WHEN he was aged ten, broadcaster and journalist Flor MacCarthy’s son James sent a letter to President Michael D Higgins, saying that while his grandfather was diagnosed with dementia, he still remembers the taste of “proper honey”. Noting that there are honey bees in the grounds of Áras an Uachtárain, James enquired if he could buy a jar of honey from the President.
President Higgins wrote back and said a jar of the nectar was waiting for collection from Dublin Castle.
A sweet tale from five years ago and one that stayed with Flor. It got her wondering if letters to Ireland’s presidents from the public were archived.
“It opened a curiosity in me,” says Flor, originally from Skibbereen, now living in Dublin.
When she approached the Áras with her idea of putting together a book on the presidents’ letters, a member of staff there said ‘why hadn’t we thought of the idea?’
The Presidents’ Letters: An Unexpected History of Ireland is the title of Flor’s handsome hardback book that features more than 350 letters, memos, cards, telegrams, drawings, notes and photographs. It “reveals a personal and unexpected history of Ireland since the inauguration of our first president, Douglas Hyde. Most have never been published before and many never seen by the public,” says the press release.
As well as letters of congratulations, of resignation and of sympathy, there is a handwritten note from a president to a queen, a message sent to the moon, and a fond farewell from a poet.
There are begging letters, threatening ones, correspondence sent from parliaments and prisons, from war zones, refugee camps and homeless shelters.
There is a letter from Princess Grace of Monaco thanking President Éamon de Valera for the gift of a pony to her young daughter, Princess Caroline. A groomsman brought the animal to the principality.
“That absolutely jumped out at me,” says Flor. “There was the charming nature of the correspondence and the gift. de Valera sent a pony and two deer from the Phoenix Park to another Caroline on the other side of the world the following year.”
The recipient was JFK’s daughter.
“Sending Irish ponies to children around the world is not the de Valera we learned about in school. I remember learning about a rather formidable, unapproachable man but here we have a man in his late seventies/early eighties sending these gifts with letters signed ‘love Éamon de Valera.’”
The book features ten thematic chapters introduced by well known contributors such as David McCullough on politics, Catriona Crowe on women and writer, and Joseph O’Connor on the arts. These put the letters in context, revealing an unexpected history of the country.
The most recent communication in the book is a message to Bob Dylan from President Higgins marking their eightieth birthdays in April/May 2021.
Flor, who started her career in RTÉ Cork, says that throughout the whole project, “I didn’t set foot in a supermarket since before Covid. (Her husband, Paul Cunningham, RTÉ’s political correspondent, is very supportive.) It was that intense, particularly in the last year. I spent a lot of 18 hour days working to get the book over the line.”
With the libraries and archives in lockdown, the book was delayed for a year.
With no access to emails that would have been sent to presidents, Flor says there’s a future book to be done on correspondence other than actual letters.
“Given the fact that so much of the communications are electronic, it has made the letters even more precious.
“One of the beautiful things about doing the research was sitting in the National Archives in Dublin and the National Library, opening old files and seeing letters falling out, some yellowed and fading. It makes you realise how precious they are.”
From reading the correspondence, Flor feels she got to know our presidents better. She also got to indulge her love of research.
“I studied history of art and architecture at Trinity. Mind you, I didn’t do much research then. But I love history. In recent years, I’ve done pieces for RTÉ’s History Show. I’ve been involved in a few of the decade of centenary events and I collect anything to do with West Cork history. I live and breathe it.”
Flor and her journalist brother, Dan, who works at the Irish Examiner, recently researched a true but unlikely sounding story about their family. Their maternal grand-uncle, Ambrose O’Shea served in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). He was in the Rosscarberry RIC Barracks on March 30, 1921, when it was attacked by Tom Barry’s Flying Column. He was killed in the onslaught. Among the column members was their grand-uncle on their father’s side, Jer MacCarthy. There is, says Flor, more research to be done on this story.
But back to her research for the book, Flor says some of the letters were physically difficult to read because they’re so old.
“The archivists have been extremely helpful. I was lucky in that when lockdown hit, there was a skeletal staff in the archives who were incredible. They sent me photocopies of letters so that I could continue working.
“I have to single out Niamh Ní Charra, a brilliant Killarney woman. She is the archivist working on the Mary Robinson archive at NUI Galway. Mary Robinson and Galway university gave me special permission to go there.”
She spent time with Niamh, going through the papers which haven’t yet been catalogued.
“That was a real privilege. Normally, you’d have to wait until the archive is ready. There are 660 boxes of Mary Robinson’s papers.”
Flor used to enjoy Niamh’s Friday afternoon phone calls.
“She’d call me to say, ‘listen, I know you can’t take anymore and I know New Island (the publisher of the book) are saying to cut your losses now. But wait until you see this’. She was hugely enthusiastic.”
Among the correspondence were letters written during World World II, “pleading for aid, for food, from right across war-torn Europe. But some of those letters couldn’t be answered because the handwriting was so shaky. These people were desperate. But you couldn’t figure out the names and addresses.”
Terri Kearney, Flor’s best friend, who is the manager of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, wrote the introduction to the chapter on the letters by children in the book.
“I’ve seen Terri in school talking about the importance of letters.”
Flor comes from a family of journalists. As well as her brother Dan, her sister Clare is a journalist in Denmark. Her late brother, Gerry, was an arts journalist. Only their late brother, Barry, didn’t follow the family path. He did law.
Why the preponderance of journalists?
“I don’t know. Like in lots of Irish households, books, crosswords and scrabble were highly regarded. We used to have competitions to see who could receive the smallest letter. The winner was the one who wrote a letter that was barely bigger than a stamp!
“My dad (who was a solicitor) used to get three newspapers a day; the Examiner for the death notices, the Irish Times for the headlines and the Irish Independent for Curly Wee and Gussie Goose’ (the cartoon).”
Growing up in West Cork was “bliss”.
“We’d spend our time between Skibbereen and Sherkin Island in the summers. My mother was a Dubliner but she had a lot of family around Skibbereen.”
As well as 15-year-old James, Flor and her husband have a daughter, Isabelle, who is 19. Will they follow the family tradition and go into journalism?
“They don’t have an interest in it. But they’re both very interested in the atlas and going places. From living in Brussels (where Paul was RTÉ’s Europe correspondent) for three years when they were five and nine, they soaked up a lot about languages so they love that.”
Flor wonders why Cork has never had a president in the Áras. The city has a Cork Taoiseach and Jack Lynch as Taoiseach flew the flag for Cork. Are there any contenders for a Cork head of state?
“I don’t know,” says Flor. “I’ll put out the call!”
The Presidents’ Letters, by Flor MacCarthy, is published by New Island Books. €24.95.