Ireland XO Insight - Letters home

Monday, 23 May, 2016
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This story is a composite of journals and letters by Philip and Sarah (Rowles) Ryan of Belle Creek in Goodhue County, Minnesota, written to their children during a journey to Ireland over Christmas 1912.  

The family of Phillip & Sarah Rowles Ryan

The story that follows shows us how important letters, diaries and family journals are as memory keepers and mirrors of the past. Many of those who left Ireland were not lucky enough to come home again, even for a short visit. These kind of archives show just how much a visit home meant to Philip Ryan and his family, particularly those who stayed behind in Ireland and had a short time to re-connect again during his stay. You can see from the story just how divergent their lives were but a visit home was a common bond, an unbreakable link.


Philip Joseph Ryan was from Doon in eastern County Limerick in Ireland and came to America as a young man of 21 years in 1879. Sarah was born in Waupun, Wisconsin, to parents who were also born in Doon. They later settled in Belle Creek, Goodhue County, Minnesota, where Philip met and married Sarah. Whether Philip knew Sarah's family before he came to America is unknown but likely, since so many other Doon people settled in the same community. The largest migration of this group of related families from Ireland to America took place between 1849 to 1852 with the first settlement established in Easton Township, Washington County, New York. Some of the families stayed in the Troy and Albany area while others migrated on to Waupun (Dodge and Fond du Lac Counties), Wisconsin where there was work building the new state prison. Some of the Doon group stayed in the Waupun area, becoming prosperous farmers and shopkeepers while others moved west to Belle Creek, Goodhue, Minnesota, where the government was selling land at favorable prices. Some of their descendants still live there in the lush farm country along the Mississippi River south of Minneapolis.

As both Ryan and Rowles families came from Doon, for Philip it meant "going home" and for Sarah it was an all new "sightseeing trip"and a chance to see family. They married in 1881, and on this trip 30 years later they were writing letters home and keeping journals for the benefit of a large extended family which included their eight children. They spent much of their time visiting relatives. The ocean voyage was made on the "White Star Line" billed as the "largest ships to and from Ireland", New York, Cobb (Queenstown), Liverpool. 


Sarah begins the story

On board “The Cedric” the gong is sounded at 7 o'clock. You get up and dress and have breakfast at half past seven. There are 2 settings in the dining room. The second is at 8 o'clock. Then at 10 o'clock there is music by the string band. At eleven a large cup of beef tea and lunch at 12 o'clock. Music from 3 to 4 o'clock and dinner from half past five to six, then music from 8 to 9, and lunch at 9 o'clock, a cup of tea or coffee, crackers and butter or cheese. The staterooms are furnished with nice clean sheets, blanket and spread, 2 pillows, mattress and spring with a board in front to keep you from rolling out. A wash basin of china with water faucet. Plenty of clean towels, looking glass, wastebaskets, one chair fastened to the wall with plenty of "crooks" for to hang your clothes on and a little stool. Also an electric light. Turn a little button and your light is lit.

A 1st class cabin of the time, this image taken aboard the Titanic © Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI)

There is a little press button in every birth, so if you want anything you can call the steward that is on duty and he will get whatever you want for you. The sitting room upstairs is filled with cushioned seats and chairs. There are 3 writing tables with two places to write on them. Paper, envelopes, pens and ink. They have a letter box where you can drop your letter in the library. The steward has charge of them. A little [news] paper is printed in the evening. They have a little store on deck. Postal cards, caps, candy, gum, cigarettes, and I suppose cigars, and a barber shop.


The boat rocks quite a bit...

Wed. Dec. 18, 1912: {393 miles} [Sarah] The wind is high and the sea is rough. The boat rocks quite a bit. It rained some today. Waves rolling 30 feet high. The wind is still high, the boat rocks quite a little. They are crossing what is called the "Devil's Hole", and expect it will be calm when they are across it. Saw a freighter this evening. There did a good many get wet. The waves splashed up so high and unexpected. Sailing along over "Devil's Hole" it was very rough seas. Could not stand on my feet on deck. I kept inside for most of the day. I have seen waves raising 35' high up on the upper deck. This part of the sea called the "Devil's Hole" is 208 miles from Queenstown, Ireland. Holyhead [Wales] was the first land I saw. Mountainy looking from the deck of the ship. It reminded me very much of "Barn's Bluff" (Red Wing, Minnesota), but higher. Holyhead is 40 miles from Liverpool docks. 

Fri. Dec 20-21, 1912: [Sarah] Went on to Liverpool. We didn't arrive in Queenstown, the sea was rough and there was a steamer stuck in the harbor waiting for high tide so we were taken to Liverpool, England. Landed 6:20 in the evening. Went through custom house. We got off easy, but some got caught. One man for whiskey. He had 7 bottles. Wouldn't pay the $15 duty and it was taken away from him. Another for tobacco. He was fined 1 pound 6P duty ($5). Three or four times what it was worth. It was the greatest commotion I ever saw looking for trunks and suit cases. What ought to be in the first class would be found in the third, and third in second. It was mixed that way all through but some got off without opening their trunks at all. Our trunk wasn't opened at all. I guess they thought it was pretty small for two. The customs man asked me if I was alone and I said there was 2 of us, so he opened one suit case and marked the other two. He asked Papa if he had any tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, or whiskey, and Papa said, "No, you can look and see" and he said it was alright, he wouldn't. Papa wasn't with me when he questioned me. I thought it would take all night, but we were through and loaded on (train) cars by 10 o'clock ready to start for Holyhead, a distance of about 90 miles (by land), on the London & Northwestern R.R. Got into Holyhead at 12:30 AM. Then the "White Star" steamer line gave us lunch and we got on the boat at 3:20 [a.m.] and started for Dublin across the Irish Channel. I tell you it was rough.We got to Dublin at 6:30 in the morning. We left Dublin at 12:30 Saturday breakfast at the 4 Courts Hotel. Went to Kings Bridge and left Dublin.


Arriving in Doon

Arrived Pallas [train station near Limerick] Saturday, Dec 21st about 6 o'clock. Had lunch at Hayes, then we hired a rig and drove out to Uncle Jim's. Got there about 9 o'clock. Well, we are landed at Uncle Jim's place townland of Reenavanna in Doon. Found the folks all well. Nora and Ellen are home but 

Ellen is going to school in Killarney, the boys’ names are Michael and Edmund. Edmund is going to business school in Limerick [and later became a priest] but they are both home for Christmas. Christmas is not like it is at home, but it won't do to say what you think either here or over there. I won't say much until I see you and don't mention it to anyone however they try to do anything they can to make it pleasant for us. Ellen was on the train from Limerick Junction with us and Pat Hanley was there to meet her. Ellen said she saw Papa and thought she knew him from his picture, but didn't say anything. 

Right: Uncle Jim, Mary and twins Ellen and Ned c.1900

Wed. Dec. 25, 1912: We were at the 11 o'clock Mass. Christmas, they have three Masses, the crib was in the convent. It was fixed very nice. There were seven of us rode on a side car and one horse hitched to it. I met Pat O'Reilly that day. He looks like Uncle Jim and about his size. I met a Miss O'Brien at Mass that day too. She insisted that we would go to see them. She is a first cousin of the folks at home. Ed Gorman rode to Pallas with us and took the train to Limerick. Went to see the Castle of King John. 

Thurs. Dec. 26, 1912: We went to see Aunt Maggie (Maggie Beary's mother) in Barna. Found her well. Had dinner with her and came home again. We found a good strong woman. She looks like Maggie but much stronger. She just had a letter from Maggie telling her that we were gone to Ireland and of Father John's death. We had dinner with her and came back to Uncle Jim's place.

Tues. Wed., Dec 31- Wed. Jan. 1, 1913: Went to Mass at eleven o'clock, came home, had dinner. A crowd gathered in the evening and danced.

Fri. Jan 10, 1913: We are sitting here writing and looking out at it raining. Went out in the afternoon and saw some fine stores. Visited Mary Church and St. Adam & Eve's Church. At the last place heard Rosary said and Benediction. There was a Grotto built in marble. It represents the Grotto of Lourdes with the statue of the Blessed Virgin and little Bernadette kneeling at her feet. The Blessed Virgin had the Rosary hanging by her side. Every bead looked like a rose in bloom. The rock under her feet sparkled in patches as the light shown on them. There was a kneeling bench in front of it, but some kneeled back on the floor.                                                                                                                                                   

                                                                                        The steamship Cedric                                                                                                                                                                                              

Mon. Jan. 13, 1913: Stayed in all day. Papa went off for a walk to Doon to look after the Steamer tickets. Well, I must tell you that the boat we had arrangements to go on won't sail, don't know the reason, so we will have to stay a few days longer. The one we are looking for now is called the “Celtic”. We think it may sail by the 24th of January.

Wed. Jan 22, 1913: Rained all day. Papa and Ed went to Doon to settle for their tickets and I sat beside the fire all day. 

Thurs. Jan 23, 1913: Left Uncle Jim's place about 10 o'clock. Left a lonesome crowd after us. Uncle Jim felt pretty lonesome, poor old man. I tell you Ed Gorman was lonesome too he said he never met a crowd like the folks. Mary Beary came to Pallas with us. She is a lovely girl. She felt pretty lonesome. She said she would go back to Uncle Jim's.     

Assembled by their grand-daughters Donna Miller of Minneapolis and Betty Miller Kellogg of Burnsville, Minnesota it was edited with added footnotes, illustrations and family trees by Ann Lamb, of Issaquah, Washington, Donna and Betty’s third cousin.​            

If you would like to see the full story please contact Ann at annl7777@aol.com