Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert
A trove of 19 Civil War-era letters written by an Irish immigrant to his wife and children from the front lines of the U.S. Civil War has been presented to Boston College's John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections.
“We are close to the Confederate enemy only 100 yards from our entrenchment. Keep good courage and do not be fretting [as] I am doing the same hoping I will see you once more. Good bye," wrote Burke, who served in the Union Army and died in the Battle of Petersburg in 1864. More than 25,000 Irish lost their lives during the Civil War.
Ellen B. Alden, who based her award-winning historical novel, Yours Faithfully, Florence Burke: An Irish Immigrant Story, on the letters penned by her great-great grandfather “Flor,” formally donated the original correspondence and related photographs to the library on January 31, following a reading and discussion.
“Parting with his letters was difficult, but I’m confident that my Irish ancestors would be honored to find themselves immortalized at one of the finest Irish Studies institutions in the country,” said Alden, a resident of Andover, Mass. “My sister, Catherine, is a graduate of this prestigious university, and we wanted the letters to remain in Massachusetts—the state the Burkes chose as their permanent home.”
Spending so much time with the letters "has worn them down," Alden told the Boston Globe, as well as made parting ways with them bittersweet. “It’s going to be really sad to let these go,” she said, though she knows they’ll be in good hands at “one of the best Irish studies colleges in the world,” where they can be shared with others. (Read the full Boston Globe story here.)
Burns Libary—home to Boston College's Irish Collection, which is one of the world's most comprehensive outside of Ireland—will professionally preserve, archive and digitize the documents so they are accessible to Civil War and Irish history students and aficionados worldwide.
“We are very pleased that Ellen and her family have chosen Burns Library as the permanent home for their ancestor’s poignant legacy,” said Burns Librarian Christian Dupont. “Such gifts provide new opportunities for exploring the dynamics of history in greater depth.”
“Education in America was a dream for the Burkes," said Alden, in an interview with the Irish Times. "I bet they would have never imagined their letters/history would end up being archived at Boston College." (Read the Irish Times story here.)
Alden is a former elementary education teacher who converted her love of history, education and family into a compelling story of an impoverished Irish farmer (Florence, an anglicized version of Fingin or Finnian), who emigrated to West Springfield, Mass., to escape Ireland’s Great Famine and riskily volunteered for the Union Army to fulfill his dream of land ownership.
At the event, co-sponsored by the Eire Society of Boston, an excerpt from the letters, recorded by WROL-AM Irish music host Seamus Mulligan, was played. The program concluded with an a cappella rendition by BC alumna Julie Zavrl of “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears,” a heartbreaking song of emigration from Ireland to New York written by David Downes.