, to a scrivener and posted them to their children who had immigrated to Boston. One postcript, which survives shows  that James was literate though his choice to employ scriveners probably indicate that he would not have had the skill to send the long letters which he regularly posted. The 48 surviving letters, were transcribed and published in The Prendergast Letters: Correspondence from Famine-Era Ireland, 1840-1850, edited by Shelley Barber (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006). Features of the letters are the personal and sometimes urgent tone and the absolute reliance on remittances from America to keep the family going in Ireland. The example below is from November 1846.

Letter 28.      From James Prendergast to his children in Boston
M’ Cornelius Riordan N° 16
Stateof Massachusetts


Milltown 20th Novr 1846
My dear Children

On the 11th of August last I wrote in reply to your letter of the 16th July, thanking you for your Remittance, which was a relief, a relief received most timely. Since that time we were most anxiously expecting an answer from ye.  At last our patience was worn out.  And we became really alarmed, not for any disappointment of our own, bu lest any disaster should befall either of you and cause this unusual delay.  We are now old and must of course be near our dissolution and we would descent quietly to the grave if we new that ye were well.

The state of this County is almost beyond description.  Nothing to be seen in all quarters but distress and destitution.  Famine and starvation threatening everywhere uncles God mercifully send some foreign aid.  Last year was a year of abundance and plenty when compared with the present.  This year all the potatoe crop was lost.  The best farmer here is as short of them as the poorer class.  Potatoes are seldom in market and the few, that then come are bought by the rich as a rarity at the rate of from 8d to 12d pr. stone.

Flour rates at 3/3d pr stone and varies from that to 2/8d for flour not much superior to bran.  Oatmeal 3/3d and other foods dear accordingly.  The supply of the country it is dreaded will soon be exhausted unless supples are brough in from abroad.  The grain crop of this country fell very short this year.  The last remittance e sent is out long since and we are considerably in debt.  Therefore if ye can assit us as usual do not delay your usual relief.  The Pawn offices here are so stocked with Goods that 10s could scarcely be raised on the value of five Pounds.

My dear children your Mother joins me to send ye all our blessing as well as if we named ye severally not forgetting Con and I remain affectionately your father,

James Prendergast.

These letters are a rich seam of contemporary thinking of families – parents and children -who lived through the devestation and tragedy of death, disease and emigration visited by the Great Famine.   It is not all doom and gloom though, life went on: