Tessa Finn was brought up in Dublin and describes herself as a returned wanderer, living back in Dublin since 2007, after spending 25 years abroad.She studied in UCD and then worked in medical research for many years in London and Berlin. She then worked for 10 years in a Californian Winery. Now, she works for an American medical devices company in Dublin.
Tessa is a dabbler in cooking, gardening, history, but her passion these last years has been figurative sculpture. She lives with her Welsh husband who’s a writer, publisher and general book geek in a home that’s crammed with books.
Tessa told us about her contribution to the Letters 1916 project – a collection of almost 100 letters exchanged by her grandparents, James Finn and May Fay.
Shortly after I arrived back in Dublin and at a bit of a loose end, I started to follow up on some leads in our family history. We had this little treasure that was the letters written between my grandparents (more than 90 letters!). These letters were almost all written in the period between their engagement in January 1916 and their wedding that June, coincidentally a very significant period in Irish history.
I started to work on transcribing them as a gift for my father whose eyesight was failing and for whom they were very deeply moving documents. The more I worked on them, the more two things happened; I came to like and know my grandparents better and I saw that these could be of interest to other people. There were many references to the events of the time from the viewpoint of uninvolved people. Eventually, for his 90th birthday I put them together into a book with some background history.
My father had never known his father, having been born posthumously and towards the end (he died last year) it became more visible how much of a wound that was for him. His father, James Finn, had died in 1922 at 45 from the after-effects of the great flu epidemic, just a little under 5 years married to his great love Mary (May) Fay who was 20 years younger than he. In the letters you can see how he had been shy to ask her because of the difference in age. She lived in Westmeath close to his relatives the Seerys while he lived in Dublin working as a senior civil servant so their letters are written back and forth as they grow in intimacy and trust, plan their visits to each other and planning the wedding day itself.
There is a beauty in their growing love for each other; sometimes his letters are very adoring.There is also a great deal of everyday stuff; gossip and such. As they go through the Easter period and beyond there is much confusion, fear, anger, and sympathy.
Obviously many people they knew were either actively involved or suspected of the involvement. James writes “Don’t worry about my being arrested. If I was any blooming good I’d have been arrested long ago. Men a thousand times better have a daisy quilt over them in Glasnevin now.”
When I heard of the Letters 1916 project I felt immediately that this collection would be a useful addition to the project. I have long felt that the most interesting way to see history is from the eyes of the people living it, not as a novel already written but a lived thing where the significances and consequences of events is not seen until after the fact.
My family’s letters offer one perspective on that year which was full of so many events that were to have large consequences deep into the present day. And this is a way of honouring my own past of history as well.