The Prendergast Letters

Correspondence from Famine-Era Ireland, 1840–1850
A valuable resource for the study of the Great Famine and the Irish American experience


The Prendergast Letters Collection, one of the noteworthy manuscript collections at Boston College’s John J. Burns Library, provides an account of the experiences of an ordinary family in County Kerry, Ireland, from 1840 to 1850. The letters include myriad details of the lives of family members and neighbors, reports of weather, agriculture, and local events and economy, along with commentary on matters of national importance such as politician Daniel O’Connell’s movement for the Repeal of the Act of Union.

Most important, the letters offer a rare contemporary, firsthand account of Ireland’s an Gorta Mor, the Great Famine that began with the failure of the potato crop in 1845. Letters written in the months and years following the announcement of the first crop failure provide insight into not only the sufferings of one family but also the response of the community and nation as this crisis transformed Ireland.

James and Elizabeth Prendergast were the parents of six children. Their letters from Milltown, County Kerry, dictated to a scrivener, were posted to sons Thomas and Jeffrey and daughter Julia Riordan and her husband Cornelius, all of whom had emigrated in search of employment to Boston, Massachusetts—a city that would itself be transformed by the famine-era influx of Irish immigrants.

In addition to transcriptions of the forty-eight letters in the collection, this volume includes contextual essays by historian Ruth-Ann Harris and genealogist Marie Daly. The evidence of the letters themselves, along with the contributions of Harris and Daly, demonstrate the ways in which the family of James Prendergast was at once exceptional and typical.

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