Something of the Angel still

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XVI (2) start of chapter

There is not a private banker, or passenger broker, or agent in any of the cities of the United States who could not tell of instances of the most extraordinary self-denial practised by the sons and daughters of the Irish race. The entries in their ledgers are prosaic enough—so many dollars sent, on such a day, by a young man or a young woman with an Irish name, to some person in Ireland of a similar name. But were that matter-of-fact entry transfused into its true colours, volumes of poetry might be written of those countless heart-offerings, the fruits of hard self-denial, not merely at the sacrifice of innocent enjoyments, and humble finery, dear to woman's nature, from a natural and graceful instinct, but often at the cost of the fondest hopes of the human heart. How long, for instance, if the accountant troubled himself to consider, may he not have remembered this most regular of his visitors, since when, almost a child in years, she timidly and yet proudly confided to his custody her first earnings, with many an injunction and many a prayer, and—believing she read sympathy in his face—told him for whom it was intended, and how sadly it was wanted by the old people at home, for whom she had risked the dangers of the deep, and the worse perils of a strange land? Did he care to regard her in any other light than as a constant customer, he might have observed how the soft fair face lost its maiden bloom, and hardened into premature age, marked with lines of care and toil, as year after year this unconscious martyr to filial duty surrendered everything —even the vision of a home blessed by the love of husband and the caresses of children—to keep the roof over the head of father or of mother, and provide for their comfort in the winter of their days; or to pay for the support of a young brother or sister, or perhaps the orphan child of a sister who had confided it to her care with her dying breath. I have many times, and always with instinctive reverence, seen such noble Irish women in the act of sending the fortieth or the fiftieth remittance to their relatives in Ireland; and the cool matter-of-fact deliberateness with which the money was deposited, and the order obtained, was an eloquent proof of the frequency of their visits for the same purpose.

The great ambition of the Irish girl is to send 'something' to her people as soon as possible after she has landed in America; and in innumerable instances the first tidings of her arrival in the New World are accompanied with a remittance, the fruits of her first earnings in her first place. Loving a bit of finery dearly, she will resolutely shut her eyes to the attractions of some enticing article of dress, to prove to the loved ones at home that she has not forgotten them; and she will risk the danger of insufficient clothing, or boots not proof against rain or snow, rather than diminish the amount of the little hoard to which she is weekly adding, and which she intends as a delightful surprise to parents who possibly did not altogether approve of her hazardous enterprise. To send money to her people, she will deny herself innocent enjoyments, womanly indulgences, and the gratifications of legitimate vanity; and such is the generous and affectionate nature of these young girls, that they regard the sacrifices they make as the most ordinary matter in the world, for which they merit neither praise nor approval. To assist their relatives, whether parents, or brothers and sisters, is with them a matter of imperative duty, which they do not and cannot think of disobeying, and which, on the contrary, they delight in performing. And the money destined to that purpose is regarded as sacred, and must not be diverted to any object less worthy.

I was told in New York of a young Irish girl, who was only one month in the country, going to the office of the well-known Irish Emigration Society's Bank to send her first earnings to her mother, of course to the care of the parish priest. She brought with her five dollars, which in her simplicity she supposed to be equivalent to the 1l. she intended to transmit. At that time six dollars and fifty cents were required to make up the British pound, and the poor girl's disappointment was intense when she was made to understand that she was deficient a dollar and a half. The friend who accompanied her, and who had been some time longer in the country, lent her a dollar; the clerk advanced her the balance, and the undiminished pound was sent to her ' poor mother, who wanted it badly.' In a few days after, the money advanced by the clerk was paid by the young girl, whose face was soon known in the office, as she came at regular intervals to send remittances, which were gradually increasing in amount. In a very short time she understood the relative value of American 'greenbacks' and British gold, and made no mistake as to the amount of the money-orders she desired to transmit.

It frequently occurred in that office that small sums were advanced to make up the amount required by the person intending to send a remittance; and in no instance was there failure in payment. A debt of the kind is, of all others, the most sacred. The money which the loan thus helps to complete is a filial offering—the gift of a child to a parent; and confidence so reposed is never forfeited. I have heard the same statement made by bankers and brokers in many parts of the United States.

So much is this sending of remittances to Ireland a matter of routine to those engaged in the business, that there must be something special in the circumstance of the case, or in the manner or appearance of the applicant for a bill of exchange, to excite the least attention. But he must have been insensible indeed who was not attracted by the strange aspect and appearance of a regular visitor at the bank in Chambers' Street. So surely as the festivals of Christmas and Easter were approaching, would a man of powerful frame, wild eyes, and dissipated appearance, enter the office, and laying on the counter $15, or $20, ask for an order in favour of an old man away in some country village in Ireland. Not unfrequently would the clothes of the Society's customer bear the marks of abject poverty, and his face evidences of the roughest usage; and were the police asked to give a character of this poor fellow, they would say that, though honest and free from crime, there was not 'a harder case' in New York; and that there were few better known in the Tombs than he was. True, he was a hard case indeed, wasting his strength and energy in folly and dissipation, working now and then as a longshore man, but spending what he earned in drink, and only sober when in prison, paying the penalty of drunkenness or violence, or at the two fixed periods of the year—some time before Christmas and some time before Easter.

While in prison his sobriety was involuntary—at these periods it was voluntary and deliberate. His old father in Ireland expected to hear from 'his boy,' and the letter so anxiously looked for at home should not be empty. So long then as it was necessary to work in order to send a couple of pounds as a Christmas-box or an Easter gift, he would do so, and remain sober during that time; but once the money was sent, and the sacred duty discharged, he would go back to the old course, spending his days partly at work, partly in rows and dissipation, and very constantly in the Tombs, possibly repenting his wanton waste of life. There was no one to tell the old man at home of the wild desperate course of his 'boy' in America, and he never knew with what heroic self-denial these welcome remittances were earned, or how the one strong affection, the one surviving sense of duty, was sufficient, though unhappily but for a moment, to redeem a reckless but not altogether degraded nature. There was indeed something of the angel left in that victim of the most fatal enemy to the Irish in the New World.

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