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James Prendergast family correspondence

Collection MS-1986-141: James Prendergast family correspondence


  • Creation: 1840 - 1850

Scope and Contents

These forty-eight letters written over a ten-year span (1840-1850) from the Prendergast family members in Ireland to those who had come to America document the experiences of both groups.

The letters detail family life: possible emigration for family members still in Ireland; accounts of the health and illness of family members; births, marriages, and deaths; news about extended family and neighbors in Ireland; and inquiries about others who emigrated from County Kerry to the United States. Over one hundred individuals, other than immediate family members, are mentioned in the correspondence.

They also document living conditions in County Kerry during the famine, including mentions of prices of produce, livestock, and rent; details of garden planting, harvest, and weather conditions; and descriptions of the potato blight during the famine years.

The correspondence touches on significant events in County Kerry in the 1840s, including accounts of famine relief efforts by the government, the campaign for Repeal of the Union, and Daniel O'Connell's trial.

The earliest letter in the collection is a letter of reference for Thomas Prendergast from his employer, Dr. Agar, in Ireland, dated April 20, 1840. The remaining letters were written by members of the family in Ireland to their kin in Boston. The final letter in the collection is from Elizabeth in Liverpool as she waits for the Niobe to set sail. It is postmarked September 20, 1850.

The letters were sent to a number of different addresses in Boston, most in the area once known as "Fort Hill," now downtown Boston. The letters authored by James Prendergast were mostly dictated to scriveners, including school teacher Daniel Connell and land surveyor Patrick Mahoney, though James signed his own name and occasionally added a few words.

There is one document that is not a letter. It is one page (and an envelope) and contains notes by an unknown author on Thomas and Jeffrey's naturalization.


Restrictions on Access

Collection is open for research; a portion of the collection is available digitially.

Restrictions on use

These materials are made available for use in research, teaching and private study, pursuant to U.S. Copyright Law. The user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, infringement of copyright and publication rights of reproduced materials. Any materials used for academic research or otherwise should be fully credited with the source. The original authors may retain copyright to the materials.

Biographical Note

James Prendergast (circa 1785-1848) and Elizabeth Hurley Prendergast (1786-1857) had six children: John, Maurice, Michael, Julia, Jeffrey, and Thomas. The family lived in Milltown, County Kerry, Ireland, a market town with a population of 1,427 in 1837, which by 1848 was reduced to 797 inhabitants.

In May 1840, Thomas and Jeffrey emigrated from Ireland, arriving in New York, then settling in Boston. Their sister Julia and her husband Cornelius Riordan either emigrated with them or had arrived in Boston before them. The children in Boston provided the financial support to sustain their family members remaining in Ireland through the famine years, regularly sending money and assisting them to emigrate.

John, Maurice, and Michael each were married and remained in County Kerry near their parents. John died in 1847, leaving a widow and one young daughter. That same year Michael emigrated to America, sailing from Cork to St. John, New Brunswick, then joined his siblings in Boston. Maurice's son, James Maurice, was also brought to Boston by his uncles there, sometime before November 1849.

James Prendergast died in December, 1848, and in 1850 Elizabeth Prendergast, accompanied by John's orphan daughter Elizabeth, then age eight, and Cornelius Riordan's brother Florence, sailed to New York on the ship Niobe, to reunite with her children in Boston.


James Prendergast family correspondence, MS.1986.141, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Lewis, Samuel. A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland : Comprising the Several Counties, Cities, Boroughs, Corporate, Market, and Post Towns, Parishes, and Villages, with Historical and Statistical Descriptions ... Galway: Kennys, 1995.

Massachusetts Vital Records, 113:19.

Prendergast, James. The Prendergast Letters: Correspondence from Famine-era Ireland, 1840-1850. Edited by Shelley Barber. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.


3.25 Linear Feet (2 containers)

Language of Materials



The collection consists of correspondence from James and Elizabeth Prendergast in Milltown, County Kerry, Ireland to their children in Boston, Massachusetts. It also includes a few letters from other members of the family in Ireland to their relatives in Boston. Much of the correspondence concerns life in Ireland.


Arranged in two series: I. Correspondence, and II. Notes on naturalization of Thomas and Jeffrey Prendergast.


Because the current accessioning system was not used until January 1986, it is not possible to know exactly the dates of acquisition of materials received before that time.

Existence of digital copies

Most of this collection is available digitally. Links are included in the inventory.

Related Materials

Letters to Bridget Hughes, MS.2004.074, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. Mary Josephine Ryan Landrey collection of Irish letters, MS1997.035, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

George R. Ingham collection of the William James MacNeven family, MS.2009.002, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

James Prendergast Family Correspondence
Shelley Barber
2003 and 2010
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the John J. Burns Library Repository

John J. Burns Library
Boston College
140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill MA 02467 United States