The American Flag

The American Letter

By Denis Doyle RIP submitted by Tom Doyle (nephew)

DISTRICT DIRECTOR: Edso Crowley / EDITOR: Brendan O’Sullivan

Christmas changing, yet changeless

‘Several years ago I spoke to a man who had returned, on holiday, after over fifty years in America. His hair was white as snow, the skin on his face was like drab yellow paper, and his tall figure was gaunt and fleshless. In his blue eyes alone was there any hint of the magnificence, vigour and beauty that once was his.

One could believe that this man had done well in the U.S.A., and indeed, like most Americans, he was not reluctant to talk about his successes there. However, any opinions one might have formed about him simply vanished when, overcome by deep emotion, he described a Christmas Eve homecoming long, long ago after he had spent nine months “on hire” on a north Kerry farm. He had finished his tasks early and, having received the balance of his payment from the farmer, had set off with a feather-light heart, taking the high mountain road through Gleann Sgoitín. He claimed that he had run as much as he had walked in his wild urge to get home as soon as possible. He had arrived at his poor thatched home west of Killorglin about an hour after dark. At exactly the same moment, his father, who had spent the day “grubbing furze” at some farm east of Killorglin, also arrived back after a five-mile walk.

The living room of the cabin had been whitewashed, a Christmas candle was lighting and the special Christmas “luxury” purchases were everywhere to be seen. The woman of the house had discarded her sack apron for a new one of “butchers blue”. She welcomed her husband and son with wild cries as she waved a letter in her hand; and her numerous younger children provided an accompaniment with a rising hum that sounded like a muted version of a war cry of their distant ancestors. The dollar-lined letter the mother held in her hand had come from the eldest of the family, a girl, who had crossed the Atlantic the year before.

It is perhaps difficult to imagine the sheer joy of that moment without the experience of the effects of grinding poverty with its haunting fears of want, of destitution and starvation itself – destitution and starvation not only for one’s self, but also for the helpless ones dependent on one. In a home where all such trials and fears have been all too real, the return of the father and son with their slender earnings, coupled with the arrival of a magnificent contribution from the good girl in America, effect a liberation from an almost intolerable burden and aid the fulfillment of love and loyalty which is so much part of Christmas itself. It was not a wonder that the memory of that Christmas Eve should have stamped itself on the mind of the Irish-American.

The “American Letter” was a source of much comfort and joy in poverty-stricken days of the past. The number of Irish who crossed the Atlantic in the second half of the nineteenth century reached the massive figure of four million. In most cases those Irish emigrants left little behind in the material sense, just cabins of mud and straw, but a vast amount in love and loyalty. They nourished those with a constant stream of tear-damp letters, and always there were dollars ‘inside’. Only the good Lord knows how much their hands accomplished to succour the loved ones behind – aged and helpless parents, equally helpless young brothers and sisters.

The “American Letter” was something of a gilt-edged security. Even hard-headed shopkeepers gave credit on strength of it. The letters came in a constant stream all year round, but at Christmas they came in a flood. Those were golden letters in days when there were no “dole” or social service handouts, or even (before 1910) any old-age pensions. There was nothing, in fact, except the few potatoes and heads of cabbage won from coarse and ill-fertilised soil and, of course, the shillings exchanged for sweat by the larger scale farmers who, let it be said, were themselves equally subject to the savage pressures of the times.

The part played by the “American Letter” in making the Christmas of the past can hardly be overestimated. The not so poor, as well as the poor, depended to some extent on overseas contribution for the little extra needed to meet the requirements of the occasion. But the help from faithful friends abroad was as much a part of the spiritual being of Christmas as it was an essential material contribution. For Christmas was, and is, and must of necessity continue to be a festival of love. Such love begins, as love should, at home, and proceeds outward to the more immediate, and eventually extends to all.

Many complain that Christmas has lost its essential Christmas spirit. True it is being affected by the artificial modern industrial world with its plastic roses and machine-made precious stones. But one cannot reproduce the magic of the Christmas candle lighting up in the whitewashed living room of a cabin of other days, or the candle light from a thousand little windows shining like stars on the dark world outside. The modern night is ablaze with electric light and the powerful headlamps of motorcars travelling up and down every lane in the land.’


An extract from a Killorglin community newsletter of December 1971 – a tale of emigration and social history.

The author was Denis Doyle RIP, a native of Ballymacprior, Killorglin. Denis was a founder member of Killorglin History & Folklore Society, and a contributor to their Journal “Cois Leamhna” published in 1984.

One comment

  1. It is a lovely story! I like the image of the white washed cabin and the candle illuminating the window.

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