Sunday, March 12, 2017

Visiting the Homeland, 1876 – Part 1: Robert and John Howe Arrive in Ireland

If you’ve ever dreamed of visiting the birthplace of your immigrant ancestors, this series of posts might encourage you to start packing!

In early 1876, brothers Robert James Howe and John Irvin Howe left America for a grand tour of Europe. Their first stop was Ireland, the homeland of their parents John Howe and Sarah Brown Howe. I think this was the first time any of the Howes had gone "home" since John and Sarah left Ireland for America almost 30 years earlier, in 1847.

While Robert (father of scrapbooker Sarah Eva Howe) and John (Sarah's uncle) saw many of the same tourist sites that are popular now, they spent the majority of their days in Fivemiletown (County Tyrone) and in adjacent County Fermanagh. John Howe, the father of John and Robert, was christened at Fivemiletown and married Sarah Brown at nearby Cavanaleck Presbyterian Church. The couple lived in County Fermanagh, and their first child (William Ficklin Howe) was born there. No wonder our travelers were eager to visit those places!

The young travelers (Robert was 21; John was 23) kept a diary throughout their trip. The location of the full diary is unknown to our branch of the family, but we have a transcription of the portion related to the visit to Ireland. The stories are as entertaining as they are informative. As one present-day Howe descendant describes it:
The Howe cottages probably looked much like this example.
(Image courtesy
“The diary gives a fascinating picture of life in Ireland in the late 19th century. The Howes were of humble origin, as evidenced by the thatched-roofed cottages in which they lived. Some of the families the brothers stayed with gave up their own beds so their guests could sleep in comfort. The brothers complain of the smell of cows coming from the barn that was attached to one of the houses. The Irish referred to the U.S. as ‘Amerikay’ and were excited to have guests from the place where so many of their friends and relatives had moved.”

St. Patrick’s Day is just five days away, so the time is perfect to begin this three-part series that takes us on a virtual visit to 1870s Ireland


The transcription begins with a diary entry dated February 3, 1876, as the brothers arrive in the area of Blarney Castle in County Cork. They paid six pence to see the Blarney Stone, which they declared “a humbug . . . We did not want to break our necks, so we did not attempt to kiss it.” They continued on to a hotel, arriving long after dark. “John wrote a letter home and Rob’t wrote one to the Democrat [a newspaper in their home town, Carrollton, Kentucky]. Retired at half-past eleven.”

On February 4, they went by Imperial stage to the Great Southern and Western Railway depot, taking second-class seats on the 6 o’clock train for Killarney. “On the way we passed many bogs and thatched roof houses and a few mountains and ruined castles. After a dinner at the Railway Hotel we engaged for 32 shillings a two-horse carriage, guide, driver, host, etc. for a five hours sight of the Lakes of Killarney. . . . Fortunately it was Fair day in town and as we drove through we saw crowds of real Irish people, men with knee breeches, and cattle and general merchandise for sale in the streets.” After touring abbeys and other sites, they spent the night before departing for Dublin.

Waiting for them at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin (fifth floor, Room 108) was a letter from Will (their older brother William Ficklin Howe). After supper in a “dining saloon” on Grafton Street, they went to Theatre Royal and saw “Dick Whittington and His Cat,” declaring “the scenery was the finest we ever saw, while the splendid pageantry of the drama could hardly be excelled.” The brothers wrote about dining and touring throughout Dublin on February 6 and 7.

What follows is the transcribed diary, with my occasional comments in brackets. Question marks in parentheses are those of the transcriber, likely either Robert’s daughter Sarah Eva Howe Salyers or Sarah’s daughter Mary Alice Salyers Hays. Names are in bold, with identities if I know them. I have added bits of punctuation for the sake of comprehension, but I kept editing at a minimum.

   The Diary

Tuesday, Feb’y 8th [the first day with their Irish relatives]
We took the [railroad] cars from Amiens Street station at 8-40 this morning for Maguire’s Bridge. The railroad runs along the sea as far as Dundalk, then out into the interior. Passed through Balbriggan, saw several hosiery mills. [Of course, the brothers would notice these mills. Their father learned tailoring in Ireland; in America, he worked as a tailor and owned a woolen mill and fashion retail store in Carrollton, Kentucky.] Changed tracks at Dundalk and Ballyboy, arrived at Maguire’s Bridge at 12-45. Found Uncle Joseph Brown and cousin Sarah Armstrong with a cart ready to receive us. Went up into the village, stopped at the inn, where after refreshments we started for Uncle Joseph’s, the luggage in cart and we walking. About two miles out the post car overtook us and John and cousin Sarah rode out to Aunt Eliza Braden’s house. Uncle Joseph and I walked . . . and stopped at Aunt Eliza’s. She had us take a lunch after which Sarah accompanied us across the fields and through a bog to Uncle Joseph’s house. Arrived at dark. Here we are at our own mother’s birthplace, a humble thatched roof cottage built of stone and plastered over as nearly all country houses are built in Ireland. Contains four rooms, two large and two small ones, all having cement floors. A turf fire was burning in three of the rooms and Aunt Margaret [likely the wife of Uncle Joseph Brown) met us with a blessing and words of welcome. Both ate six meals today including lunch and teas.
[For more about Irish turf fires, see]
Wednesday, Feb’y 9th
Arose at eight and gave uncle Joseph and Aunt Margaret their presents after breakfast, and at ten started to see Grandpa [the older Robert Howe, father of the immigrant John]. On the way met Mrs. Hugh Robinson, and found Grandpa and his wife [2nd wife Jane Hopkins, whose first husband was named Bell] living in a small house by the roadside, at the foot of Grieve Hill. They were glad to see us. Uncle Joseph went with us. After dispensing their presents and taking a lunch we went to Fivemiletown. Started at half-past three and got to Fivemiletown at half-past four. Received three letters and the Democrat. Saw Mrs. Spence, W. & N. Gillespie, and the house where Pa and Ma first kept house and where William [their first-born; brother to travelers Robert and John] was born. After a long walk we got back to Uncle Joseph’s house about 7 o’clock. Mrs. John Cowan spent the evening with us until about 11 o’clock, when we retired.
Thursday, Feb’y 10th
Arose at an early hour and in company with Uncle Joseph and Cousin Sarah rode over to Maguire’s Bridge and went by [railroad or carriage?] car to see Enniskillen and the fair. Weather sloppy and very disagreeable as we had a light snow yesterday. Arrived 11 o’clock. Went up to top Cole’s monument and got a view of the town and Lake Cerne. Walked through the town watching the crowds of people and seeing the sights until 12 o’clock, when we went to the Imperial Hotel for lunch. After that bought some papers and mailed them home, made other purchases. Took the train again at 4025 and arrived at Aunt Eliza’s about 7 o’clock. After getting our feet warm, which had got very cold coming out from Maguire Bridge, we went over to Uncle Joseph’s. Ate a hearty supper and retired at half-past ten.

So ended the travelers' third day with their Howe ancestors. In the next post, we'll walk along with Robert and John as they visit more of their Howe-Brown kinfolks and family friends. The brothers wrote in their diary about the homes, the furnishings, the food they were served – and, most of all, the people, who, though of humble means, "appear to want no better and look fat and rosy as do the people everywhere we have been in the neighborhood."

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