Consequence of Overcrowding

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XI (3) start of chapter

It is easy enough to explain why and how those who should not have remained in the great cities did so; but it is not so easy to depict the evils which have flowed, which daily flow, which, unhappily for the race, must continue to flow from the pernicious tendency of the Irish peasant to adopt a mode of livelihood for which he is not suited by previous knowledge or training, and to place himself in a position dangerous to his morals, if not fatal to his independence. These evils may be indicated, though they cannot be adequately described.

This headlong rushing into the great cities has the necessary effect of unduly adding to their population, thereby overtaxing their resources, however large or even extraordinary these resources may be, and of rudely disturbing the balance of supply and demand. The hands—the men, women, and children—thus become too many for the work to be done, as the work becomes too little for the hands willing and able to do it. What is worse, there are too many mouths for the bread of independence; and thus the bread of charity has to supplement the bread which is purchased with the sweat of the brow. Happy would it be for the poor in the towns of America, as elsewhere, if the bread of charity were the only bread with which the bread of independence is supplemented. But there is also the bread of degradation, and the bread of crime. And when the moral principle is blunted by abject misery, or weakened by disappointments and privation, there is but a narrow barrier between poverty and crime; and this, too frequently, is soon passed. For such labour as is thus recklessly poured into the great towns there is constant peril.

It is true there are seasons when there is a glut of work, when the demand exceeds the supply—when some gigantic industry or some sudden necessity clamours for additional hands; but there are also, and more frequently, seasons when work is slack, seasons of little employment, seasons of utter paralysis and stagnation. Cities are liable to occasional depressions of trade, resulting from over production, or the successful rivalry of foreign nations, or even portions of the same country; or there are smashings of banks, and commercial panics, and periods of general mistrust. Or, owing to the intense severity of certain seasons, there is a total cessation of employments of particular kinds, by which vast numbers of people are flung idle on the streets. If at once employed and provident, the condition of the working population in the towns is happy enough; but if there be no providence while there is employment, one may imagine how it fares with the family who are destitute alike of employment and the will or capacity for husbanding its fruits. It is hard enough for the honest thrifty working man to hold his own in the great towns of America, for rents are high, and living is dear, and the cost of clothes and other necessaries is enormous; but when the work fails, or stops, terrible indeed is his position. Then does the Irish peasant realise the fatal blunder he has made, in having chosen the town, with all its risks, and dangers, and sad uncertainties, instead of having gone into the country, no matter where, and adopted the industry for which he was best suited. Possibly, the fault was not his, of having selected the wrong place for his great venture in life; but whether his adoption of the town in preference to the country were voluntary or the result of circumstance, the evil is done, and he and his family must reap the consequences, whatever these may be.

The evil of overcrowding is magnified to a prodigious extent in New York, which, being the port of arrival—the Gate of the New World—receives a certain addition to its population from almost every ship-load of emigrants that passes through Castle Garden. There is scarcely any city in the world possessing greater resources than New York, but these resources have long since been strained to the very uttermost to meet the yearly increasing demands created by this continuous accession to its inhabitants; and if there be not some check put to this undue increase of the population, for which even the available space is altogether inadequate, it is difficult to think what the consequences must be. Every succeeding year tends to aggravate the existing evils, which, while rendering the necessity for a remedy more urgent, also render its nature and its application more difficult.

As in all cities growing in wealth and in population, the dwelling accommodation of the poor is yearly sacrificed to the increasing necessities or luxury of the rich. While spacious streets and grand mansions are on the increase, the portions of the city in which the working classes once found an economical residence are being steadily encroached upon—just as the artisan and labouring population of the City of London are driven from their homes by the inexorable march of city improvements, and streets and courts and alleys are swallowed up by a great thoroughfare or a gigantic railway terminus. There is some resource in London, as the working class may move to some portion of the vast Metropolitan district, though not without serious inconvenience; but unless the fast increasing multitudes that seem determined to settle in New York adopt the Chinese mode of supplementing the space on shore by habitation in boat and raft on water, they must be content to dwell in unwholesome and noisome cellars, or crowd in the small and costly rooms into which the tenement houses are divided.

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