Town and Country

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XI (12) start of chapter

Even where there is sobriety, industry, good conduct, constant employment, the city is not the place for the man bred in the country, and acquainted from his boyhood only with country pursuits, whether as farmer or farm labourer. The country wants him, clamours for him, welcomes him, bids him prosper, and offers him the means of doing so. But suppose there is not industry, sobriety, good conduct, or constant employment, is it necessary to depict the consequences? The once simple peasant is soon smirched by the foulness of such city corruption as too frequently surrounds him or lies in his daily path; and the dram shop, so ruinously convenient to the dwellings of the toiling poor, finds him one of its best customers. If his children escape the perils of infancy, and grow up about him, what is their training, what their career, what their fate? Possibly they are saved, through some merciful interposition; perhaps by the tears and prayers of a good mother, perhaps by the example of a sister who has caught the mother's spirit. Possibly they grow up in industry and virtue, but the odds are fearfully against them; and it is not at all improbable that the quick-witted offspring of the father, who become intemperate and demoralised, fall into the class known as the Arabs of the Street, those victims of parental neglect or unprovided orphanage, that, as they arrive at manhood, mature into a still more dangerous class—the roughs and rowdies of the city, who are ready for every kind of mischief, and to whom excitement, no matter at whatever expense it may be purchased, becomes the first necessity of their existence.

Let it not be supposed that, in my earnest desire to direct the practical attention of my countrymen, at both sides of the Atlantic, to an evil of universally admitted magnitude, I desire to exaggerate in the least. From the very nature of things, the great cities of America—and in a special degree New York—must be the refuge of the unfortunate, the home of the helpless, the hiding-place of the broken-down, even of the criminal: and these, while crowding the dwelling-places of the poor, and straining the resources and preying on the charity of their communities, multiply their existing evils, and add to their vices. Still, in spite of the dangers and temptations by which they are perpetually surrounded—dangers and temptations springing even from the very freedom of Republican institutions no less than from the generous social habits of the American people—there are thousands, hundreds of thousands, of Irish-born citizens of the United States, residing in New York and in the other great cities of the Union, who are in every respect the equals of the best of American population—honourable and upright in their dealings; industrious, energetic, and enterprising in business; intelligent and quick of capacity; progressive and go-ahead; and as loyally devoted to the institutions of their adopted country as if they had been born under its flag. Nevertheless, I repeat the assertion, justified by innumerable authorities — authorities beyond the faintest shadow of suspicion—that the city is not the right place for the Irish peasant, and that it is the worst place which he could select as his home.

The Irish peasant, who quits his native country for England or Scotland, may be excused for hiding himself in any of its great towns, manufacturing or commercial, inland or seaport; for not only may he find employment for himself, and have some chance for his young people in them, but there is no opportunity of his much bettering his condition by going into the country. But there is no excuse whatever for his remaining in the cities of America, crowding and blocking them up, when there are at this hour as many opportunities for his getting on in the country—that is, making a home and independence for himself and his children—as there were for the millions of all nationalities who went before him, and who now constitute the strength and glory of the Republic. The Irish peasant who goes to England or Scotland has little chance of being accepted even as the tenant of a farm in either of those countries—a remote one, indeed, of ever becoming a proprietor of English or Scottish soil; but the most miserable cottier of Connemara or the worst-paid day-labourer of Cork or Tipperary, who has the good sense to push on from the American seaboard towards those vast regions of virgin land that woo the hardy vigour of the pioneer, may in the course of a few years possess hundreds of acres of real estate by a more glorious title than has been too often acquired in the old countries of Europe, his own included—by the right of patient industry, blessed toil, and sanctifying privation.

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