Finding Canal Street

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER X (7) start of chapter

I must confess to being immensely amused at hearing from one who had passed through the ordeal how he had been dealt with in the fine old time of unrestricted plunder, when the emigrant was left to his fate—that fate assuming the substantial form of the runner and the boarding-house keeper. My informant was a great, broad-shouldered, red-haired Irishman, over six feet 'in his stocking vamps,' and who, I may add, on the best authority, bore himself gallantly in the late war, under the banner of the Union. He was but a very young lad when, in 1848, he came to New York, with a companion of his own age, 'to better his fortune,' as many a good Irishman had endeavoured to do before him. He possessed, besides splendid health and a capacity for hard work, a box of tools, a bundle of clothes, and a few pounds in gold—not a bad outfit for a good-tempered young Irishman, with a red head, broad shoulders, grand appetite, and fast rising to the six feet. The moment he landed his luggage was pounced upon by two runners, one seizing the box of tools, the other confiscating the clothes. The future American citizen assured his obliging friends that he was quite capable of carrying his own luggage; but no, they should relieve him—the stranger, and guest of the Republic—of that trouble. Each was in the interest of a different boarding-house, and each insisted that the young Irishman with the red head should go with him—a proposition that, to any but a New York runner, would seem, if not altogether impossible, at least most difficult of accomplishment. Not being able to oblige both the gentlemen, he could only oblige one; and as the tools were more valuable than the clothes, he followed in the path of the gentleman who had secured that portion of the 'plunder.' He remembers that the two gentlemen wore very pronounced green neckties, and spoke with a richness of accent that denoted special if not conscientious cultivation; and on his arrival at the boarding-house, he was cheered with the announcement that its proprietor was from 'the ould counthry, and loved every sod of it, God bless it!'

In a manner truly paternal the host warned the two lads against the dangers of the streets; and so darkly did he paint the horrors, and villanies, and murders of all kinds, that were sure to rain down upon their innocent heads, that the poor boys were frightened into a rigid seclusion from the world outside, and occupied their time as best they could, not forgetting 'the eating and the drinking' which the house afforded. The young Irishman with the red head imparted to the host the fact of his having a friend in Canal Street—'wherever Canal Street was;' and that the friend had been some six years in New York, and knew the place well, and was to procure employment for him as soon as they met; and he concluded by asking how he could get to Canal Street. 'Canal Street!—is it Canal Street?—why then what a mortal pity, and the stage to go just an hour before you entered this very door! My, my! that's unfortunate; isn't it? Well, no matter, there'll be another in two days' time, or three at farthest, and I'll be sure to see you sent there all right—depend your life on me when I say it,' said the jovial kindly host. For full forty-eight hours the two lads, who were as innocent as a brace of young goslings, endured the irksome monotony of the boarding-house, even though that abode of hospitality was cheered by the presence of its jovial host, who loved every sod of the 'ould counthry;' but human nature cannot endure beyond a certain limit—and the two lads resolved, in sheer desperation, to break bounds at any hazard. They roamed through the streets for some time, without any special ill befalling them.

Meeting a policeman, the young fellow with the red head suggested to his companion the possibility of the official knowing something about Canal Street; and as his companion had nothing to urge against it, they approached that functionary, and boldly propounded the question to him—where Canal Street was, and how it could be reached? 'Why, then, my man,' replied the policeman, who also happened to be a compatriot, 'if you only follow your nose for the space of twenty minutes in that direction, you'll come to Canal Street, and no mistake about it; you'll see the name on the corner, in big letters, if you can read—as I suppose you can, for you look to be two decent boys.' Canal Street in twenty minutes! Here indeed was a pleasant surprise for the young fellows, who had been told to wait for the stage, which, according to the veracious host, 'was due in about another day.' Of course they did follow their respective noses until they actually reached Canal Street, found the number of the house in which their friend resided, and discovered the friend himself, to whom they recounted their brief adventures in New York.

Thanks to the smartness of their acclimated friend, they recovered their effects, but not before they disbursed to the jovial host, who 'loved every sod of the ould counthry, God bless it!' more than would have enabled them to fare sumptuously at the Astor. And as the great strapping fellow—who had since seen many a brave man die with his face to the foe—told the tale of his first introduction to the Empire City, he actually looked sheepish at its recollection, and then laughed heartily at a simplicity which had long since become, with him, a weakness of the past.

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