The Sullivan Barry Collection

UCC Library is pleased to open to the public the Sullivan Barry Collection. This collection, generously donated by John and Patricia Barry in 2013, consists of 24 handwritten letters (1874-1898) by siblings and cousins of the Sullivan and Barry families of Cork of their experience of life as an emigrant from Ireland to the USA – in Fulton, Oswega, New York; St. Louis, Missouri; Roswell, South Dakota; Onieda, New York; Rock Island, Illinois; and New Holland, Illinois.

The Sullivan Barry Collection
The Sullivan Barry Collection

The letters are written by the family members – Denis Sullivan, Hanorah Sullivan, Mary Barry, Annie Sullivan, and Nora Sullivan – when in the USA. They have a colloquial style of language and spelling, so much so you can almost hear the words voiced from the pages “…hoping to find you in as good a state of health as this leaves us all at present thanks be to god for his mercies to us all.” (BL/PP/SB/3). Their handwriting is very uniform and of the time, illustrating that all were taught to write in this style when schooled as children in Ireland.

"...thanks be to God..."
“…thanks be to god…”

Loneliness and missing home is a common thread when reading these letters. Communications in the late 19th century were mainly done by letter-writing; telegrams were only for short announcements or news-worthy information. Annie Sullivan writes in February 1885 “nothing on earth gives us more comfort than [it] to hear from home” (BL/PP/SB/9).

“…gives us more comfort”

The receipt of letters from home is sporadic and due to the transient nature of work they often give forwarding addresses of acquaintances based in a town so letters will remain safe until their return or if passing through again to another location.

As much as they can from what they know they mention news of relatives – their location, work, illnesses, births and deaths – normal day-to-day concerns but it might be the only mention of a family member to another in years. It was not unusual to lose contact with family in America and the only way of finding out about them was via letters from home asking if they had heard from them. In an unsigned letter from [1898], the writer mentions it is almost four years since they heard from Denis or Norah, that both Johny and Denny Sullivan are dead, and Dennie has sent a number of letters without reply and is worried “to know if his people lives yet” (BL/PP/SB/20).

BL_PP_SB_20 - Copy
“…if his people lives yet.”

America is a place of extremes where some are “starving and others rolling in riches” (BL/PP/SB/9). Denis Sullivan writes in April 1876 about the economic conditions for women and men. He has “seen many hard nocks {sic} now” and due to “misfortunate poverty…would cut my head off before i would encourage a man to come to this country…but as for women it is a good country [and] if Tom and Pat were here they could get women.” (BL/PP/SB/4)

“I would cut my head off….”

Hanorah Sullivan writes in September 1876 that her brother Denis is working on a railroad in Iowa (BL/PP/SB/5). By March 1879 economic conditions have deteriorated in the last three years with many men idle due to lack of work and others work for half the pay they once earned (BP/PP/SB/7).

They comment frequently about weather conditions – Hanorah Sullivan writes in March 1879 that it has been the worst winter in New York for 21 years, with the snow expecting to last until July (BL/PP/SB/7). Annie Sullivan writes in February 1885 that it has been the worst winter in 14 years with snow on the ground for the 3 months and strong gales (BL/PP/SB/9). Denis Sullivan writes in January 1887 from South Dakota that less than an inch of rain has fallen from the previous April to October resulting in a poor crop yields (BL/PP/SB/11) and Denis writes again in July 1889 that the wheat and oats in the fields are drying out due to it being the third dry year in a row (BL/PP/SB/13). By 1897 Denis Sullivan, writing from Illinois, expresses his desire to leave America for Australia or New Zealand.

BL_PP_SB_13 - Copy
“…wheat and oats is drying out fast…”

There are two letters written in Ireland in the collection. Mary Conway in Lismore, Co. Waterford, writes to her cousin Mary [Barry] in December 1885 that during a visit to Mount Mellary {sic} she has made herself “a holy girl Thanks to God” (BL/PP/SB/10). In another letter dated January 1888, Jeremiah Sullivan in Cork writes to his aunt seeking advice on marriage (BL/PP/SB/12).

"I intend to get married..."
“I intend to gett married…”

The remaining items in the collection include a prescription for Norah Barry dispensed by William Harrington & Sons Ltd., Patrick Street, Cork in April 1891, and a receipt for cloth “to the value of 13 shillings” dated March 1870.

Envelope for Harrington Chemists, Cork
Envelope for W. Harrington & Son, Ltd. Chemists, 80 Patrick St., Cork

Access to the Sullivan Barry Collection is by appointment via email to 

Special Collections & Archives , UCC.

11am - 4.30pm, Monday to Friday and Until 7.15pm on Wednesdays

Boole Library

UCC Library University College Cork Cork Ireland T12 ND89