Nearly 20 years before John Hancock scrolled his famous signature along the bottom the Declaration of Independence, Irish immigrants in Bordeaux, France were signing their names to the bottom of letters that would never make their final destinations in Ireland and would never be read – until now.
It was March 1757 when a British privateer captured an Irish wine ship, the Two Sisters of Dublin, while it was returning home from Bordeaux in the early stages of the Seven Years’ War.
The Two Sisters, a 90-ton snow, or merchant vessel, was carrying back to Ireland 336 barrels of wine, vinegar, brandy, a mixture of luxury items from French merchants and a bag of letters.
Although 336 barrels of wine would take some time to consume, it’s safe to assume 250 years later, the wine and the brandy are long gone. All that remains today, and on display in the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library at New York University, are the letters.
In 2011, NYU Irish Studies Professor Thomas Truxes was working on a book on the history of overseas trade of British America. During his research, Truxes found himself at the British National Archives in Kew, just outside London.
While sorting through miscellaneous boxes of evidentiary material relating to admiralty court cases, or all matters to do with shipping and trade, Truxes was quickly sidetracked when he came across a bundle of letters that stopped him in his tracks.
“It was really just my good fortune on two fronts. One, in finding them and the other in that I knew what they were,” Truxes told the Irish Voice.
With a Ph.D. in history from Trinity College in Dublin, Truxes had written about Irish trade in the Atlantic and it was a subject he was familiar with.
Of the 125 letters in the bundle, 85 of them were unopened.
“They set up a workstation for me and for two days I opened each letter and photographed them in excruciating detail,” Truxes explained.
“Back in that time they wrote with quill pens and ink which was quite slow drying. To make it dry faster, they would shake a pinch of fine sand over the ink. When I opened up the letters, I could feel the sand coming out of the envelopes. It was incredible.”
As for what kinds of letters the bag contained, “It’s extremely random and that’s the beauty of it,” Truxes said.
Among the correspondence between parents and children, siblings, business associates, and husbands and wives, there were letters destined mainly for Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.
Mid-eighteenth century France was a modernizing and reforming nation. Industries were improving, cities were expanding and Bordeaux, in particular, was a magnet for Irishmen seeking opportunity abroad.
Irishmen were among Bordeaux’s most successful merchants and there was a strong Irish presence in the region’s wine chateaux. Names such as Barton, Boyd, Lynch and Dillon still grace wine lists around the world today.
Many Irish Catholic families, who were deprived of the option to do so Ireland, sent their sons to colleges and seminaries all over continental Europe. Southwestern France, in particular, was an attractive destination for those seeking education as men were not only educated, but trained as merchants and skilled artisans.
In one of the collection’s letters, Francis Silvester Bird, an Irish student in Bordeaux, writing to his father in Dublin, asks for new clothes which he cannot afford to buy with his allowance.
“I would be very much obliged to if you would be so good as to send me a few white waistcoats for summer the same size of the red with sleeves,” he writes.
Most of the student letters have a similar tone, discussing their adequate academic efforts and their occasional homesickness. They could easily be mistaken for modern college students – especially the part about being broke.
Women, often the ones left behind when their husbands departed Ireland as mariners or merchants, very often wrote letters of deep love and affection.
Mary Dennis, the wife of Captain John Dennis of the Two Sisters of Dublin, expresses her anxiety for his safety at sea.
Although she offers “prayers to God for your wellfare & safe Return” (sic) from Bordeaux, she did not fail to remind her husband to pick up olives, prunes, and other goods she knew would sell well in her shop on Aston Quay in Dublin.
Striking a stark contrast to the letters of love and affection is an angry letter from Richard Exham, a Cork mariner and a prisoner of war in Bayonne Castle. He berates his wife Betty, claiming that he “should not be in prison” but for her negligence and disregard for his welfare. He blames her for not advising him of the steps “taken in my favour to procure my Liberty” and believes she had abandoned him by not making an effort to arrange a prisoner exchange – “a very great crime and a barefaced Couldness,” writes Exham. “I know it’s of no use to Require anything from you as you have turned your back to me.”
These are just a few examples of a collection that gives a depiction of a world long gone, but not so unfamiliar.
In a world which has changed since in nearly every facet of day-to-day life, what is profoundly striking about these letters is their relatable nature.
“It’s a very rich story because it cuts right to the human scale. I’ve been working very closely with this material now and the sense you get from it is one of common humanity,” Truxes told the Irish Voice.
“If you take away some of the idiosyncratic spellings and the handwriting styles, you would know these people. There isn’t a barrier. It’s almost as if 250 years just melts away.”
The exhibition is now open to the public from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through April 1. The NYU Elmer Holmes Bobst Library is located at 70 Washington Square South.