A Self-made Man

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XV (5) start of chapter

A great strapping Irishman—who would be called at home 'a splendid figure of a man'—landed at Castle Garden about fifteen years since. He neither knew how to write or read, but he was gifted with abundant natural quickness, and he was full of energy and ambition. Work he came for, and work he got—that of a labourer. He was as strong as a horse, but he had not much experience in the management of a hod; and some of the old hands, including one who was inclined to be specially offensive, sneered at the new-comer as a 'greenhorn.' The leader of the old hands was a strong, burly fellow, not bad-natured, but inclined to bully the stranger. Now the stranger was not one of those who liked to be bullied; so the moment he was made fully aware of the meaning and intent of the offensive phrase, he fairly challenged, and in single combat manfully vanquished, his ill-advised assailant. From that moment he lost the verdant tinge which he first wore. So far this was serviceable; but he was not content with so poor a triumph. He saw other men—dull plodders, with 'not half his own gumption,' pushing their way up the social ladder; and why? Because they could read and write,—because they had 'the learning,' which, alas! he had not. But it was not because he had it not at that moment, that he could not have it some time or other. Then he would have it; that he was resolved on. So the large Irishman—who seemed big enough to swallow master and pupils at a meal—sat down on a form in a night school, and commenced to learn his a, b, c; and, with tongue desperately driven against one cheek, struggled with his 'pot-hooks and hangers'—the first efforts of the polite letter writer.

It was hard work, far tougher than that with the spade or the pickaxe. Many a time did the poor fellow's courage begin to fail, and his heart sink, as it were, into his boots; but he would not be beaten—he would not have it said that he failed. He did not fail. With the aid of a fellow-student, more advanced than himself, he drew out his first contract, which was for a few hundred dollars. This was accepted; and being executed in the most satisfactory manner by the young contractor, who himself performed no small part of the task, it was his first great step in life—contracts for thousands of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, following more rapidly than, in his wildest dreams, he could have imagined possible. This self-made man quickly adapted himself to the manners of the class to which he had so laboriously and creditably raised himself; and no one who converses with the shrewd, genial, off-handed Irishman, who drives his carriage, lives in fine style, and is educating his young family with the utmost care and at great cost, could suppose that he was the same rough giant who a few years before sat upon the form of a night school, wearily plodding at words of two syllables, and, with tongue fiercely driven against his cheek, scrawled on a slate his first lessons in writing.

Any one passing through the fashionable quarter of the capital of a Southern State may see the well-appointed mansion of a worthy Irishman, who was born within the swing of the

Bells of Shandon,
That sound so grand on
The pleasant waters
Of the river Lee.

As a journeyman baker he entered that city in the year 1851. In a few months after, he had saved 200 dollars; and with this, as part payment, he bought a small house and lot of half an acre of ground—the balance to be paid at the covenanted time. Having thus made his first start in life, he then made his second—he married. Besides the half acre in his lot, he rented an additional acre; and this acre was the chief means of his future fortune. His ambition was to be a master baker, 'no man's servant.' How was this to be done? Through the acre of garden. But what time had the journeyman baker, who worked from three o'clock in the morning till four in the evening in the bakery, to spend in cultivating vegetables? Very little time, an ordinary person would suppose; but the Corkman, who had seen how vegetables were grown in the neighbourhood of his native city, and who knew how profitable they would be when raised for his adopted city, was not an ordinary person—on the contrary, he was a determined and energetic person, who was resolved to rise in the world by more than ordinary industry. So, after leaving his day's work at the bakehouse, he would go home and work at his little farm from five o'clock in the afternoon to a late hour in the night—frequently to one o'clock next morning, if the moon served; he would then snatch a couple of hours' rest, and be again in the bakehouse at the regular hour.

Every minute that he could steal from his natural rest, every moment of his leisure time, was devoted by the journeyman baker to the cultivation of his land; and when the bright Southern moon flooded the silent night with its radiance, the Corkman might be seen digging and delving, raking and weeding, planting and sowing; until his farm blossomed as a garden, and bore abundant fruit. By this means he nearly supported his family, and saved his wages. In three years he had 500 dollars in the bank. With this 500 dollars he took his third start in America—he became a master baker. And so well did he succeed in his new capacity that he soon established a good business, saved a considerable sum of money, educated his children, built for them a neat mansion, in which they enjoy every reasonable comfort; and I, who met him, and received much attention at his hands, can state that this self-made man is among the most respected of the Irish-born citizens of the community in whose midst he has established himself so successfully. He had a 'squeeze in his business during the war;' but when I saw him he had got over all his difficulties, and was then sailing before the wind. He is a genuinely sober man, who, to use his own words, 'knows the danger of drink, and never lost an hour by it in his 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