In the summer of 1787 a young couple, Edmund Cobb Hurry and Eliza Liddell, met and fell in love on the small island of Inishcoo, off the coast of Donegal. He was a Great Yarmouth merchant visiting a promising trading hub on nearby Rutland Island. Well educated but without money, she was there as a governess. They declared their mutual love but had only five weeks together, as Edmund had to sail away to the Baltic, leaving Eliza behind him. Over the next thirteen months the couple wrote to each other at length. Both suffered agonies from their separation, made worse by delays and uncertainties in the delivery of post between Donegal and the Baltic. The story ended happily, however, when they were married in Putney on 20 August 1788.
If the survival of individual love letters from so long ago is unusual, the survival of over fifty reciprocal letters between two lovers is extraordinary. They are not the letters of aristocrats or celebrities but of a man and woman who happened to have fallen in love. Eliza’s rescue from her solitary life on Inishcoo by Edmund, sailing in from far away, could be taken for the stuff of Romantic fiction were it not so graphically documented. In a poignant love story, Edmund and Eliza’s letters allow us privileged access into their lives and into the world of their time.
Both Edmund and Eliza had been drawn to Inishcoo by a highly ambitious plan, based on the red herring, to create an industrial hub and trading entrepôt in Donegal. Intended to attract ships from the Mediterranean, the West Indies and America, for a few years in the mid-1780s the area hummed with building and commerce. The letters shed light on this remarkable episode in the history of Donegal and of Ireland.