Still in the post after 260 years – An Irishman’s Diary on a treasure trove of undelivered letters
The letters were seized when the Irish vessel was brought to Bristol in March 1757. They were never delivered and have lain in an archive, mostly unopened, ever since
In March 1757, a Dublin-registered ship set sail from Bordeaux with a cargo of wine, brandy and luxury goods on board. It was bound for Dublin, but the voyage of the Two Sisters was dramatically interrupted as it became caught up in the Seven Years’ War that pitted Great Britain against France.
War was declared in May 1756 and from that moment on, trade between France and Ireland was severely disrupted. The Two Sisters and her cargo were seized coming out of the Bay of Biscay by a Bristol-based privateer. The English ship had 26 guns and a crew of 200 men. She was four times the size of the Irish ship, which was a two-masted, square-rigged 90-ton scow.
A case was opened in the High Court of Admiralty against the captain of the Irish vessel. Commercial contact with France had been prohibited at the outbreak of the war. Some shipping was still allowed to continue, provided it involved goods that had been purchased prior to the declaration of war.
The Two Sisters was transporting a cargo of claret and white wine. Other items in the hold included brandy, vinegar, cork, 156 reams of white paper for printers’ use, artificial flowers for women’s hair, silk stockings, men’s and women’s white leather gloves, paper snuff boxes, sweetmeats, lentils and olives.
A parcel containing 125 letters was also being transported to Dublin. The letters were mainly written by Irish people based in Bordeaux to family back in Ireland and by French people with connections in Ireland. The letters deal with both business and personal affairs and are important for two reasons. First, they offer us a tantalising glimpse into the normally private lives of a range of individuals from some very different social classes. Second, they show how connected Ireland was with this part of southwestern France in the 18th century.
The letters were seized when the Irish vessel was brought to Bristol in March 1757. They were never delivered and they have lain in an archive, mostly unopened, ever since. Opening them in January 2011 must have been like prising open a long-forgotten time capsule. They were rediscovered by chance by Prof Thomas M Truxes, who was there to investigate a different file of papers. The letters were subsequently transcribed and published in a book under the title, The Bordeaux-Dublin Letters, 1757.
Many of the letters were written in English and were sent from Bordeaux to Dublin, but there are also some letters from Toulouse, Marseilles and Paris, to Limerick, Cork and Galway. They tell of family disagreements, births, deaths and everything in between. Through them, we are privy to their innermost thoughts.
The father of a newborn baby girl says that he “should be pleased that no further augmentation might happen” and that he “can live to put them firmly on their feet”. In another letter, a father says that he has learned that his son is “a great libertine”. “Watch out what you do”, the father says to his son, and then urges him to “change your way of doing things and apply yourself well”.
A man named Walter Codd wrote from Marseilles to his wife Catherine in Dublin about raising children. He posed the following question, “how many parents have been undone by their fondness for ungrateful children who frequently measure their affection in proportion to the substance their parents have to give them?”
The letters also tell of business dealings between merchants in the two countries, with references to butter and beef leaving Ireland and wine being sent from France in return. Trade was one of the reasons why there were strong ties between the two countries at this time. From the late 1600s, Irish merchant communities became established in Saint-Malo and La Rochelle. Over time, they moved south to the larger city of Nantes. In 1714, a little over a fifth of all ships leaving Nantes were destined for Ireland. Bordeaux later replaced Nantes as the place to be for Irish merchants.
In July 1757, a court in London ruled that the Two Sisters should be allowed go free, as there was no case to answer. She arrived back in Dublin in September 1757, almost 10 months after she sailed down the Liffey en route to France. Some positives did come from the sorry tale, however. The crew, who all survived the ordeal, would have had great stories to tell their friends and family about the incident. We also have these letters that help us understand how connected Ireland was to the world in the mid-1700s and how people’s hopes and fears in 1757 do not seem too different from today.