Archivists in Galway are starting work on a project to digitise thousands of letters sent home by emigrants to America. 

The collection features transcripts of material sent from the late 1600s to the mid 1950s. 

Gathered over five decades by a US academic, the letters will be scanned and put on a searchable database in the coming months. 

The archive has been donated to NUI Galway by Kerby Miller, emeritus Professor of History at the University of Missouri.

He became interested in the experience of Irish emigrants to America, while studying at University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1970s. 

In the years that followed, he travelled the country getting letters that had been sent to all parts of Ireland, over several centuries. 

Prof Kerby borrowed the original documents, photocopied and transcribed them, before returning the correspondence to its owners.

He says the overwhelming majority of the material begins in the late 18th century, and increases throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

"There’s an enormous sense of loss, of loneliness and of exile, but it varies enormously by time period, by religion, by the region of origin, by the nature of the emigrants' experience and - I think - most importantly, by class.

"Irish people who were bourgeois before they left Ireland had a certain expectation of American capitalist society, but the poorer emigrants, particularly those from the south and west of Ireland, tended more than their social and economic superiors to perceive emigration as difficult, if not tragic."

Prof Miller says there is a dramatic change in correspondence trends over the 1800s, because of the social and economic changes during that time.

"People wrote huge letters in the early 19th century but they only sent one a year, and many never arrived.

"But, in the later 1800s, the arrival of the 'Penny Post’ changed the dynamic. Letters were sent more frequently but were now much shorter, due to weight constraints." 

Reading the letters, one is struck by the fusion between the lives people left behind and their new experiences in the US.

Professor Miller says censorship is also evidence in later correspondence. While letters sent during the American Civil War have "huge amounts of detail", he says there is virtually no mention of World War I, in notes sent home during that time. 

He donated the letters to NUI Galway, having collaborated with Breandán MacSuibhne, from Acadamh na hOllscolaíocht Gaeilge, over the years. 

A total of 50 boxes of material have been sent to the University for the digitisation project.

Dr MacSuibhne says it is an amazing resource that details the way Irish people made their way in America. He says the archive will provide information to people researching their Irish heritage and is hoping that it will expand in the years ahead, with contributions from others who may have old letters stored in their homes.