Cases in Point

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XII (2) start of chapter

Walking one day with a friend in a city of Upper Canada, I was attracted by the gentlemanly air and manner of a young man whom my companion saluted; and on my asking who he was, and remarking that he had the appearance of a gentleman, my friend replied, 'Yes, he is a nice fellow, thoroughly educated and accomplished, and a smart man in his profession, too. He, sir, is the son of an Irishman—an Irish labourer—who came out here without a penny in the world, and yet who died a rich man, after bringing up his children as well as the first gentleman in the land. He was a labourer on the canal; and instead of doing what too many of our people are so fond of doing—stopping in the town—he contrived to buy a bit of land, which he cleared from time to time, taking an occasional job to procure provision for the winter; and so he got on, adding to his property year after year, until you see the result in his son, who is now a rising professional man, and who takes his place among the aristocratic classes. Do, in God's name, advise your countrymen to stick to the land—what they know most about.'

'Ah! sir,' said an Irishman, who had been many years in the States, and whom I met in a great central city, 'I made a sad mistake when I came out here first. I am from the west of the county Cork, and I was engaged in farming before I left Ireland; it was my business. But I don't know how it was, I allowed myself to stay in the town, and the time passed, and then it was too late, and I hadn't the heart to make a new effort. I am sorry for it now. Thank God, I am able to live, after educating my family, and doing for them; but if I went, as others did, to the country, and took a farm, and stuck to the business I knew best, I'd be an independent man now in my old age. It was a great mistake, sir, and the more I think of it, the more I regret it. My heart sinks in me at times when I think of what I might be this day, if I had only the sense to do the right thing at the right time.'

Spending a Sunday not far from the Falls of Niagara, I was speaking with a number of respectable Irishmen who had been many years from Ireland, and to whom the circumstances of their countrymen in the surrounding districts were thoroughly known. I turned the conversation in the direction most interesting to me—the position of the Irish, and the manner in which they had got on. The subject was one which excited the sympathies and aroused the recollections of my new acquaintances, who detailed as many instances of successful thrift and patient industry as would fill several pages.

Two Irishmen were working as helpers in a blacksmith's shop at Niagara Docks in 1844, and, having saved some money, they each purchased 100 acres of land, at a dollar an acre. One in particular, after bringing his family with him to their new home, and purchasing an axe, had but three-quarters of a dollar in his possession. These men divided their time between working for themselves and others; at one time chopping away with the ever-busy axe, at another hiring their labour to the neighbouring settlers, who were anxious to obtain their services. In the summer months they earned as much as enabled them to live during the winter, when they were hard at work at home, clearing and fencing; and when they had cropped their own land they went out to work again. At the time of which their story was thus told, they were each in the possession of 200 acres of cleared land, with horses, cattle, good houses, and every comfort that reasonable men could desire. It may be curious to speculate what would have been their destiny, had they continued at the drudgery from which they emancipated themselves by their own energy.

These were individual instances, casually mentioned, and only remarkable from the fact of the two men having mutually agreed to do the same thing; but there were numbers of other cases of equally successful industry. There was, for instance, a labourer who left work on a canal for a contractor, for work on the land for himself; and he also was the proprietor of 200 acres of fee simple estate, having given to his children—both of whom were members of learned professions—a first-class education. In fact, there were as many as a hundred Irish families in the surrounding district, who, in the opinion of the experienced gentleman to whom they were well known, had not brought with them altogether 500l., and yet who occupied good farms of their own creation, then their own property, and were looked upon as otherwise independent in their means.

One of the most experienced men in Canada, who has been long connected with emigration, thus gives his opinion as to the best mode by which an emigrant who is resolved on turning his attention to agriculture, and who possesses no other capital than what he has received from Providence, can get on in the new world:—

'One or two years' service with a farmer, particularly one who has himself earned his competency and comforts through trials and from a hard beginning, should be deemed an indispensable preparation for the settler before undertaking the clearing up of land on his own account. With that knowledge, he could obtain through the year, in the favourable months, enough of cash to buy provisions and necessaries for his family; and in the winter and early spring months, before hired help would be required, he could work to much real advantage for himself.' What applies to Canada applies equally well to the same work and the same circumstances in the States.

An Irishman, observing the marked difference in the circumstance and position of the same class of his countrymen in America in town and country, might be excused for supposing there was something specially sacred in the cultivation of the soil—in man toiling in the sweat of his brow to raise from the fruitful bosom of the Great Mother food for the sustenance of the human family. Whether this be a fanciful notion or not, it is certain that, in a moral point of view, agricultural occupations not only preserve the simplicity and even purity of life so usually to be found in the rural districts of almost every country, but even restore to primitive tastes and regularity of life those who return to them as a change. The easy-going haunter of the tavern and the grog-shop in the town becomes a steady and abstemious man when on his farm; and even the loose purposeless idler of the city hardens into unwonted energy when he exchanges its enervating atmosphere for the bracing air and wholesome pursuits of the country. I have had many proofs that this is so in America; but one case, though presenting no remarkable features, particularly impressed me at the time.

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