Poor Irish Gentility

John Francis Maguire

Poor Irish Gentility—Honest Labour—The Miller's Son—Well-earned Success—No poor Irish Gentility here—A self-made Man—How he became a Master Baker—The Irish don't do themselves Justice—How they are regarded—Scotch-Irish

THERE is another evil which overtakes Irishmen of a certain class in the new world; it may be called the Micawber evil—'waiting for something to turn up.' The delay of a week may be the destruction of the young man who comes out to America with the highest hopes of doing something, he knows not what, and getting on, he knows not how. In mere delay there is danger quite sufficient; but woe to him if he bring with him the faded gentility of poor Ireland to a country utterly without sympathy for such threadbare nonsense. The Irishman who brings with him across the ocean this miserable weakness travels with the worst possible compagnon de voyage.

In America there is no disgrace in honest labour. It was labour that made America what she is; it is labour that will make her what she is destined to be—the mightiest power of the earth. But that pestilent Irish gentility, which has never appreciated, perhaps never could appreciate, this grand truth; that Irish gentility, the poorest and proudest, the most sensitive and the most shamefaced, of all such wretched shams—that weakness of indigenous growth has brought many a young Irishman to grief and shame. Advised, by those who knew America well, to 'take anything' or to 'do anything' that offered, poor Irish gentility could not stoop to employment against which its high-stomached pride revolted—poor Irish gentility was 'never used to that kind of thing at home;' so poor Irish gentility wandered hopelessly about, looking in vain for what would suit its notions of respectability; until poor Irish gentility found itself with linen soiled, hat battered, clothes seedy, boots unreliable, and spirits depressed—so down, fatally down, poor Irish gentility sank, until there was not strength or energy to accept the work that offered; and poor Irish gentility faded away in some dismal garret or foul cellar, and dropped altogether out of sight, into the last receptacle of poor gentilities—the grave of a pauper. I heard a good Irish lady describe an awful tragedy of this nature; and as she told the melancholy tale, her face grew pale at its remembrance. Called too late to save one who had been her friend in youth, she was in time to close her eyes as she lay in her last mortal agony on the bare floor of a back room in a tenement house in New York. Meek, gentle, well educated and accomplished, the poor exile who thus died on that bare floor, with scarcely sufficient rags to hide her wasted limbs, was the victim of the husband's false pride and morbid sensitiveness—of his poor Irish gentility. Through every stage of the downward process he rapidly passed, dragging down with him his tenderly-nurtured wife until the sad ending was that death of hunger on those naked boards.

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