From the archives: Annie M.P. Smithson Correspondence with Edmund Downey

Kathleen Williams, Network Team

In 2016 staff at the John J. Burns Library at Boston College had opportunity to review a large collection of materials related to Irish women during the revolutionary period in Ireland that had been assembled by collector Loretta Clarke Murray.  These materials in many cases spanned the time frame that included the pre-1916 Rising period through the Civil War, and for papers of some figures such as Kathleen Clarke, up to the mid-20th century.

In my role as Irish Studies Librarian, I was encouraged to review the offering and present my recommendations.  Burns Librarian Christian Dupont agreed that it would make an excellent complement to our other holdings and fortunately was able to secure the resources that enabled us to purchase this treasure trove.

I had many other opportunities over the years to develop our collections using both regular budget allocations as well as some endowed funds to purchase many books, e-books, manuscript materials and databases.

Retrospective collecting, which means purchasing items that were not bought upon publication or not deemed relevant or valuable at the time, was one of my favorite endeavors.  In the latter part of the 20th century a movement to give credit to Irish women writers was afoot. I was thrilled to be in a position to collect such writers’ works.

Thanks to Arlen House Publisher Alan Hayes who sent me lists of women writers’ books that he held, I became aware of Annie M.P. Smithson, a nurse and later, a writer of popular novels in the early part of the 20th century.  The library held some of her works, but lacked others.  So, I purchased what I could and I began to read Smithson.  As this happened around the time of the centennial of 1916, I was reading about other people and events of this time.

Smithson seemed to have first-hand knowledge of what was going on.  In fact, to me, she represented through her novels’ characters at least some of the generation of individuals described by Roy Foster in his 2014 work, Vivid Faces. I read her autobiography and then tried to find primary source material. At the time, I could find nothing other than brief biographical entries and bibliographies, and a letter in the Irish Times by a researcher who was asking for information.  I have no way of knowing for sure, but think it is unlikely that anyone answered this researcher.

When I first reviewed the Loretta Clarke Murray collection I did not see every item. However, I did know that it contained letters, photographs, and artifacts relating to women such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Kathleen Clarke, Maude Gonne and Constance Markievicz.

Smithson’s house in Newmarket-on-Fergus, Clare, with thanks to Michele O’Keeffe and Mary Grogan for the photographs and permissions respectively

The collection’s finding aid spans twenty pages. Much to my delight I found that the fully processed collection contains correspondence between Smithson and one of her publishers, a Mr. Downey.  Downey, also a writer, had purchased the Waterford News in 1906.  There are ten letters from Smithson to Downey dated between 1922 and about 1927.  There is one undated postcard from Smithson to Downey.

The one letter that, at first, truly excited me was one to Downey in which Smithson recounted her experience working with Red Cross staff on a night in 1922 during the Civil War.  She described dangers, violence, imprisonment, and unfortunately, one death by shooting.  I have transcribed most of this handwritten letter. 

The other letter that I have been able to transcribe is one of several that deal with stories or novels offered for publication. Dated 14.4.23, Smithson still talks of “‘these terrible times’” and recounts that she was raided and was going to be arrested. But, in her words, “They changed their mind and said they would return again!”  Smithson reveals a sense of irony as she adds, “A pleasure in store I suppose.”

There are more letters to explore.  It occurred to me that, in her time, letters conducted to do business offer revelations about her personal character.  Aspects of who she was rise up out of her letters, and put a little more flesh on the frame of the person that I found in her autobiography, Myself – and Others: An Autobiography.

The letters reveal a shared understanding between Downey and Smithson: mutual political and cultural concerns, and a look at the state of publishing in Ireland as Smithson mentions the names of periodicals that are starting up or failing.

There is a mine of information in the letters, and I hope to dig into it more, and hope that other scholars will do the same, or explore the correspondence of other writers.  Scroll through the Archives page in the Irish Women Writers (1880 – 1920) website for ideas.

To reference this blog:

Harvard style:

Williams, Kathleen (2020), ‘From the Archives: Annie M.P. Smithson Correspondence with Edmund Downey’, Irish Women’s Writing Network, Posted on 15 June 2020, Available at: (accessed:date).

If you would like to submit a blog contact Dr Deirdre Flynn and check our guidelines here.


Foster, R. F. Vivid Faces, the Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890 – 1923.

London: Allen Lane, 2014

John Rouse. “Downey, Edmund”. Dictionary of Irish Biography.
(ed.) James McGuire, James Quinn. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Smithson, Annie M.P.,  Myself – and Others: An Autobiography.

Dublin: Talbot Press, 1944

Walsh, Oonagh. “’Her Irish Heritage’: Annie M.P. Smithson and Auto/Biography.”

Études Irlandaises, No.23:1 (1998), 27-42.

Lawrence William White. “Smithson, Annie M(ary) P(atricia)”. Dictionary of Irish Biography.
(ed.) James McGuire, James Quinn. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

One Comment on “From the archives: Annie M.P. Smithson Correspondence with Edmund Downey

  1. I’m fascinated to read of the existence of correspondence from Annie M. P. Smithson in your collections. I have a BA in Irish Studies and an MPhil. In gender and women’s studies from Trinity college Dublin and I’m hoping to pursue a PhD in the near future. I want if possible to find out as much as I can about Annie and in this regard you may be able to help. If so perhaps you could email me.

    Many thanks

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