In 2008 I acquired a collection of 30 annotated books that once belonged to an Irish immigrant to the United States by the name of Thomas Connary. Examining this material offered fascinating insight into the personal history of one Irish American, into the nature of his Irish Catholicism, and into how books could structure religious beliefs and social life. In 2014 I published Books and Religious Devotion: The Redemptive Reading of an Irishman in Nineteenth-Century New England with Pennsylvania State University Press, a detailed chronicle of this person's universe of books.
This display shows examples from Connary's many richly annotated and decorated book, and tells more about the personal history of this New England farmer. I also show my collection of old postcards from Stratford in New Hampshire where Connary lived for more than 50 years.
Thomas Connary immigrated to the United States in 1833 at the age of 19, and settled in the town of Stratford. He lived in the family farmstead with his wife Lucinda and their five children Joseph, John, Simon, Mary and Anne. The Connary family were the first resident Catholics in the Stratford community, and Thomas Connary purchased the land on which the Sacred Heart church was erected in 1887.
Were if not for the accidental survival of his books and writings, Thomas Connary would be well-nigh forgotten: a distant and forgotten ancestor; a name on a tombstone; one individual among the millions who emigrated from Ireland in the nineteenth century in search of new experience and a better life.
Thomas Connary collected books and inserted much of his own writing into his books, which he understood as durable objects that would be treasured by his family for many generations to come. By enhancing books with much of his own writing addressed to his family he managed to turn them into vessels of moral edification and spiritual guidance. Books become repositories of family history and recollection of the past. Knowing that a consciousness of Irish history and identity is a tenuous one and not easily sustained in a family without first-hand experience of the country of origin, Connary used his books to convey a wealth of information about genealogy, people, and places in Ireland.
The process of decorating and annotating books provided Connary with an opportunity for creativity and even for asserting himself as an author. Writing inside books meant to share precious memories of early schooling and religious education in Ireland. It meant also to share reflections on the religious and moral life, and even to record dreams and spiritual experiences. The books preserve abundant traces of past acts of reading and they dramatize the routines and desires of lived spirituality. When we study this kind of material in detail, the voice of a dead person comes alive and bequeaths us rich insight into a group of individuals that we too rarely regard as active creators and agents (often because so little material has survived).
Thomas Connary worked as a farmer in Stratford, and it is in old age (from about the age of 60) that he turns increasingly to the activity of decorating and annotating books, a discipline that he refers to as his "Book keeping". In old age Connary found it increasingly difficult to travel the ten kilometres to the nearby Catholic church, so we may see his labour in books as a deeply enriching devotional activity that served as a form of alternative to a direct involvement in the local parochial scene.
Connary also saw some meaningful parallels between his previous work experience and his prayerful enhancement of books. Being habituated with the manual labor of cultivating the fields, Connary rejoiced in old age that his books provide him with ample space to cultivate for the spiritual health of himself and others. Looking at his sizeable collection of religious literature he notes, "here we have millions of acres of Book room". As he labours across the topography of the page, his reading and writing become a form of ploughing, moving from left to right, and often working its way round the page. His writing spirals around the printed text, so that one needs to rotate the book to read it. This is a manual cultivation carried out inside books, full of implication for salvation and the moral life.
Books and Religious Devotion
Books and Religious Devotion is a study of a remarkable book collection of a nineteenth-century New England farmer, Thomas Connary. Through a detailed reconstruction of how this lay Irish Catholic read and annotated his books, the study gives new insight into the capacity of books for structuring a life of devotion and social participation, and it presents an authentic and holistic view of one reader’s interior life.
The Revelations of Divine Love, written by Julian of Norwich in 14th century England, was one of Connary's most treasured books. He purchased this American edition shortly after its publication in 1864, and he annotated the volume during more than three decades. Most of his annotations occur on the book's blank pages or on interleaved notebook pages.
Connary did not just insert his own writing into books, but also decorated his books with images and poetry sourced from different newspapers and magazines that he subscribed to. In this example from James O'Leary's History of the Bible (New York, 1873), he inserted images and poetry on the Resurrection of Christ -- a form of aesthetic enhancement of the book.
Like so many Irish immigrants in the US, Connary never returned to his native country. But as this inserted advertisement for tickets by White Star Line steamer (later of Titanic fame) to the 'Old Country' shows he may well have considered it. Pasting this fragment into Pope's The Council of the Vatican (Boston, 1872) indicates a nostalgic longing and may provide Connary with some imaginative link to Ireland.
Partaking in a well-established tradition of producing scrapbooks, Connary inserted miscellaneous material into his many book. In The Council of the Vatican are found his characteristic spiraling handwriting on religious themes and a short printed article on the achievement of Christopher Columbus. Much of his reading of magazines and newspapers was done with scissors in hand.
On the front flyleaves of The Sinner's Guide, printed in Philadelphia 1845, are found biblical illustration, printed poetry, and handwritten prayers and religious exhortations addressed to Connary's children. The blank pages of a book can provide opportunity for creativity and moral edification.
A blank page in the Fundamental Philosophy of the Spanish theologian Balmes, printed in New York 1858, accommodates an eccentric mixture of religious prayer, philosophical reflection, and moral guidance to Connary's children.
In the rear of O'Leary's History of the Bible is found an anthology of inserted religious pieces. Connary adds the page number 250 in hand and thus extends the book's pagination: to him, the book does not end with the conclusion of the printed text!
Connary took an active interest in contemporary social and political topics. Pasted across the printer's advertisements at the back of Haskins's Travels in England, France, Italy and Ireland (Boston, 1856) is an article on a long-lived theme, “Hanging as a Means of Punishment – Does it Prevent Crime and Increase Morality?” The article does not denounce the death penalty per se but argues for the application of science to “humanize and revolutionize the barbarity of the scaffold”. Two years after the article was published the electric chair was used for the first time in the American penal system. Connary remains silent on the matter of the death penalty, but obviously took an interest in the subject.
Stratford, New Hampshire
Stratford is located on the Connecticut River on New Hampshire’s north-western border to Vermont. Comprising the two settlements of North Stratford and Stratford Hollow, the town was granted its charter in 1762 under the name of Woodbury: this charter was re-granted in 1773 with the name of Stratford in memory of Stratford-on-Avon, probably via Stratford, Connecticut, from where some of its earliest settlers had come.
When Thomas Connary settled in Stratford in 1846 this was a town of around 500 people. In this rural New Hampshire setting, which prospered as a farming and logging centre, especially with the coming of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1853, Connary lived in his family farmstead with his wife Lucinda and their five children Simon, Mary, John, Joseph, and Anne until his death in 1899.
Stratford Sacred Heart Church on Main Street in North Stratford. Unused postcard c. 1920. Thomas Connary bought the land on which the church stands in 1866: the church itself was completed in 1887.
The Baptist Church on Main Street in North Stratford, used postcard dated Sep. 1906. This church was destroyed by fire on Easter Sunday in 1915. A new church was completed in Jan. 1916 and stands till this day.
The view of North Stratford, 'looking West from Stevens Hill'. Used postcard dated Aug. 1908. The Baptist and Catholic churches on Main Street can be clearly seen.
A 'bird's eye view of North Stratford, NH' (admittedly of a low-flying bird). Unused postcard, c. 1910.
North Stratford, 'Monument Square looking west', unused postcard, uncertain date c. 1930 (not in my collection).
Sacred Heart Church, unused postcard c. 1910. On one of the stained glass windows in the church is remembered Thomas Connary, Stratford's first resident Catholic who bought the land on which the church is erected.
The view of North Stratford from Hutchins' Reservoir, used postcard from Feb. 1906. The picture is taken from the Vermont side of the Connecticut River, and the spire of the Sacred Heart Church on Main Street in North Stratford is visible.
The Connecticut River, separating Bloomfield, VT and North Stratford, NH. Just visible is the Catholic church in Bloomfield, like the Sacred Heart Church in North Stratford erected on land purchased by Thomas Connary.
The public school in North Stratford, erected in 1884. Unused postcard c. 1910.
North Stratford, 'Monument Square looking south', unused postcard, uncertain date c. 1930 (not in my collection).
The location of the Connary homestead in Stratford Hollow. The map is found in Jeannette Thompson's History of the Town of Stratford, and it shows Stratford in 1861.
An invitation to participate in the conviviality and merriment of Stratford's 200th birthday celebration in 1974. The festivities extended from August 2nd - 5th and included an historical pageant with the title of 'Stratford's Yesterdays' and a beard judging contest. Published to mark the occasion was A Pictorial History of the Town of Stratford, New Hampshire on the Occasion of her 200th Birthday.
Comprising the two settlements of North Stratford and Stratford Hollow, the town was granted its charter in 1762 under the name of Woodbury: this charter was re-granted in 1773 with the name of Stratford in memory of Stratford-on-Avon, probably via Stratford, Connecticut, from where some of its earliest settlers had come.