An inviting Picture

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XI (7) start of chapter

Let us follow Dr. Pulling, the 'Inspector of the Fourth Sanitary District' in his visits of inspection, and, without straining probability, assume that the miserable picture so graphically drawn is that of an Irish family, the victims of the one great and fatal mistake of the husband and the father—that of having remained in New York, instead of carrying his strength and his industry to the place where they were most required, and were sure to be appreciated:

Through a narrow alley we enter a small courtyard which the lofty buildings in front keep in almost perpetual shade. Entering it from the street on a sunny day, the atmosphere seems like that of a well. The yard is filled with recently-washed clothing suspended to dry. In the centre of this space are the closets used by the population of both front and rear houses. Their presence is quite as perceptible to the smell as to the sight.

Making our way through this enclosure, and descending four or five steps, we find ourselves in the basement of the rear-building. We enter a room whose ceiling is blackened with smoke, and its walls discoloured with damp. In front, opening on a narrow area covered with green mould, two small windows, their tops scarcely level with the courtyard, afford at noonday a twilight illumination to the apartment. Through their broken frames they admit a damp air laden with effluvia which constitute the vital atmosphere imbibed by all who are immured in this dismal abode.

A door at the back of this room communicates with another which is entirely dark, and has but one opening. Both rooms together have an area of about 18 feet square, and these apartments are the home of six persons. The father of the family, a day labourer, is absent; the mother, a wrinkled crone at thirty, sits rocking in her arms an infant, whose pasty and pallid features tell that decay and death are usurping the place of health and life. Two older children are in the street, which is their only playground, and the only place where they can go to breathe an atmosphere that is even comparatively pure. A fourth child, emaciated to a skeleton, and with that ghastly and unearthly look which marasmus impresses on its victims, has reared its feeble frame on a rickety chair against the window sill, and is striving to get a glimpse at the smiling heavens whose light is so seldom permitted to gladden its longing eyes. Its youth has battled nobly against the terribly morbid and devitalizing agents which have depressed its childish life—the poisonous air, the darkness, and the damp; but the battle is nearly over—it is easy to decide where the victory will be.

The cellar tenements of this district are fearful abodes for human beings. They were occupied, in 1864, by 1,400 persons, and their floors ranged from ten to thirty feet below high-water mark! 'In the sub-tidal basements nineteen families, or 110 persons, live beneath the level of the sea.' 'In very many cases the vaults of privies are situated on the same or a higher level, and their contents frequently ooze through walls into the occupied apartments beside them. Fully one-fourth of these subterranean domiciles are pervaded by a most offensive odour from this source, and rendered exceedingly unwholesome as human habitations. These are the places in which we most frequently meet with typhoid fever and dysentery during the summer months.'

Matters are not much better in 'the Sixth Inspection District,' where the tenement population is about 23,000.

In some of the cellars and basements water trickled down the walls, the source of which was traced to the foulest soakage. One cannot be surprised to learn that the noxious effluvia always present in these basements are of a sickening character. Many of these cellars are occupied by two or three families; a number are also occupied as lodging-houses, accommodating from twenty to thirty lodgers! What an abode for those who, leaving home and country, crossed the ocean in the hope of bettering their condition!

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America