In the wrong Place

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XI (11) start of chapter

These poor immature blossoms, that perish so miserably in the foul air of an overcrowded city, how they would have thriven in the pure atmosphere of the country! where the young cheek, 'pasty and pallid' in damp and dismal cellar, or the fusty sleeping-hole of the tenement house, would bloom with health, and the eye, so dull and languid in the haunts of misery or vice, would sparkle into life and hope! In the country, throughout America, children are, next to his own industry and health, the best capital of the parent. What they are under the circumstances described in the passages just quoted the reader may easily imagine.

My own previously formed convictions, which for years had been strong in favour of the Irish selecting the right place for their special industry, were, if possible, confirmed by a visit to tenement houses of different classes. I remember one in particular, occupied principally by Irish. It presented none of the revolting features common to the dens already described. There was no squalor, no dilapidation; the place appeared to be in fair order. But the tenants were not the class of people who should have remained in New York. In Ireland they belonged to the rural population; and when I lifted the latch and entered an apartment, it was just as if I had walked some miles into the country at home, and entered the cabin of the labourer, or the cottage of the farmer; for in the accent and manner of the inmates there was no difference whatever. They were all racy of the soil. You could not visit any house inhabited by a number of Irish in which instances of the beautiful charity by which the race are distinguished would not be displayed. Here, for instance, was a great strong fellow, not long from the old country, and not able to get work, listlessly leaning against the door-post of a lower apartment, the tenants of which had given 'the poor boy' a hearty welcome, and a 'shake-down,' and 'a bit and sup;' though they themselves had a hard struggle to keep want from their humble hearth. There was in another room a mother, with her own young brood, yet who found a corner in her woman's heart for the orphan child of a neighbour that died some months before.

In one of the upper 'domiciles' there were then six persons, a mother, four young children, and a female relative, who was engaged in washing. The husband, the seventh inmate, a labouring man, was out at work. The principal apartment measured about 9 feet by 12; the dimensions of the other, the bedroom, allowing little more than the space occupied by a fair-sized four-post bedstead. A stove, necessary for the season, occupied no small portion of the chief apartment. There was no actual want of essential articles of furniture, such as a table and chairs , and the walls were not without one or two pious and patriotic pictures, Catholic and Irish. The children were tolerably clean, but pale and sickly; and a poor little fellow, of wonderfully bright countenance, hopped about on one leg, from an injury which, owing to neglect, was likely to cripple him for life. For this house accommodation, for this confined space, in which seven human beings were pent up for so many hours together, there was paid $7 a month, or $84 a year. Work or no work—and it was not unfrequently the latter—this rent should of necessity be met. In English money, even at the present rate of 3s. 3d. the dollar in 'greenbacks,' a year's rent would come to 13l. 13s.; as much as would enable the tenant of these apartments to purchase the fee-simple of more than 50 acres of good land in a Western State.

The mother of the children was quiet, well-mannered, and respectable in appearance; and though the freshness had long since faded from her face, she retained the traces of a kind of grave and pensive beauty. She was the daughter of a decent farmer in West Carbery, county Cork, and her husband, now a day labourer in New York, had also held some land in the same locality. They had come to America 'to better themselves,'—'to be more independent than they were at home;' and here they were, stuffed into a little room in a tenement house, with four young helpless children depending on them for support, their only means consisting of the earnings of the father of the family—about $9 a week; out of which everything had to be provided, and at prices so excessive as to leave but a small balance en the Saturday night. A month's idleness, or a fortnight's sickness, and what misery! Necessaries to be had on credit, at a rate equal to the vendor's supposed risk; and to be paid for on a future day. in addition to the never-ceasing outlay for the daily wants of a young and growing family. Here then were intelligence, practical knowledge, special aptitude for a country life, madly flung away; and the all but certainty of a grand future, that is, a future of comfort and independence, sacrificed for the precarious employment of a day-labourer in New York . A few years of hopeful toil, not more trying, but less trying to the constitution, than that which he went through every clay, would have enabled the tenant of that stuffy apartment in a desperately overcrowded city to provide his wife and children with a happy, healthful, prosperous home, which would have been theirs for ever, and from which neither factor, nor agent, nor groggery owner could have driven them. But, alas for them and for him! the ready employment and its apparently large reward, and the attractions of a city, were more than a match for his good sense; and now, like so many of his countrymen, he is as thoroughly out of his legitimate sphere as man can possibly be. I regretted I could not see the husband; but I did, as a matter of conscientious duty, endeavour to make the wife and mother comprehend the magnitude of the mistake which had been made, and urged her to counsel him to free himself at the first opportunity from a position for which he was not suited, and which was not suited for him.

I saw much in other tenement houses—whether houses specially built for the purpose, or houses adapted to that purpose—to justify the accuracy of the descriptions given in the Reports from which I have quoted; but though I witnessed much misery and squalor, and in a few instances glanced into places scarcely fit for the shelter of animals, I must confess to have been more impressed by the sad blunder of these young people—who would have made such splendid settlers in some fertile region, whether of Canada or the States—than with all I saw or heard during the day.

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