The Miller's Son

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XV (3) start of chapter

I had not been long in the States when, in a Western city, I met the subject of the following true tale.

There landed on the levee of New Orleans on the 26th of January, 1854, a well-built, bright-looking, high-spirited young Irishman, from the neighbourhood of a town in the county Roscommon. The son of a miller, he had received that ordinary kind of education which left much to be done by the pupil in after life. Save health, strength, and a fixed resolution to push his way in the world, the son of the Irish miller had nothing when he stood on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. Young O'B——— did not lose much time, or wear out his boot-leather, in hunting after employment that would harmonise with his notions of Irish gentility—for the simple reason that he had not brought such a commodity with him from Roscommon. Like a sensible young Irishman, who had the world before him, he took the first work that offered. With the savings of a few weeks' labour in his pocket, he paid his passage to St. Louis. Work was scarce in that city at the moment, so he determined not to lose his time there, but push on. From St. Louis he proceeded to the city in which he hoped to find something to do; and as he left the steamer, in which he had taken a deck passage, his entire fortune consisted of three silver dollars. Failing to find work of any kind in this city, he resolved to try what he could make of the country; for being a sober lad, and having his bright Irish wits about him, he determined that he should not 'hang about the town.' He went some eight or ten miles into the country, and found work as a farm hand.

For six weeks he honestly did his best to earn his pay; but his hands becoming sore from the labour, he was forced to give in. Returning to the town, the Roscommon lad was employed by the principal hotel of the place to bring water to the stable with a horse and cart. At this humble employment he was engaged, when, happening to see a small man set upon by a great savage, he came to the rescue of the former, and prostrated the Goliath. The Goliath was treacherous as well as brutal, and rushing into his house, which was near at hand, he possessed himself of a sharp weapon, with which he stabbed the young Irishman, of whom he very nearly made an end. For six months of pain and weariness poor O'B——— was unable to earn a dollar. But he had brought with him from Roscommon a splendid constitution, and 'fine healing flesh.' When he was on his legs again he was taken into the office of the hotel, a position for which his intelligence suited him. The place was a very good one, as a stepping-stone to something better; and when O'B——— quitted it, which he did in twenty months, it was with 900 dollars in his pocket, having saved every cent that he could possibly lay by.

To be a lawyer was his ambition; and he was bright, and quick, and clear, with a fervent tongue, and a good tough brain withal. For two years and three months he studied hard at the desk and in the courts, and was then admitted into the profession after a creditable examination. He then practised with an eminent lawyer in the great city in which he had studied; and with the same eminent lawyer he remained until the summer of 1860. Then he turned his face once more to the smaller city in which be had humbly toiled and faithfully served; and here he determined to set up as an attorney and counsellor. His wealth was then all in the brain and the will, and his exchequer was low indeed. He contrived, however, to get an office, the furniture of which consisted of a small table and a single chair—intended for the joint yet separate use of client and of counsel; while the library was comprehended in a single volume of the statutes, 'loaned' to him by a friend. It was not a very splendid beginning, nor was his office a palace of luxury; but there was the right stuff in the young practitioner. His first case was remarkable, not so much from its being, what it was, a bad one— a 'hard case'—or for its success, as for an incident with which it was attended. The opposing counsel, who knew the history of his 'learned friend,' finding his young antagonist pushing him to the wall, and losing temper, had the good taste and delicacy to suggest that his 'learned friend' was more conversant with the manipulation of a trunk or portmanteau than with the handling of a legal argument; to which taunt the young Irishman replied in a manner at once playful and emphatic—namely, by hurling a great glass inkstand right in the face of his 'learned friend,' down whose obscured features a copious stream of ink, artistically blended with a rosier hue, rolled and lost itself in the full bosom of a shirt which a second before had shone with dazzling lustre. It is not given to every man to make a sensation in court; but the effect of this coup was eminently successful. The judge, representing the majesty of the Law, which affected to be deeply offended and seriously outraged, solemnly imposed a fine of fifty dollars; which fine was less solemnly remitted. The tide of fortune began to set in; and in few days after his double success, alike of ink-bottle and argument, the rising lawyer had the courage to go in debt for four chairs, and to have his office washed out on credit.

But in five years after the delivery of the retort courteous referred to, O'B——— received an absolute fee of 1,000 dollars for the conduct of an important case, and a conditional fee of 5,000 dollars—in other words, one thousand dollars win or lose, and five thousand in case he won; and he did win—that is, he got a young gentleman of good family safely through a little scrape which might have had a fatal termination. The four chairs, long since paid for, are still in the office; and the loaned copy of the statutes, afterwards presented as a tribute of admiration, expanded into a library that is fast encroaching on the last few unoccupied feet of wall. In 1862 and 1863 O'B——— was member of the State Legislature, and at the election for Congress previous to the time I met him, he was a candidate on the Democratic ticket. There is no mystery, no disguise about O'B——— or his career; for at the State Convention the gentleman—a State Senator—who nominated him, made the leading facts which I have now narrated the best claim to the sympathy and respect of his audience, who, like the subject of his eulogium, were, most of them at least, self-made men. I have seen O'B——'s home library, and I can answer that not only is it choice and comprehensive, but that it is well employed by the successful lawyer, who, when a lad of twenty, worked manfully on the levee of New Orleans. Possibly the moral of the story might be found in these words, which I heard him use—'Thank Heaven! I never was drunk in my life.'

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