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Old letters inspire book on Ireland-to-Petaluma migration

When he first began perusing his great-grand-aunt Lucinda Rogers’ nearly 100-year-old letters to family back in Ireland, Petaluma graphic designer Kevin Lee Akers had a simple thought.

“I remember I said to my wife, Judee, that this was a great story that somebody should write,” Akers said. “She said I should write it.”

So, he did.

On March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, Akers will publish “The Dunnes of Brittas: An Irish Family’s Saga of Endurance,” his new novel based on those letters written in the 1930s by Rogers, of Petaluma, to her niece and daughter.

Lightly fictionalizing the lives of his ancestors as revealed in the correspondence, the sweeping, century-long tale follows two intertwined families as they immigrate from fractious, starving Ireland in the 1840s and build new lives in San Francisco and Petaluma.

“The whole outline of the novel was in those letters,” Akers said.

Rogers, who was born in San Francisco in 1857, grew up on a ranch near Petaluma. Her parents, Patrick and Bridget Lawler, had immigrated from Ireland in the 1840s.

Ireland was already seething with rebellion in 1845 when the potato crop failed and the Great Famine began. A quarter-million peasants starved to death, many landlords went bankrupt, and another million Irish immigrated.

One of the worst-hit counties during the famine was Queen’s County — now known as Laois (pronounced “leesh”) County — in the Midlands Region. Peasants in other counties could at least go fishing for food, but Queen’s County was uniquely “doubly landlocked,” meaning neither it nor its neighboring counties enjoyed any sea coast.

This was a county where children ate grass to try to survive.

Brittas was one of the oldest and largest estates in Queen’s County. It was owned by Gen. Edward Dunne. The ancient Dunne family had ruled there since time immemorial. The estate manager was Dunne’s cousin Peter Dunne. As things unraveled in Ireland, two of Peter Dunne’s sons, James and Peter, bolted for America, first trying their luck in New Orleans before moving on to San Francisco.

A few years later, their sister Bridget — mother of Lucy Rogers — immigrated with her husband, Patrick Lawler, first to San Francisco, then later, after Lawler has succeeded in business, to a 2,000-acre ranch east of Petaluma on Sonoma Mountain. Lawler purchased the ranch from Vallejo, the well-known military commander, politician and rancher.

Because the novel is based on letters from “Aunt Lucy,” Akers introduced each short, cinematic chapter with an excerpt from either fictionalized letters or nonfiction documents such as articles from the Argus-Courier, which was founded in 1859. This format allowed Akers as omniscient narrator to play with narrator reliability, human memory and the complexity of familial relations.

The novel follows the fortunes of these two families, the Dunnes and the Lawlers, providing a unique portrait of both San Francisco and Petaluma in their infancy. For example, when news arrives that President Lincoln had been assassinated, Bridget in Petaluma writes her brother Michael in Ireland.

“All the townsfolk gathered at our plaza in front of the Baptist Church where the procession included a riderless horse, a hearse, the Petaluma Guards and a brass band that puffed out a sad mournful dirge. The choir was much better. That Baptist preacher breathed down fire and brimstone like I have never heard … none of the majesty of a Catholic service. Very many of those who listened had been bitter, implacable enemies of Mr. Lincoln just a few short days before but managed to shed tears on his behalf this morning.”

When Bridget and 4-year-old Lucy go to early mass at St. Vincent’s, described as “An American facsimile of a Gothic chapel roughly rendered in redwood near downtown,” we get a peek at Petaluma’s immigrant roots.

“She did a bit of socializing with her fellow parishioners … a few of them Irish women but mostly Swiss, Italian and Portuguese immigrants, wives of dairy farmers.”

As the story delves into a historically accurate account of a family dispute over a will, Akers begins one chapter with a quote from the Petaluma Weekly Argus of Oct. 29, 1889.

“The controversy among the heirs over the will of the late capitalist Patrick Lawler of Sonoma Mountain has been amicably settled.”

In reality, the feud was just heating up.

The Argus was invaluable for Akers’ research, he allowed. He found many articles on the Lawlers in the newspaper archives.

It took four years of research— including visits to Ireland, England and New Orleans — and many early-morning writing sessions to complete the 360-page novel. It also took a strong will. Akers pitched the project to an estimated 150 publishers, all of whom rejected it, insisting readers don’t read historical novels any more, especially about one’s own family.

Skip Sommer, a Petaluma historian and longtime columnist for the Argus-Courier, praised Akers’ novel as thoroughly researched and well-written.

“The descriptions of San Francisco in its early years are enlightening,” he said, “from the Vigilance Committees and the Sydney Ducks on to the buying of thousands of acres of General Vallejo's Petaluma Rancho, and into the 1860s and Lincoln's assassination.”

When COVID-19 hit last year, and Akers’ business started drying up, he took advantage of the lull and intensified his writing schedule, pushing through to the end.

Akers, whose graphic design work primarily focuses on logo design and corporate identity, published the entertainingly illustrated, 2005 book “All Wrapped Up: Groovy Gift Wrap of the 1960s” (Chronicle Books). Though the book had some text, Akers recognizes that he mainly makes his living with images, not words. Aware that he was venturing into difficult terrain with “The Dunnes of Brittas,” Akers felt the need to study how words can convey another time and place. He read older novels, including “Middlemarch,” by George Eliot (1871) and several of works by Anthony Trollope.

“I needed to get a feel for the story,” he said.

When Akers first started the project, immigration was the hot issue, and he felt that was his theme.

But when COVID-19 hit, he realized the real theme of his story was not immigration, which is only one stage in the adventures of the Dunne and Lawler families. It was endurance.

“When your food source goes, then what?” he asked.

(“The Dunnes of Brittas” can be ordered through Copperfield’s Books. It is also available through Amazon in hardcover, softcover and Kindle versions.)

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