With the development of email, messaging apps and social media it can feel that the art of letter writing will soon become a distant memory. A memory that future generations will assign to their great great grand parents (aka us!) But there are those who are fighting back. Letters of Note is a website dedicated to letters of all sorts from all walks of life; actors, politicians; poets; scientists. You name a profession or topic and I am sure there is a letter there to quench your literary thirst. This website was started nearly a decade ago by Shaun Usher and as he said in a recent Irish Times interview
‘I became obsessed with the concept of letter-writing and how it was dying out. I just thought: we can’t possibly lose this.’
Around the same time, the author Simon Garfield published his book To the Letter. Garfield too understands the importance of letter writing and its importance to history; social, political and human.
‘The world once used to run upon their [letters] transmission – the lubricant of human interaction and the freefall of ideas, the silent conduit of the worthy and the incidental, the time we were coming for dinner, the account of our marvellous day, the weightiest joys and sorrows of love.’
Usher and Garfield’s love of the written word inspired the Letters Live events which see different performers reading remarkable letters from centuries past. So let us create our own ‘Letters Live’ here and delve into the fabulous world of letters. These examples come from various collections within UCD Archives and are only the tip of the iceberg.
Enjoy and be inspired to put pen to paper sooner rather than later!
The letter above is from G. Coffey to Michael Collins when Collins was living and working in London in 1914. Coffey invites Collins around for a party but also has someone he wants Collins to meet. The letter reads..
Dear Mr. Collins,
I am having a few people here on August 8th for the afternoon + evening + I want you to come. There will be no restrictions or anything, so you’ll be quite free to get some of those “Holy words” off your chest!
PS I have a very nice little girl for you, but the only fault I am afraid, she will be too slim – her name is Miss Cox. Don’t forget.
John de Courcy Ireland had a distinguished and lifelong commitment to Irish and international maritime history and affairs, to radical politics and to humanism. Below De Courcy receives a postcard from Jim Larkin Jnr, a trade union official and socialist just like his father Big Jim Larkin, while on a trip to Moscow around 1966. The postcard reads..
Moscow 9th Nov
Dear John and Betty,
Two days ago I watched over half million laughing happy people march through this square in a city which has been miraculously transformed, rebuilt and trebled in size in 40 yrs. This fiftieth anniversary is not a victory but a confirmation in life of the age old dream.
Regards to both,
From 1811 to 1819, it became increasingly clear that England was suffering from great social, economic and political upheavals. This suffering led to tension between the rich and poor resulting in unrest and riots. William Wentworth Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, was one of the few landed gentry to recognise the problems facing the ordinary working people. In the letter below Wentworth writes to Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth, describing the atmosphere in the Riding of Yorkshire.
‘Private’ Wentworth 27th July 1817
I have great satisfaction in reporting to your Lordship that the result of my enquiries at York has proved as favourable as could be expected or wished. In no part of the Riding can I discover any symptom of conspiracy or disorderly combinations going forward, even at Huddersfield & its neighbourhood, the spirit is subdued; the Parties, as I collect from Mr Allen, are cow’d & dispirited, & notwithstanding the issue of the Trials at York (of which your Lordship will undoubtedly receive the particulars from those better able than I am to detail them) left as They must now feel themselves without hope of support or cooperation. They will no doubt think it a happy compromise, to keep the peace, if they are left at rest themselves.
I have the honor to be, my lord, your Lordship’s most obed. etc etc etc
Last, but certainly not least, is some correspondence between the Irish dramatist Hugh Leonard and the Commerce and Economics Society of UCD in the mid eighties. Unknown to the Literary and Historical Society Leonard had declined an invitation from the Commerce and Economics Society and, in doing so, he had been inadvertently the straw that broke the camel’s back!
Dear Miss O’Connell,
Thank you for your kind invitation.
The enclosed, retrieved from my wastebin, was received today in reply to my letter declining a similar invitation. It will explain, perhaps, why for some years now I have not accepted invitations to speak at UCD.
Dear Mr Leonard,
As correspondence secretary of the Commerce and Economics Society of University College Dublin I derive great pleasure in sending you a further undated letter in reply to your correspondence. Our practice of sending undated letters dates back to the 1950’s and basically its purpose is one of convenience in that it allows us to have a standard letter prepared which we then send to those people on our “important person list”, you being 1,768 on a list of 1,769 (ahead of Bosco but behind such important people as Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald, Captain Birdseye and Peadar Murphy from Kinnegad who has devised a way of turning cow hair into mantlepiece ornaments)
Your absence from our debates will be sadly missed especially in the light of the title of our first debate which is “That this house believes that Hugh Leonard has done for Irish playwriting what Herpes did for promiscuity”.
I remain yours,
- This post was researched and written by Meadhbh Murphy, Archivist, UCD Archives.