LOYAL COUPLE Andrew and Alice Staunton who reared 14 children in a two-bedroom cottage outside Louisburgh. Many were forced to emigrate and this day 100 years ago Andrew wrote to a cousin in America, asking for help to get his daughter to the US. Pic courtesy of Ciaran Staunton
A letter written 100 years ago today set in train a remarkable future for one west Mayo family
It was January 25,1922 during the turbulent aftermath of the War of Independence and narrow vote in favour of the Anglo-Irish Treaty which meant Ireland was on the verge of being partitioned.
In the west of Ireland, it was not these events that were troubling the heart and soul of 54-year-old farmer Andrew Staunton in Feenone, a village west of Louisburgh at the mouth of the Doolough Valley.
What was occupying Andrew’s thoughts, as he sat down to write at the table of his two-bedroom cottage, was the economic hardships that every family in Ireland was suffering. Andrew, the father of 14 children, knew he needed help for his children.
Andrew was writing to his County Mayo-born cousin Michael Ruane, who had become an attorney in Boston in the US. Andrew was worried about his family. He had six sons and eight daughters, aged from four to 26, living in a two-bedroomed cottage in Feenone.
In his letter, Andrew asked Michael for help. Specifically, he asked Michael to send the passage to America for one of the children who, in turn, could send the passage for others, ensuring them a good life in the United States of America.
On January 25, 1922, Andrew wrote:
I have 6 sons and 8 daughters, all are at home. I was thinking of sending one or two of the girls to America this year. I hope you will be good enough to send a passage to me for them. I cannot keep them all at home. If I had one out there, she could bring out the rest. The eldest girl is the most anxious to go, her name is Sara the other girls name is Mary. Please do not delay in answering this letter. If you do not send it, I will have to write to some other friend.
Andrew wished his cousin well and enquired about his sister Mrs Wallace and the death of her husband, who he says was a ‘fine man’.
On February 18, 1922, Michael wrote back to tell Andrew saying ‘you may tell your daughter Sara that her passage will be forthcoming so that she may be preparing to come to this country from now on’.
However, he added that he would not advise anyone to come to America any sooner than June because of the economic unsettled condition prevailing in America at the time.
On May 3, 1922, Michael wrote again to Andrew:
With this letter you will find enclosed a second cabin passage for your daughter Sara. This is a contract ticket to come on the steamer that leaves Queenstown on the 15th day of June next, on the Cunard line.
In the same letter, Mr Ruane addresses Sara’s mother Alice:
Dear Cousin Alice
I suppose you will be lonesome after your daughter, it is of course a customary thing…Do not make any noise.
This is the best country in the world. You may depend that I will see your daughter is all right…Do not worry about your daughter, remember I have sent for her.
Turning his attention to Sara, Michael wrote:
My dear cousin Sara
Do not bring stockings or anything of that nature for yourself or anybody else. You can wear any dress on the steamer without it being soiled. You want two of the best suits of clothes you can get in Westport and a respectable hat from the milliner shop.
Have your brother, who works for the Congested Board to come to Queenstown with you and put you on the boat…when you get to East Boston, If I am not on the Dock, please go to the telephone and call MAIN 3681.
On June 15, 1922, Sara Staunton left Ireland bound for the United States. Patrick, her brother, accompanied her to Queenstown (now Cobh). The journey there had them traveling to Westport, some 20 miles away, by pony and trap. They then took a train from Westport station to connect to other trains to take them to Cobh.
Three years later, Sara’s sister Mary made her way to America to be with her.
This saw the start of a number of Stauntons making their way to the USA, including this writer, who 60 years and one day later, on June 16, 1982, found himself arriving at the door in Dorchester, Boston of my aunt Mary Staunton. Yes, that same Mary whom my grandfather had mentioned in the famous letter to his cousin back in 1922.
By 1932, ten years later, as Andrew had envisioned, there were seven Stauntons living in the Greater Boston area (Sara, Mary, Anthony, Tommy, Catherine Charlotte, Annie and Alice). Sara had sent the passages home for two of her brothers – Anthony in 1925 and Thomas, my Dad, in 1929 – and four of her sisters, Mary whom I mentioned earlier, in 1925, Catherine Charlotte in 1928, Alice in 1930, and finally Annie in 1931.
Tragedy in the US
It was not easy for the new Staunton family in Boston and that was not only because of the collapse of Wall Street. Tragedy and death came fast and furious and one of the first major purchases the Staunton family had to make was not real estate, but a grave in a Cambridge Graveyard. Catherine Charlotte, married to John Cummings, died in 1932 while giving birth to twins; the baby boy John Cummings lived, but his baby twin sister died.
This was closely followed in 1933 by the death of Annie Staunton from TB at the young age of 26 years.
While Sara Staunton was beginning to make a new life for the Stauntons in Boston, in Mayo, Andrew Staunton and his wife Alice were experiencing harrowing times. Ireland was now at the brink of civil war. In the War of Independence, three of their children took an active part in the struggle. Patrick secretly trained IRA volunteers at night, Anthony was an active volunteer, and Thomas was an IRA courier. Despite these goings-on, and their stance towards the presence of the notorious Black and Tans and the RIC, the family survived the war with only one injury, a broken finger.
Anthony left for America in 1925, and Thomas followed shortly after. Tragically, Patrick died from pneumonia in 1928.
Having watched and worried through all of this, Andrew now witnessed families from rural Ireland getting massive tracts of their lands, which the British landlords had taken, returned to them.
In their part of Mayo, most of the land was owned by Captain Boswell Houston. Local authorities redistributed land Houston had taken, some 40,000 acres which, at one stage, held 26,000 sheep at one gathering. Houston had leased the land from Lord Lucan who infamously evicted 300 families in one day in the Thallabawn area, due south of Feenone, where Andrew Staunton was now moving his family back to. Ironically, Andrew Staunton’s family had been one of the 300 families who had been evicted more than 80 years earlier.
Ireland was going through a fractured debate about whether to accept partition and a 26-county Free State.
Andrew welcomed the new state, while his sons who had fought against the crown were opposed to the partition of Ireland and supported what was known as the Anti-Treaty argument.
As the conversations raged around the dinner table, a fourth son, John, up and joined the Civic Guard (now known as the Garda Síochána, guardians of peace) a pro-treaty, pro-government, national unarmed police force.
Alice and Andrew were soon settled into their newly built house and newly created farm in Thallabawn, beside the original home before his family were evicted by the British in the 1840s. Most of their children were still living with them, however, four more of their children took the boat to England – Wynne, Bridie, Noreen and Austin.
Before their deaths, Andrew and Alice sadly saw the deaths of Annie (TB, 1932, Boston), Catherine Charlotte (childbirth,1932, Boston), Patrick (pneumonia,1928, Mayo), and Andrew Jr (hepatitis, 1942, Mayo).
Fortunately, many of their sons and daughters settled and married in the USA, England and Ireland, giving Andrew and Alice a lineage of many grandchildren (30), all still alive except for my sister, Anne, who died at birth, and much later, the death of one of their great-grandchildren in America, the death in 2012 of our son Rory.
Rory was only 12 years old when he succumbed to unrecognised and untreated sepsis. Rory and his many cousins loved to visit Thallabawn every summer, where they ran as one large group of laughing happy children without a care in the world, part of a legacy of Alice and Andrew Staunton.
Ciarán Staunton is a native of Dadreen, Thallabawn, Louisburgh. He resides in Manhattan with his wife Orlaith and daughter Kathleen, where he owned several successful bars and restaurants. He currently serves as Chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, and he was closely involved in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. In April 2012 ,Ciaran’s young son Rory died tragically from sepsis and he co-founded with his wife ‘End Sepsis – the Legacy of Rory Staunton’, an organisation that advocates for better identification and treatment of sepsis.
He is grateful for his Aunty Wynne and her daughter Anna who preserved the Staunton family history.