I found the journal when I was helping to clear a relative’s house for auction. It was old and dusty, and a little worm eaten in places but it looked interesting. I saved it from the skip and the bonfire and put it carefully away. It wasn’t until recently that I finally found the time to take it out and examine it more closely. With rapidly increasing interest I began to follow the adventures of a young Irish man called John, aged twenty-one, as he set out from Liverpool to New York for the first time.
“We left Liverpool on the morning of the 8th April 1834” he wrote. “Every thing favored us.”
In his company I met and dined with the best of American Society in New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Famous names cropped up constantly – Andrew Jackson, Nicholas Biddle, Barclay, and Cunard. He attended the races, saw Fanny Kemble perform in the theatre, visited the Law Courts, attended the Senate and crossed the River Hudson by steamboat.
Then he left the cities and travelled through Virginia and Kentucky. Throughout he kept up a running commentary on life in America, on politics, on slavery, on agriculture. He visited a prison and attended a Shaker Chapel. He grumbled about the roads, the inns and taverns and he never failed to mention the pretty girls. It became obvious at this point that romance would strike sooner or later, and strike it did. By the time he reached the Military Academy at West Point he had met an eighteen year old American Beauty called Delia and had fallen in love. Delia Tudor Stewart was the daughter of a naval hero, Charles Stewart, whose family had played a prominent part in American public life since the Revolution. She was tall, vivacious and striking with her oval face, her dark hair and her blue eyes. Whenever she was mentioned in the journal she appeared lively, energetic and fearless. At Kosciusko’s Retreat – a favourite spot for lovers – he proposed to her, and she, surprisingly, accepted. Unfortunately the journal had been heavily edited at this point, presumably by him. Whenever he wrote about Delia pages had been removed, doctored and replaced.
From the States John travelled North on a Cunard Steamer – still a novelty then – to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he indulged in some fruitless Moose hunting. The journal ended in mid-sentence on the last page in Frederickton, Nova Scotia, on the 5th October 1834.
It seemed to suggest that there had been a second journal, perhaps even more, and now these were presumably lost forever. A little research resulted in the discovery of a second journal in the National Library, which had been bought by them in 1926. This journal started on the 7th October in Frederickton, only two days after the end of my journal. The story was now complete.
John and Delia were married at Grace Church, New York on 31st May 1835. John brought his American bride back to Ireland, to his home at Avondale in Co. Wicklow. There she bore him eleven children. In 1854 she appears to have left Ireland to live in Paris with some of her children.
Delia never returned to Avondale until after John’s death. It was her second son, named after her father, who made Avondale famous. He was Charles Stewart Parnell.
[Previously broadcast on RTE Sunday Miscellany]