Drink and Politics

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XIV (4) start of chapter

The 'liquor business' is most pernicious, either directly or indirectly, to the Irish. Requiring little capital, at least to commence with, the Irish rush into it; and the temptation to excess which it offers is often more than the virtue of the proprietor of the business can withstand. If the evil were confined to the individual himself, the result would be a matter of comparatively trifling consequence; but the Irishman attracts the Irishman to his saloon or his bar, and so the evil spreads. Almost invariably the lowest class of groggery or liquor-store—that which supplies the most villanous and destructive mixtures to its unfortunate customers—is planted right in the centre of the densely-crowded Irish quarter of a great city; while too often the name on the sign-board acts as a fatal lure to those who quaff ruin or death in the maddening bowl. In America, as in Ireland, there are men in the trade who are a credit to their country, indeed an honour to humanity—generous, high-spirited, charitable and religious, who are foremost in every good work, and who are never appealed to in vain in any cause of public usefulness; but, on the other hand, there are others whose connection with it is injurious to themselves and prejudicial to their countrymen. The bad liquor of the native American or the Dutchman is far less perilous to poor Pat than what is sold by the bar-keeper whose name has in it a flavour of the shamrock.

A feeling of clanship, if not a spirit of nationality, operates as an additional inducement to the Irishman, who probably requires little incentive to excess, beyond his own craving for momentary enjoyment and dangerous excitement. Here, too, the working man is seduced into that most tempting, yet most fatal of all moral maelstroms—the whirlpool of pothouse politics, in whose accursed depths of mud and mire many a bright hope has been wrecked, many a soul lost. Here, fascinated by the coarse Sirens—Drink and Politics—many an Irishman, fitted by nature for better things, has first become a tool, then a slave, then a victim: helping to build up the fortunes of some worthless fellow on his own ruin, and sacrificing the legitimate gain of honest industry for the expectation of some paltry office, which, miserable at best, ever eludes his desperate clutch. It requires no little moral courage on the part of the eager and impulsive Irishman to avoid being entangled in the fatal meshes of the pothouse and its politics; yet if he has the good fortune to resist the temptation, or the energy to break through the toils, he is amply rewarded in his safety and independence. An enlightened interest in public affairs becomes the freeman; thankless drudgery and inevitable debasement are only worthy of the willing slave.

Formerly there were inducements to excess which either no longer exist, or do not exist to the same extent as they did. The principal inducement was the low cost of whisky. Even of the best quality, it was so cheap as to be within the means of the poorest; while whisky of an inferior, and therefore more deleterious description, was to be had at a price almost nominal. And with this poisonous stuff—this rot to the entrails and devil to the brain—many thousands of Irishmen were deliberately slain by contractors engaged in certain public works. The sooner the task was done the more profit to the contractor. It was a free country, and the white man could not be made to work against his will; but advantage was taken of his weakness, and with red-hot whisky the liberal contractor lashed and goaded the toiler to superhuman efforts—before which the embankment grew up, and the huge earth-mound vanished, and the great ditch widened and deepened, as if with the celerity of magic; but ere that work was done—ere the train rattled along the iron highway, the boat floated in the canal, or the ship was moored in the dock—there were widows and orphans to mourn the victims of a fatal weakness, and the reckless greed and wicked cruelty of their taskmasters.

Instigated by the devil whisky, the old insane and meaningless jealousies broke out—not the Catholic against the Protestant—not the Green against the Orange; but Munster against Connaught, and Connemara against Cork. And out of these shameful feuds sprang riots, and bloodshed, and murder, as well as deep national scandal. The Catholic Church spared no exertions to avert this evil, and put an end to a cause of such just reproach; but though immense good was done, and much evil prevented, the active devil was at times too potent for its mild authority. Happily, these are things of the past, which must yet be remembered with a blush of sorrow and of shame.

If even still there is much to deplore, there is more to rejoice at. Not only are the vast majority of Irishmen in all parts of America as sober and temperate in their habits as any men to be found in any community or country, but in many parts of the United States the Irish enjoy the reputation of being among the best, the most orderly, and the most sober portion of the population. And where this happy state of things exists, the Irish of the working-classes are sure to possess property, to have their 'house and lot,' and to be frugal, thrifty, and saving. Nor, as I can testify, are the Irish without meeting with ready and generous appreciation from Americans of long descent. 'The Irish here, sir, are amongst our best citizens; they are sober and industrious, moral, orderly, and law-abiding—sir, they are a credit to their native country.' This testimony I was proud to hear in various States. But, unhappily, in some of the large cities, the evil habit of the minority casts a certain amount of discredit, however unjustly, on their Irish populations.

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