Conservator’s Notebook: Prendergast Letters

The James Prendergast Family Correspondence was published in the volume entitled The Prendergast Letters, edited by Shelley Barber, published by University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.

The James Prendergast Family Correspondence was published in the volume entitled The Prendergast Letters, edited by Shelley Barber, published by University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.

“My Dear Thomas…

I have sent fifteen pair of stockings to you by John Quirk who left this Town in this present month namely four pair of light grey two of the pairs plainly knitted and two ribbed two pair of socks of light Blue one plain and one ribbed two pair of grey ribbed one pair of white ribbed three pair of Black worsted stocking plain.”

- Letter 6, April 28, 1842, James Prendergast to Thomas Prendergast, from the James Prendergast Family Correspondence, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

There is a certain expectation when reading primary sources. It is no coincidence that the phrase, “mining for sources” has become a history expression—we are searching for the vein in the primary source, the fissure deep in the bedrock where the most revealing information is likely to be unearthed. But as a geologist casts aside the commonplace in the pursuit of the rare, we as researchers habitually do so, filtering primary source documents for the peculiar, the curious, and the significant.

The Prendergast Letters seem ordinary. This collection of 48 letters, written between 1840 and 1850, are housed at the John J. Burns Library. James and Elizabeth Prendergast were from Milltown, County Kerry, Ireland, and were fruitful in their labors. They were proud parents of six children: John, Jeffrey, Thomas, Maurice, Michael, and Julia. The Prendergast Letters are the result of James Prendergast writing to Julia, Jeffrey, and Thomas after they immigrated to Boston, although the children authored some of the letters.

A selection of the Prendergast Letters is now on display in the Burns Library's Fine Print Room through March 27th, 2013.

A selection of the Prendergast Letters is now on display in the Burns Library’s Fine Print Room through March 27th, 2013.

While the Prendergast Letters are most cited for their firsthand accounts of the Great Hunger, the regional economy, and local politics, the ordinary dialogue is a rarely praised aspect of the collection. In the above excerpt from the letters, James Prendergast described the knitted wares he sent to his children in Boston. Such excerpts offer rarely afforded glimpses into the common humanity unyielding through time: a normal familial relationship. James Prendergast sending his children socks, although in some questionable colors, is far from remarkable. But it was the intent behind this, that familial love despite geography, which was peculiar, curious, and significant.

The Prendergast Letters are a reminder that if the human experience is viewed as important, we would not forsake the ordinary for the awesome, the inglorious for the sublime. The next time you are conducting research, pause and engage that page long discussion that somehow manages to support Zeno’s paradox, and against all personal moral qualms, become acquainted with the people of your study.

If you are interested in learning more about the Prendergast Letters, then take a look at the finding aid or contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.  A selection of the Prendergast Letters is now on exhibit in the Burns Library’s Fine Print Room through March 27th, 2013.  After the exhibit ends, photocopies and transcriptions of the Prendergast Letters are available for your perusal in the John J. Burns Library Reading Room.  You may also learn more about the Prendergast Letters by reading the published version of this correspondence - Prendergast Letters:  Correspondence from Famine-Era Ireland 1840 – 1850, edited by Shelley Barber, Reference & Archives Specialist, John J. Burns Library and published by University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.

Josh Rosenfeld

  • Josh Rosenfeld, Conservation Assistant, John J. Burns Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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