Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Ireland and the Irish in America: A Living Musical Tradition: Kilkelly

Companion to a display in the Rohrbach Library featuring library resources related to Ireland, Irish immigration to the United States, and Irish traditional music

Kilkelly -- A Song of Immigration and Loss

       There may be no other song that captures the 19th century Irish immigration experience better than Kilkelly. Peter Jones wrote the words based on letters found in a relative’s attic from a father in Ireland to his son, John Hunt, in the United States. The father writes of the terrible conditions in Ireland between the years 1845 and 1852 during and following the potato blight that caused starvation and disease in the rural areas of the country. More than a million people died in the famine and more than a million emigrated. Most of those who left Ireland never returned.


       We have no knowledge of what John Hunt wrote back to his father. While life was easier in the United States than in the Ireland during the famine years, it was still difficult. Irish immigrants struggled for acceptance. With little education and financial resources, most had to settle for the jobs no one else would do. The Irish dug canals, built railroads, and mined coal. The work was hard and dangerous. The line in the second verse, "You say you found work but you don't say what kind," appears to indicate that John Hunt withheld information that his parents would find upsetting. Since the first verse contains advice from his mother "not to work on the railroad," perhaps that was the kind of work John found.

       The sense of loss is clear in the letters. It is difficult to recognize in these days of instant communication that emigration all but severed the relationships between immigrants and those who remained at home. They likely never saw their loved ones or heard their voices again.

       To hear The Green Fields of America sing Kilkelly, click the large button, with the black triangular icon, in the player above. [Recording used by permission of Mick Moloney] The words to the song appear below.



Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 60, my dear and loving son John
Your good friend the schoolmaster Pat McNamara's so good
As to write these words down.
Your brothers have all gone to find work in England,
The house is so empty and sad
The crop of potatoes is sorely infected,
A third to a half of them bad.
And your sister Brigid and Patrick O'Donnell
Are going to be married in June.
Your mother says not to work on the railroad

And be sure to come on home soon.

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 70, my dear and loving son John
Hello to your Mrs and to your four children,
May they grow healthy and strong.
Michael has got in a wee bit of trouble,
I suppose that he never will learn.
Because of the dampness there's no turf to speak of
And now we have nothing to burn.
And Brigid is happy, you named a child for her
Although she's got six of her own.
You say you found work but you don't say
What kind or when you will be coming home. 

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 80, dear Michael and John, my sons
I'm sorry to give you the very sad news
That your dear old mother has gone.
We buried her down at the church in Kilkelly,
Your brothers and Brigid were there.
You don't have to worry, she died very quickly,
Remember her in your prayers.
And it's so good to hear that Michael's returning,
With money he's sure to buy land
For the crop has been poor and the people
Are selling at any price that they can.

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 90, my dear and loving son John
I guess that I must be close on to eighty,
It's thirty years since you're gone.
Because of all of the money you send me,
I'm still living out on my own.
Michael has built himself a fine house
And Brigid's daughters have grown.
Thank you for sending your family picture,
They're lovely young women and men.
You say that you might even come for a visit,
What joy to see you again. 

Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 92, my dear brother John,
I'm sorry I didn't write sooner to tell you that father passed on.
He was living with Brigid, she says he was cheerful
And healthy right down to the end.
Aye, you should have seen him play with
The grandchildren of Pat McNamara, your friend.
And we buried him alongside of mother,
Down at the Kilkelly churchyard.
He was a strong and a feisty old man,
Considering his life was so hard.
And it's funny the way he kept talking about you,
He called for you at the end.
Oh, why don't you think about coming to visit,
We'd all love to see you again.

                                                    Words and Music by Peter Jones


Irish Immigration Links

For additional information on the Irish immigrant experience in the United States check these links:

Kilkelly Song Links

For additional information on the background to the song Kilkelly check these links: