Not Scamps and Rowdies

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXX (3) start of chapter

That an individual who takes the lead in a certain locality may be actuated by the lowest motives—vanity, self-interest, or the desire of obtaining influence to be employed for the furtherance of personal objects—is probably true, and it would be strange if such were not the case; but the body, meaning thereby the thousands or the tens of thousands who constitute the strength of the organisation, even in the locality in which there may happen to be a worthless leader, are neither 'roughs' nor 'rowdies,' nor men of irregular or dissipated habits; and the feeling by which these men are animated is as pure as it is unselfish. That what they propose to themselves as their immediate or ultimate object may be as impracticable as mischievous —that it would rather aggravate and intensify the evils which they desire to remedy by sweeping revolution,—this is not properly the question; it is rather, what is their true character?—what is their real feeling? Then, so far as I have been able to learn, my belief is, that among the Fenians in almost every State of the Union there are many thousands of the very cream of the Irish population. Indeed, in several places in which I have been I have learned, on unquestionable authority—very frequently of those who regarded Fenianism with positive dislike, and its leaders with marked mistrust—that the most regular, steady, and self-respecting of the Irish youth, or the immediate descendants of Irish parents, constituted its chief strength.

A few facts, given without method, will best illustrate the real character of those who take part in this organisation, and the feelings by which they are animated.

I happened to be in Buffalo a few months after the famous raid into Canada; and the impression produced by what I then learned was not weakened, but rather confirmed, by every day's additional experience in the United States. I was then brought into contact with persons holding the most opposite opinions as to the character of this raid—those who condemned or those who applauded it; but from the very persons who denounced it, as wanton and wicked, I received as strong testimony in favour of the conduct of the Fenians who took part in it, or who had come to take part in it, as from those who gloried in the attempt, and deplored its failure. It is not necessary to repeat the oft-told story of the Canadian raid, or the part taken by the American Government, under the solemn obligations of international law, to ensure its defeat. Not calculating on the active interference of the authorities, an immense body of Fenians, several thousands in number, concentrated in Buffalo, with the intention of crossing the frontier; and though they were badly provided, if not utterly unprovided, with commissariat, and though, notwithstanding the generosity or the efforts of their friends, they had to subsist on the simplest and even scantiest fare; and though hundreds of these young men were to be seen lying on the side-walks, their only sleeping-places at night (it was in the midst of the summer)—there was not committed by any one of that vast body during the time, fully a fortnight, that they remained in that large and populous city, a single offence against person, or property, or decency, or public order! This fact, so creditable to the Irish character, was admitted, however reluctantly, by the opponents of the Fenians, and was proudly proclaimed by their sympathisers.

In this raid, or ready to take part in it, were men of the best character and the steadiest conduct. Instances were numerous of those who had abandoned well-paid offices, lucrative situations, and valuable appointments—who had given up happy homes and quiet enjoyments, to risk liberty and life in this expedition. Fathers were not restrained from joining in it by family obligations; and those who were beyond the period of active service rather encouraged than checked the ardour of their sons. A striking case in point came under my immediate observation. I visited, on invitation, the store of a respectable man, whom I had known many years before in Ireland, and whose feeling, I knew, had always been strongly 'national.' Speaking of the Canadian raid, in the presence of his wife and children and one or two friends, all grouped round the stove at the far end of his place of business, he pointed to a handsome fresh-coloured young fellow of twenty, and said—'That boy joined them over the way, and with my full consent. His mother there was in a terrible state about him, like all women, I suppose, and wanted not to let him go on any account; but I said to her, "if you do not let him go, I will take his place; and if I say I will go, no power on earth will stop me." It was only then she consented—she will tell you so herself. He did go, and he came back, safe too, to his mother and me, thank God!' A deep, heart-felt 'Amen!' was the mother's only response, as she caressed the soft cheek of her youngest child, that, sitting at her feet, rested its head against her knee.

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