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Dear Luke — An Irish Immigrant Experience

Mr. Luke Kilcoyne saved letters from his early years in the US, when many young people from Ireland were establishing themselves. Even with the support of family & friends who’d come before them, it wasn’t an easy life, as these letters make clear.
Letter to Luke Kilcoyne

When Luke Joseph Kilcoyne died at the age of 79 in December 1947 he had been a Ridgefield resident for nearly 52 years. He moved to town permanently following his marriage to Ellen (“Nellie”) Nevins on New Year’s Day in 1896 in “the old Catholic Church” on Catoonah Street, where the Ridgefield congregation worshipped before St. Mary’s Church was built. (It was later the home of the Ridgefield Thrift Shop.)

The Ridgefield Historical Society archives include a collection of Kilcoyne papers, among them several letters that Mr. Kilcoyne had saved from his early years in the United States, when he and many other young people from Ireland were establishing themselves. Even with the support of family and friends who’d come before them, it wasn’t an easy life, as these letters make clear.

Table of Contents

    Letters from Family, Friends, & Associates

    From Friend James Eddy, November 1891

    The earliest of the letters is from a friend, James Eddy, who describes his efforts to find work, both in Danbury, Conn., and in Brooklyn, N.Y. Danbury’s hatting industry was growing at the time and one of the ancillary businesses was the processing of rabbit pelts, or as Mr. Eddy describes it, “picking coneys.”

    Brooklyn Nov the 30th, 1891

    My Dear Friend Luke, I take the pleasure of writing you a few lines hoping they may find you in good health as this leaves me at present thank God.

    Luke, I come down here the morning after I was to see you and I went to Sacketts Shop to look for a job so he gave me a job picking coneys at 75 cents a hundred. I was the only man around there that knew anything about picking. When I went there there was 65 girls there picking on their knee. The best picker that was there then could not pick over 40 skins so he asked me if I would show them the way to pick on a [unknown] and that I would only have to look over their work and pass their skins. Now they are picking 170 a day he is giving me at the rate of what we were getting in Danbury. McIntyre sent me the letter that you sent me. It was my bad luck not to be around but nevertheless I am thankful to you and your foreman for thinking of me but like plenty more of the Irish I was born to be knocked about. I have not a very good time here except on Sunday nights we go around to visiting. We were over in New York last Sunday night [to] see John Gallagher and the Sunday night before that I was at Catherine Brett of [unknown]’s wedding. She got married to a fellow by the name of Wemsby from Bridge of old rock.

    The super that you worked for in J. Robinson’s [unknown] is back again in Brooklyn and he is the super with Hitchcock’s fur shop now. There is steady picking there for the last 3 years. There is men there getting 18$ a week picking. Jim Walsh started there last week. [unknown] wanted me to go there to pick and that I could learn to dress at the same time. If our hand is any more mean to me it’s a good thing I will know where to go to.

    I heard that Jack Gildea and Anne Dorsey got married last week if you were in Danbury you would be at the wedding.

    Luke I am boarding with Pat Lundy and two of the O’Rourkes from [unknown]. So I must close my letter this time as I cannot think of any more. I conclude by sending you my best regards. I am the James Eddy.

    Good night.

    From Sister Anne, March 1893

    The following letter appears to be from one of Luke Kilcoyne’s sisters, possibly Anne, who lived in Chicago: it’s signed, simply, “Me.” She urges her brother to consider making a big move, for big opportunities. However, Luke, it seems, was already seeing Nellie, whose family had settled in Ridgefield where he was working.

    March 2nd, ‘93

    Dear Brother Luke,
    Your very welcome letter reached me a few days ago. We were very happy to hear from you and to know you are getting along good. I believe you thought it very mean of me for not writing you. I would have wrote you long since but I happened to lose your address somehow. I wrote to Annie Walsh and asked it of her. She said she did not know it and the last time I wrote John I asked him for it. So I hope you will excuse me. We are both very well at present thank God. James’ work is steady right along. We have had a dreadful cold winter of it. We are glad the spring is drawing near. I had thought Marie was coming out this spring but she said in her last letter that the old folks were not inclined to have her come so I believe now she will never come. I am expecting a letter these days from her. Luke I think you had better make up your mind and come to Chicago this spring. I think you could do much better than working for farmers. You can save much more money. James says you can get work in the stock yards. You want to come and try it anyhow and if you don’t like it you can go back again to your little hundred of pork. It shan’t cost you a pile. The spring is the best time to find work in the yards. We live very near where James works. Just ten minutes will take him there. I should be very glad to see John come for the World’s Fair. Chicago is a good city for working people. There are all kinds of work going on in it but it takes a steady fellow to work in the stock yards. The companies don’t allow them to drink while they are round working. If they find the drink they are bagged right away. James is a very good steady fellow. I had no idea he was such so I hope to be all right as long as the Lord leave him his health. He is much a better choice than what I was going with in Danbury. Remember me to Nell. I may write her bye and bye when I have more news to send. I have got one picture left only and that I will send to you if you don’t come to Chicago. I would like to hear from you right away. I expect to have more news to send you next time. I am sending you a paper I hope you will get it all right.
    Goodbye, write soon —
    Love from Me

    From Cousin Michael O’Grady, May 1894

    The family network was strong, and cousins from the old country arrived with hopes of finding work with the help of people they might not have met before. The first letter from Michael O’Grady, a cousin of Luke’s, was written with fine pen and ink in a beautiful hand, elaborate flourishes suggesting the optimism he felt, having just arrived. The second letter has none of the elegance of the first, and its crammed scrawl suggests the stress the writer felt.

    8 May ‘94

    Dear Cousin Luke,
    I am after arriving from Ireland on Thursday last to the New World. I am in perfectly good health trusting you are the same. I am sure it will astonish you somewhat to hear of a spider spinning his web to such a long distance. There is not the smallest sign of work here in Danbury presently. Cousin John directed me to write you and see if there would be any chance out that part of the country where you are. It would be a never-forgotten gift, of mine, if you would try to get one in with some of the farmers whom you know there. If you are not coming in on Sunday, drop a line to John’s and let me know if there is a chance.
    All the folks in the old country are well, so is your father and mother. I would like very much to see you as they tell me you are a fine gentleman. Bring in that bicycle of yours till we have a ride. It might be hard to ask you from your girl but give her bones a crushing that will satisfy her for a few days.
    Dear Luke, I am afraid that I have come a bad year, but however there’s not much in the old country either. Write if you are coming in by which you will greatly oblige.
    Your Fond Cousin,
    Michael O’Grady

    No. 18 Fairfield Ave.

    From Michael O’Grady, June 1894

    14/6/94 [June 14, 1894]
    Dear Luke,
    I am walking about here still, awaiting some work to turn up but nothing so far. I thought the trolley was about to start today or yesterday as the rails and wood are scattered on each side of the streets ready for its construction. There are other objections turning up now, such as being run too near some houses and not building it in the middle of the streets. So I am finally decided now on going to Chicago.
    My heart is broke walking about here. Sweeney would not give my job back to me. You will kindly send me ten dollars for which I shall feel ever obliged.
    I will compensate you back doubly if I live and if not I’ll let the old folks at home to give it to you. John has his in the bank and does not like drawing a small sum. I will pay you back at first opportunity.
    I had a letter from Thomas yesterday encouraging me to go to Chicago. He was very vexed with me for not letting him know that I was coming to America. He wanted to know also who authorized me to come to Danbury as it is no commercial city. I expect you have good times now with Starrs girls (if they are up from N.Y.). Tell me if yourself & Joe is chumming it still. If you fail Luke in sending me what I ask I am a lost cat. If I see that the trolley goes on a Monday and I do get work I’ll send back the same evening. Trusting you are well I will come to a conclusion for this time and remain your ever obliged cousin.
    M. O’Grady
    Michael O’Grady
    18 Fairfield Ave.
    Danbury Conn.

    From Sen. George Lounsbury, March 1895

    Luke, meanwhile, was working for an important resident of Ridgefield, George E. Lounsbury, who was then a state senator and later Governor of Connecticut, a post his brother Phineas C. Lounsbury had held from 1887 to 1889. Sen. Lounsbury offered this reference for his former employee:

    Senator Geo. E. Lounsbury, 12th District, Chairman
    Hartford, March 30, 1895

    The bearer of this — Luke J. Kilcoyne — was in my employ from June 1893 to October 1894 and I considered him a faithful, trust-worthy and honest man. I was well pleased with the care which he gave to my horses.

    George E. Lounsbury
    Ridgefield, Ct.

    Reference Letters

    References were an important factor in Luke Kilcoyne’s life; he saved a number of these letters.

    Luke Kilcoyne has lived with us for five months, he has been faithful, honest, and sober.
    Miss E.W. Brown
    September 22 1896
    City address
    31 East 36th St New York

    From Melbert Cary, April 1906 & June 1907

    For a time, Luke Kilcoyne worked for Melbert B. Cary, a lawyer, author, and inventor, who also was a politician; Cary ran as a Democrat for Governor of Connecticut in 1902, a year after Kilcoyne’s previous employer, George Lounsbury, completed his single term as Governor. “Wildfarms” (see below) was also sometimes called Wildflower Farm and was set on lower West Lane, on both sides of the road. Melbert Cary’s mansion stood on top of a hill across from Cedar Lane; he also maintained a residence in New York.

    Melbert B. Cary
    33 West 51st Street,
    New York.

    April 18th 1906

    Luke Kilcoyne
    Wildfarms Ridgefield

    Dear Sir
    You may deliver the mare “Bettie” to H.K. Scott Jr.
    Melbert B. Cary

    June 1, 1907
    Luke Kilcoyne has been in my employ as superintendent of my place at Ridgefield for the past three years, and I consider him an honest man and a good gardener.

    Melbert B. Cary

    From Mrs. Coyle, ca. 1910

    By 1910, Mr. Kilcoyne was again looking for work and for the second time, a reference specifically notes that he refrains from drinking alcohol. The temperance movement, growing for more than a century, was strong and would culminate in the 18th Amendment, creating Prohibition, in 1920. Mrs. Coyle, author of the reference, is clearly fond of the Kilcoyne family and knows them well.

    Dear Mr. Kilcoyne,
    Mrs. Hamilton received your letter and asked me to write you asking to come down on Saturday and get to #431 West-End Ave. at half past at noon as Mr. Hamilton will be home to lunch at that time and would like to have a talk with you. Now there has been quite a few after the position but Mrs. H wants to see your face as I have spoken very highly of you to her. Now there is not any use of my telling you anything to say as you have held other positions and know just what to say. I know you will like it for there really is no hard work and I know you will like Mrs. Hamilton for she is very nice. Trusting that Mrs. Kilcoyne and the children, not forgetting yourself, are all well and hoping to see you on Saturday & am
    Sincerely yours,
    Mrs. M. Coyle
    Be sure and come down

    From Mrs. George Gardiner, 1932

    The last reference in the collection is written by Mrs. George S. Gardiner, whose home stood at the north corner of Main Street and Rockwell Road (it’s now enclosed by a high stone wall). Her note to Kilcoyne indicates that he had been through some hard times.

    Mrs. George S. Gardiner
    Ridgefield, Connecticut
    Oct. 17th, 1932

    Mr. Luke Kilcoyne
    My dear Luke,
    Enclosed is the reference you ask for. I am very glad that you are again well enough to seek a position. I wish you every success.
    Very truly yours,
    Catherine M. Gardiner

    Mrs. George S. Gardiner
    Ridgefield, Connecticut

    Luke Kilcoyne was in my employ for five years; he is industrious, faithful and competent.

    Catherine M. Gardiner
    (Mrs. George S.)
    October 17th, 1932


    Luke Kilcoyne’s obituary in The Ridgefield Press told the outlines of a life; his collection of letters and other materials tell more and contribute to a fuller picture of how a 17-year-old young man from Ireland came to be living here and setting down roots.

    Luke Joseph Kilcoyne, 79, died at his home on Barry Avenue Saturday morning. He had been ill for about two months, during which he received medical treatment at Danbury Hospital.

    A gardener by trade, Mr. Kilcoyne had made Ridgefield his home since his marriage in the old Catholic Church to Miss Ellen Nevins. The couple would have observed their 52nd wedding anniversary on New Year’s Day.

    Born in County Sligo, Ireland, he was a son of the late Patrick and Mary Lundy Kilcoyne. Coming to the United States at the age of 17, he resided in Danbury before moving here.

    Surviving are his wife, four children, James, Margaret, Marie and Thomas, all of RIdgefield; a brother Patrick in Ireland; three sisters, Mrs. Fannie Cain of Liverpool, England, Mrs. Anne Rogers of Gay, Ind., and Mrs. Marie McComb of Chicago.

    Funeral services took place at St. Mary’s Church Tuesday morning with the Rev. Patrick Kilcoyne, a nephew, officiating. Burial will be in the family plot in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Ridgefield.

    The Kilcoyne Family

    Luke Joseph Kilcoyne Jr., born in 1905, predeceased his father in 1943; James J. Kilcoyne, born in 1899, was an electrician who died in 1975; Margaret E. Kilcoyne, born in 1901, had a long career in banking and died in 1993; Marie Augusta Kilcoyne, born in 1907, who taught for 50 years, mostly in Ridgefield, died in 2000; and the baby of the family, Thomas James Kilcoyne, born in 1912, worked for the Gilbert & Bennett Manufacturing Company in Georgetown and died in 1977. Their mother, Nellie, died in 1968. All four of the surviving Kilcoyne siblings lived together in the family homestead on Barry Avenue.


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