Down in the Mine in Illinois

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXX (7) start of chapter

Down in the depths of a mine in Illinois, the workers in which were Irish to a man, I found the same feeling of passionate love, the same feeling of passionate hate. It was a strange scene, and not without its attraction. In one of the central passages of the mine, not more than five feet in height, its prevailing murkiness pierced here and there by the red light of a small lamp, was a truck, in which were four men—two recumbent, as if on a couch; the other two sitting one on each side of that most uncomfortable carriage. The group consisted of the two visitors—myself and a substantial friend, who did not much admire the dark shadows, the low ceiling, and the strange sounds of this underground world; together with one of the 'bosses,' and a remarkably intelligent and younger man.

The miners had each their lamp fastened in front of their caps, while the visitors held theirs in their hands. The galloping mule had been arrested in his course by a stoppage occasioned by something ahead; and for a considerable time—it seemed an age to my stout friend by my side—conversation was the only resource of the party of four. In a company consisting of four Irishmen, it would be strange if the conversation did not fall on Irish affairs, especially at a time when the State-trials in Canada were then going on. My excellent friend, who shared with me the couch of straw, though an ardent Irishman, thought only of how soon he should get out of the mine, and up into the bright world above; and for the moment the Irish Question lost all attraction for his ears. I must confess to having taken the 'legal and constitutional' side in the argument which sprang up; but it found little favour either with the fiery younger man, or with the more sedate 'boss.' Only through courtesy, and that not a little strained either, would they tolerate the mention of moderation, or even admit that an Irishman could love his country sincerely, and even ardently, and yet oppose those who should seek to bring about changes by violence and bloodshed. And as I reclined in my triumphal car, I was harangued in fiery accents by the younger miner, on 'the wrongs of Ireland, and the iniquities of the British Government.' He had the history of the Union and the story of the Irish Rebellion by heart; and as he referred to some thrilling event, or mentioned some famous name, there was a deep murmur of satisfaction from the 'boss,' whose 'Thrue for you, boy!' seemed to impart an additional swing to the oratory of his companion. They would not believe in the naval or military power of England —that, according to them, as to most others whom I subsequently met, was a thing of the past. 'And, after all, what was it to the power of America?—where were armies like hers?—where iron-clads, and monitors, and turret-ships, such as she could turn out at a moment's notice, as she did during the Rebellion? No; England was to go down, and Ireland was, under Providence, to be the instrument of her ruin.'

Some of the miners had gone before, and others would go again, when the occasion arose, to strike a blow at 'the oppressor of their country;' and there was scarcely a man in the mine that did not joyfully subscribe to the Fenian fund, and would not continue to do so; for though they might not succeed one time, they would another. The 'boss' had not much to say, but that was to the point. 'He didn't care about the money—he could spare that; but he'd give his life if necessary, and gladly too, for the country that he was ever thinking of, and that was dear to his heart.' And the 'boss' looked to be an earnest man, who said what he meant, and would do what he said. The young man made a boast of a fact of which he might well be proud—that, although there were between 200 and 300 Irishmen in the mine, there were not six drunkards among the entire number. They were hard-working, laborious, and zealous, proud of the success of the mine, and not less so of their own well-earned reputation for sobriety and honesty. True, these were humble toilers; but they were the very opposite of the scamps and rowdies who are supposed to constitute the strength of the anti-English organisation in America. Nor had they the remotest intention or hope of ever deriving any personal advantage from the sacrifices they made, or were prepared to make, for 'the cause;'—love of their native land, and the desire to see her 'happy and independent,' were all-sufficient motives with them.

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