Pádraig Phiarais Cúndún was an Irish language poet who emigrated from Ballymacoda in the 1800s. From the United States, he wrote several letters home to his friends in Ballymacoda. The content of many of these letters survived and was published in a collection by Risteard Ó Foghludha in 1932.
Pádraig was born in Shanakill, Ballymacoda in 1777, the son of Mary & Piaras Cúndún. He had a brother and at least two sisters – although different sources give conflicting information here, indicating that he may have had two brothers. Pádraig eventually took over the family farm, and in 1811 he married Margaret McCarthy, the daughter of Charles and Christina McCarthy from nearby Beanfield. They had a son, Piaras, and three daughters, Eibhlin, Caitlin and Maighread.
In 1825, Pádraig emigrated to the United States with his wife and family. There isn’t a clear reason as to why he decided to emigrate at that time (Pádraig was in his late-forties by then), but some sources show that his landholding in Shanakill was prone to flooding. Passenger lists confirm 1825 as his year of arrival, when, embarking from Cobh, Pádraig and his family landed at Quebec in Canada where they remained for some time, before travelling to New York where some of his cousins were living.
The 1830 United States Federal Census shows Pádraig living in Deerfield in Oneida County in the state of New York. He is listed using the English version of his name, Patrick Condon. He had settled there in an area known as Deerfield Hills, near the town of Utica.
In the Christmas of 1834, Pádraig wrote letters home to Ballymacoda for the first time, to four of his friends. His first letter home contained nearly 300 lines of verse.
Pádraig’s writings home give a unique insight into the times, and cover such topics as his thoughts on living in the United States, the prices of day-to-day goods in comparison to home, and the status of his crops. His letters also contain requests for news from home, as in 1848 when he wrote to his old friend Tomás Ó Briain in Mountcotton, Ballymacoda, enquiring of the status of the crops at home, which he had heard were ‘wretched, deficient, scanty, and miserable‘. This was at the height of ‘An Gorta Mór‘, the great famine in Ireland.
While it is evident from some of Pádraig’s letters home that he missed Ireland, with him even having said ‘Níl áit fón ngrein do b’fhearr liom bás dfhagáil ioná in Éirinn…‘ – ‘there’s no place I know of under the sun I would rather die than in Ireland‘, his writings also indicate the poverty he had escaped, and his opinion that he was much better off having left Ireland:
…for a day never dawned on me that I thought more sorrowful than the day I left Shanakill – me and my big, poor family – to make our way across the sea to an unknown land. Nonetheless, the mournful, melancholy day I went through then turned into today’s beautiful, sunny, mirthful day, for I have a fine farm in freehold now, and thus I think I am better off as I am rather than having to pay a cruel yearly rent for Shanakill.Another excerpt from a letter Pádraig wrote home (translated to English from the original Irish)
With regards to poetry, his most famous work is likely ‘Tórramh an Bhairille‘ (‘The Wake of the Barrell‘), written in praise of the people of Ballymacoda. In the composition, he tells of the generosity of the people of Ballymacoda; that the people of these parts will drink alcohol but never drink soda, and that there will always a meal on the table for a visitor.
Pádraig Phiarais Cúndún died in Deerfield on March 13th 1857, having lived the remainder of his life there. This is confirmed by entries in the United States Federal Census in 1840, 1850 and also in the New York State Census of 1855, all listing Patrick Condon as living in Deerfield.
He is buried in St. Agnes Cemetery in Utica, New York, beside his wife who had died in 1840. What is amazing to learn is that throughout his life, Pádraig remained a monoglot – having never learnt to speak the English language fluently. This was helped no doubt by the large number of Irish emigrants who spoke Gaeilge living in Deerfield and the surrounding area, some of which, as with his old friends in Ballymacoda, Pádraig had correspondence by letter. In recent years, his gravestone has been up-righted and restored by the Irish Cultural Center in Utica.
Pádraig’s son Piaras, arranged for some of his fathers poems to be published posthumously in the New York based newspaper, The Irish American in 1858. In 1932, Risteard Ó Foghludha published a collection of Pádraig’s poems and letters home to Ballymacoda, having previously published excerpts between 1908 and 1910 in The Gaelic American. Kerby Miller, the noted American historian who transcribed over decades hundreds of letters from Irish immigrants in America, also repeatedly quoted Cúndún’s poetry in the 1985 book Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America.
The poetry and letters of Pádraig Phiarais Cúndún continue to be consulted by scholars and used as teaching materials today. Professor Kenneth E. Nilsen (1947-2012), professor and chair of Celtic Studies at St. Francis Xavier University in Canada described the writings of Pádraig Phiarais Cúndún as representing ‘the most important body of pre-famine writing in Irish from the United States‘.
References & Further Information
Thanks to Kay Cullen for sharing her existing research notes on Pádraig Phiarais Cúndún.
Thanks to Michael Hoke of Utica, New York for providing the pictures of the restored headstone in St. Agnes Cemetery.
U.S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2010.
1830, 1840, 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2010.
Ancestry.com. New York, U.S., State Census, 1855 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.
Cúndún, Pádraig Phiarais, Entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography
Risteard Ó Foghludha, ed., Pádraig Phiarais Cúndún, 1777-1856, Baile Átha Cliath, 1932.
North American Gaels: Speech, Story, and Song in the Diaspora (McGill-Queen’s Studies in Ethnic History, 2.49), edited by Natasha Sumner, Aidan Doyle, November 2020