Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Great Great Granny Sophia Murray...Letters Through Time

I have enjoyed researching family history in the last decade. With the help of a cousin of mine in the UK, we came across records of our Great Great Grandmother Sophia Murray who would have been a child during the Irish potato famines of the 1840s. I was trying to think of a way to present Sophia in a more real way to people today. A theme in the 2006 Sandra Bullock movie "The Lake House" gave me the notion of writing a letter back in time to Sophia. Here goes...!!


Dear Great Great Granny Sophia,

I hope this letter finds you well. Actually it won't as you must be dead over a century as I write this. But I'm reaching back to you through time and I thought the first sentence should be familiar and warm for letters of your era.

In truth, as you cannot read or write you will be getting a friend - the local priest perhaps - to read this to you. I will need to print this letter out neatly as even your scholarly priest will have trouble with the notion of me writing this in bed on an iPhone, and an email to him via wifi would be quite unacceptable.  I'm Sorry Sophia, ignore my last sentence, I'm just having fun mentioning 21st century technology. But I'll bet you could teach me a lot about speaking in Irish.    

It is really nice to write to you for the first time. What a lovely name you have. I never met you but without you I would not be alive. We are separated so much in time and I wish I knew you better. But your daughter Hannah knew me as a baby. She cuddled me on her knee. Tall Hannah with the straight back. My mother and her siblings called her big granny. It must be strange for you to hear your daughter called granny.

Sophia I wish you could have told me of your childhood in the great famine - the black years of 1847 and 1848. Your parents would have felt it worse I suppose. Children know nothing better. But you told Hannah about the hardship. Hannah in turn told her sons and my mother. But the details are faded and lost.

You survived what must have been a physically tough childhood. You met Thomas Coll. You married and lived in St. Johnston. Two of your early children were born there - Thomas and Hannah.

St. Johnston is a compact and lovely Donegal village beside the majestic river Foyle. Now here is something we share together. I spent many happy childhood and teenage summers in St. Johnston. We would have known and walked the same streets. The houses in the main street were much the same no doubt in your time.
You may wonder how I also came to know St. Johnston. Well Sophia it's loosely connected to you through family. Your daughter Hannah as you know married John Downs. Their son and your grandchild - John - you certainly knew well as a small child. Now this John grandson of yours married Catherine Cregan. and Catherine had a sister called Annie. Annie married a Charles Magee and one of their children was Kathleen. Well Kathleen married Sean Mac Bride and they bought a nice country house beside St. Johnston. Kathleen was a first cousin of my mother Bridie - your great grand-daughter. My mother was a close lifelong friend of her cousin Kathleen. Kathleen's children and myself also formed a close bond and hence I spent many, many, happy times in St. Johnston with my 2nd cousins.

I think you must have been a wonderful mother Sophia. Your name is mentioned as being present for Hannah at the births of at least two of her boys.

I'm guessing you were a hardy child to have survived the ravages of the famine years and grow to adulthood. You and your parents must have watched so many suffer and die or emigrate. Clinging on to people close to you surely would have been one of life's jewels.

I wonder what you thought of your daughter Hannah's marriage to John Downs? How did she meet this Welsh man? He seems to have been stationed abroad for very long spells when serving in the British army. He is the only non-Irish person I can find in my ancestry. Of course he eventually disappeared without trace and never returned to Hannah. No army records of what happened to him.
You and Hannah were close. You lived with her in later years in Derry City. I learned something sad about you from the census of 1901. You were blind. What happened? Was it cataracts? So easy to solve problems like that today. I do think that overall you would love the 21st century!

I must go now. If only you could write back.


John Cowley

Your Great Great Grandson
Sent from my iPhone

Sophia Murray Return Letter

7th September 1897

Dear John,

Father McGonagle is writing for me. He says your letter is wile queer. It's in the fancy English and we don't know what to believe about all this far away future malarkey. But the father said a wee prayer with me and he said you might have been sent to me from the Holy Ghost. That's all because you could tell things about my Hannah and her future that only God Almighty could know. 

But he was in a tizzy because of you talking about iPhones, he thinks you mean telephones. There are some telephones in the World he says and you must be a wealthy man to have one in your house and even wired into your bedroom begob? But he says you don't spell it the way you did and he says its silly of you to say you can send mail with a telephone like Sean the Postman. He says you spelt mail wrong too and you spelt your wife as wifi. He was surprised because he says he hardly ever saw such a nicely printed letter in his life. Nearly as good as the writing the Monks do up in Raphoe he says. 

But in the name of God can you help me at all? I'm old now and at me wits end with the hardship. It's me eyes. Begob you sounded like you know how to fix me eyes. I can't in me head tell the difference between Heaven itself and this future place you are in. There is a wee woman from the village of Carrigans who can help headaches with stones she has. But nobody can help with me eyes.

God forgive me. I'm being selfish again thinking of myself and me troubles. I suppose you are just one of God's souls like myself. My Great Great Grandchild? God bless us and save us! The father had to explain to me what that meant. I can hardly get me head around it. You'll have me in tears if I think about it too much.

I'm saying a wee prayer that this letter gets to you. I don't know in God's name how you will get it at all. Father McGonagle says he spoke to the Bishop and he is sure there is no such place in Dublin. But he talked about the Holy Ghost again and that I should have faith. I've great faith in Our Divine Mother the Star of the Sea. She will make sure you somehow get this letter. It's important to me. I want to ask you many things about your World and what it's like and your family. If I know that you get this wee letter I will try to tell you more about my life.

Jesus and Mary and Saint Patrick Bless and Protect You