Featured Contributor: Noreen Bowden

Noreen Bowden
Noreen Bowden

Noreen Bowden is an Irish-American living in New York who spent nearly fifteen years living and working in Ireland. She has been a web editor since 1995, mainly on sites aimed at the Irish abroad She started a website called GlobalIrish.ie about six years ago that deals with various aspects of emigration and diaspora.

Noreen told us about her collection and how she got involved with the Letters of 1916 project. 

I heard about the Letters of 1916 project through an article that was posted on Twitter. At the time I saw the article, my dad had recently died and I was going through some old family papers. One of the sets of documents was this little treasure trove of things that had come from my great-uncle, Martin Kennedy, who was born in 1891 in Tullaroan, Co. Kilkenny. Uncle Martin had lived with us for a few years before he died in the 1980s, and he had had this fascinating life – he had emigrated to New York in 1916 in the hopes of becoming a teacher, but that originally hadn’t worked out and he travelled through South America working on a few civil engineering projects before settling in Argentina for a few years, where he starting teaching English. He travelled back to New York, where he had become a teacher by 1928. He spent most of his life then as a Spanish teacher in the New York City School system, but he travelled back and forth to Ireland frequently throughout his whole life, staying there for extended periods as well.

The letters that I submitted to the project were from teachers at the De La Salle Intermediate School in “Queen’s County” (now Laois) and De La Salle Training College in Waterford, which Martin had attended, and they were returning forms required by the New York City school system, outlining the courses that Martin had taken as part of his studies to become a teacher. When I had originally found these letters, I was excited to realize that they had been sent in the immediate aftermath of the Rising, and that they had made references to the events going on at the time.

Letter from Brother Ignatius of De La Salle Training College in Waterford to Martin Kennedy in New York, 19 May 1916
Letter from Brother Ignatius of De La Salle Training College in Waterford to Martin Kennedy in New York, 19 May 1916

These letters are the earliest documents in the collection of documents that we have, arriving only a short time after he’d emigrated, and I think it’s amazing they survived. Martin must have brought them with him on all his travels through South America, as they would have been useful for finding work as a teacher there. I think it’s really interesting as well that we have the envelopes – one of them was opened by the censor’s office and then resealed with a label that says “censor.”; it’s interesting that the writer of the other letter, which the censor’s office didn’t open, says that he won’t say much about recent events because the letter was likely to be read.

When I first found these letters, I was really intrigued, but I really didn’t know any way to share them with others who might be interested. So when I saw that the Letters of 1916 project was working to gather letters like this, I was delighted! It’s exciting to be part of such a wonderful project, and to think how many letters there might be in attics and bookshelves all around the world.

The Letters of 1916 project inspired me to start a small website about my uncle’s documents – it’s still very much a work in progress, but it’s fun to sift through the old documents and see what else is there. Among my favorite things are the papers related to Argentina – there’s a business card my uncle used to carry, which says “Martin Kennedy, profesor de inglés.” We also have a programme from a gathering of Irish organisations in Buenos Aires in 1920. It was a conference “por la libertad de Irlanda” [for the freedom of Ireland].

I started the martinkennedyfiles.com website after I submitted the letters, because I thought they were such an interesting window into the lives of a single emigrant who had travelled so widely and kept such rich ties with Ireland. As someone so interested in history, I feel really lucky that I come from a family that likes to keep things! And how wonderful to live in a time when we can share these things so freely! 

Noreen’s Twitter profile is @noreenbowden and if you would like to find out more about Martin Kennedy, she will be updating the martinkennedyfiles.com website as she sorts through the files.