The Irish don't do themselves Justice

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XV (6) start of chapter

And here I answer a question which is in every Irishman's mind, on the tip of every Irishman's tongue,—how are the Irish doing in America?—have they bettered their condition, or the contrary?—are they improving or going back? I was nearly six months going from place to place; and during that time, and in the course of that extended journey, I was brought into contact with men of different nationalities, various opinions, and all classes of society. I conversed with Irishmen who took a desponding or a hopeful view of the position of their countrymen, who mourned over their weaknesses and their follies, or were proud of their virtues. I sought to gather information wherever I went, and I had abundant opportunities of doing so. I searched and I sifted with an earnest purpose, and a conscientious desire to come at the truth. I set statement against statement, opinion against opinion, in the spirit of a judge rather than with the feeling of an advocate—though, I honestly confess it, I could not, even for a second, divest myself of a strong wish to hear the best of those of my own race and country. The result, then, of every observation I could make, of every inquiry I instituted, of every information I received, is this,—that while, in some places, there are evils to deplore, but evils which are being remedied, and while many are not doing what they ought or could do for their advancement, on the whole, and dealing with them in mass, the Irish in America are steadily rising, steadily advancing, steadily improving in circumstances and in position; and that, as a rule, they have enormously benefited their condition by having left the old country for the new.

In every walk and department of life they are making their mark. As merchants, bankers, manufacturers—as lawyers, physicians, engineers, architects, inventors—as literary men, as men of science, as artists, as scholars, as teachers of youth—as soldiers, wise in council and terrible in battle—as statesmen, as yet more the sons of Irishmen than Irish born,—the nationality is adequately and honourably represented; while the great bulk—the mass—are felt to be essential to the progress, the greatness, the very life of the American Republic. Where, as must necessarily be the case, the Irish constitute a large proportion of the working population of a great city, they may be looked down upon by the prejudiced or the superfine—those who dislike their religion, or despise homely manners or rude employment; but the toiling, hard-working mass of the Irish are nevertheless rising day by day, not only to greater comfort, but to a fuller appreciation of their duties and their destiny as citizens of America.

The Irish in America injure themselves more than others can or are willing to injure them. They injure themselves seriously by not in all cases putting forward their best men to represent them, whether in municipal or other offices; and by allowing men to speak and act in their name who are not the most qualified, indeed in some, and too many, instances, not in the least qualified to do the one or the other. Thoughtful Irishmen, sensitive and self-respecting, are the very first to deplore this great practical error; and I must say I have been but too sensible of its damaging influence in more than one instance, or one locality. The evil which is done follows as a necessary and inevitable consequence. When the Irish put forward or elect certain men, they are assumed to do so of their own free choice—to select them as the right men, the best men; and, this being so, they must not be surprised if the prejudiced or the censorious are only too willing to accept such ill-chosen and unfit representatives as accurate types and fair exponents of Irish character, Irish genius, or Irish worth. But, on the other hand, when the Irish adopt the right men—men who are upright, honourable, wise—in a word, presentable—men of whom they may say with pride, 'they belong to us; they are of our stock; we are not ashamed to put them forward as our representatives,'—in such case they do not so much do honour to themselves, as simple justice to their country and their race.

I cannot venture to deal otherwise than in generalities; and I shall therefore only add that, while I have frequently witnessed, and always with intense satisfaction, the result of the wise and self-respecting policy of selecting the best, the ablest, and the worthiest Irishmen, or sons of Irishmen, to represent the race, I have had too many occasions to deplore the fatal folly of Irishmen thrusting into public positions, or rather suffering to be thrust into such positions, men who, possibly excellent persons in their own way, and eminently suited for the retirement of domestic life, were not qualified to stand the test of American criticism—that is, as the representatives of a great nationality and a gifted people. There is no lack of the best men for such offices or positions, be they what they may; but it will often happen that the sensitive man of merit has no chance against the vulgar intriguer—and so the Irish are damaged in the public esteem. This, however, is an evil that must cure itself in course of time, when the Irish-American witnesses the happy results of a policy consistent not only with reason and common sense, but with the most ordinary self-respect.

On the whole, then, and notwithstanding this evil, which is more damaging than some will believe, the Irish in America are steadily advancing in social position, as well as improving in material prosperity. They are improving even in the cities in which dangers and temptations are most liable to assail them; they are improving in places in which society is, as it were, only settling down into its legitimate grooves; and in many, many parts of the country they are—taking all circumstances into consideration—progressing more rapidly and more successfully than any other class of the community. The Irish landed on the shores of America poorer—with less money, less means, less capital—than the English, the Scotch, or the Germans; in fact, under less favourable circumstances in almost every respect than the people of any other country. The vast majority of them came in poverty—too many in want and sickness—too many only to find a grave after landing; and, therefore, what the Irish in America have done in their adopted country—their new home—though by no means all, or anything like all, that could be wished of them, is an indisputable proof of the inherent vigour and vitality of their race. This is what may be conscientiously said of them to-day; but how much more may be said of them in ten or twenty years hence belongs to the future and to the goodness of Providence.

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