by Maria O’Shea, Manuscripts Student
One of the wonderful things about working in our Department of Manuscripts is that, as well as working with political and official documents, you come across material that makes you remember that history is made up of real people. One example is a collection of heartbreaking correspondence between Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh, junior assistant here at the National Library, 1898-1902 and President of Ireland 1945-59, and his wife, Mary-Kate (Kit or Cáit) Ryan, Republican activist and Lecturer in French at UCD, in the two months before her death at the age of 55 on 18 July 1934.
Kit had suffered from illness and heart problems for years and in June 1934 she was sent to the famous resort at Bad Nauheim in Germany in an attempt to recover. Holding the posts of Vice-President of the Executive Council and Minister for Local Government, Seán T. could not go with her.
Kit’s first letter from 9 June starts off describing her journey to Germany where she writes that ‘all has gone wonderfully well. But I see that I could not have tried to travel alone. Phyllis and Chris [her younger sisters] do all the work’ and finishes her letter ‘I wonder how you are ever since. Perhaps I’ll hear from you soon … and I am sure you are busy’. Seán T.’s letters are full of general and political news but his letter of 14 June ends with his saying that he is ‘sleeping very badly – I wonder why?’ and on 25 June ‘I have not been sleeping well since you left’. In another letter he writes ‘I am more than charmed that the doctor has ordered you to rest … Please God he will find some substitute for the digitalis … and has such good hope of doing something of real value for you’. Of the digitalis Kit writes on 18 June ‘the doctor’s game is to get me to do without digitalis … he seems to be succeeding. I am never out of breath’. She also describes taking the famous Nauheim baths and that the doctor said ‘that if my heart continued to progress it would be well in 6 weeks. I don’t know if that is literal, but even well enough like it used to be 3 years ago would not be bad’.
She talks of homesickness ‘it seemed so long I’d have to stay’. By 22 June she writes I wonder how he [the doctor] can be so hopeful – I felt frightfully tired when out. But my heart is better and better’. However, her subsequent letters speak of having rheumatism and a cold. By 26 June she is writing of a relapse but still hope and optimism flow though her letters – that after she has got used to Germany ‘things will go as they promised’ and ‘the worst of this little attack is over. We shall begin all over again soon’.
By Saturday night, 30 June, Seán T.’s letters are becoming more worried ‘I have been worried about you all day long. I wonder how you are. I do hope you are over the attack and generally getting better. It is terrible to be so far away. If I could only ‘phone to you I wouldn’t feel so bad. I find the house sad and lonely without you’. Two days later he asks her to send a card every day ‘you need only scribble a sentence to let us know how you are progressing’ but warns her not to waste energy writing letters to anyone. She replies by saying she is ‘selfish enough to long for you’. On Sunday evening, 8 July, the optimism in Kit’s letters ceases and she is forced to write ‘I think finally … the sooner you get here the better now. I don’t see how I can get better’. Seán T. made it to Bad Nauheim in time and was with her when she died on 18 July. They had been married 18 years.
The folder containing these letters (Ms 47,977) also contains letters and postcards to and from family and friends regarding Kit’s illness, including letters from her sister Phyllis written to Seán T. while she was with Kit (two years later after receiving a papal dispensation Seán T. and Phyllis were married); condolence letters to Ó Ceallaigh following Kit’s death; and newspaper cuttings covering her death and burial.