Visit to an Irish Settlement

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER II (3) start of chapter

Wishing to see for myself one or two of the Irish settlements, so as to form a more correct estimate of the actual position of my countrymen in their new home, I readily availed myself of the kindness of one of the shrewdest and ablest of the merchants of Charlottetown (1)—whose capital, when he arrived from Ireland, consisted of a good practical education, keen intelligence, and high principle, and who is now admitted to be one of the ablest and most prosperous among the business men of the island. Through his kindness I was enabled to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion on a subject which to me was one of the deepest interest. From a very early hour in the morning to the dusk of the evening—with the aid of a strong horse, a light vehicle, and a well-informed guide, who knew every inch of the road, and was acquainted with almost every person whom we met during our prolonged tour—I was engaged in visiting and inspecting two Irish settlements, occasionally entering a farm-house, or field in which the work of harvesting was still going on, and speaking with its hospitable and industrious owner. Confining myself to a single settlement—that of Monaghan—I shall state the result of my observations.

The Monaghan settlers, to use the expression of one who knew them well, 'had not a sixpence in their pockets when they landed.' But they took 'green-wood farms,' or tracts of land entirely covered with forest, not a rood of which was cleared when they entered into their occupation. Selecting the most convenient position for his future home, the adventurous settler erected his little log cabin, and having secured that shelter for himself, and perhaps for his family, he commenced to chop away at the trees which overshadowed his lowly dwelling, until the semblance of a field—rather an opening in the forest studded with tree stumps—rewarded his industry, and stimulated him to still greater efforts.

By working occasionally for the nearest farmers, the settlers were enabled to purchase provisions and other necessaries during the first months of their arduous struggle. The next year they burned the timber which they had previously cut down, and used their ashes for manure, and round the stumps of what had been monarchs of the forest, they planted their first crop of potatoes; the following year wheat was added to their harvest, and in a few years they began to have a farm—not, it is true, without hard work, and, occasionally, bitter privation; but the prize—glorious independence—was well worth contending for, while its possession amply compensated for toil and hardship of every kind. These same men who, as a rule, began 'without a sixpence in their pockets,' were then in the possession of 100 acres of land each, with from 50 to 70 acres cleared—much of the land not exhibiting the faintest trace of a tree having ever grown upon it, while the recently cleared portion and the still living forest showed that the island had not long before worn one prevailing livery of green, only varied in shade by the character of the timber and the nature of its foliage. The Monaghan settlers had long since passed the log-cabin stage, and were occupying substantial and commodious frame houses, with suitable offices; and most of them—these Irishmen, who had begun the fight 'without a sixpence in their pocket'—had brought up their families with care and in respectability, could drive to church on Sunday in a well-appointed waggon, with a good horse, or a pair of good horses, and probably had what they would call 'a little money' laid by in the bank.

As a rule, admitting of only a rare exception, I did not for the entire day—during a circuit of nearly sixty miles —see a single habitation that was not decent in appearance or that did not evince an air of neatness and comfort. All were constructed of timber; but they were well glazed, well roofed, and kept as white and clean as lime or paint could render them. We must have seen hundreds of farm-houses during our ten hours' tour; and I can safely assert I did not perceive more than half a dozen which betrayed indications of poverty, or which exhibited an appearance of squalor; and these latter, I am happy to say, were not occupied by the Irish. Substantial comfort was the prevailing characteristic of dwelling and farm building; and cattle and horses and sheep grazed upon broad acres from which the stumps had been lately cleared. And where the forest no longer offered a shelter to the house, or a background to the picture of rural comfort, a cluster of trees, judiciously spared from the levelling axe, or deliberately planted, afforded a pleasing variety to the eye. It too frequently happens in countries which have been recently reclaimed from the wilderness of the forest, war is so relentlessly waged against trees of every kind, which, so long as they interfere with the free use of the plough, are simply regarded as a nuisance, that an air of barrenness, even of desolation, is imparted to the landscapes; and after the lapse of some time, the farmer, whether repenting his desolating vigour, or longing for the shade or shelter of the tree, plants round his dwelling, or the enclosure in which it stands, those beautiful objects, which add a charm and a beauty to the abode of man.

There are people at home who regard the position of the farmer who is without 'capital' as desperate. With them capital—their capital, which is always money—is the one thing necessary, and without which all else is worthless. It were well if these narrow-minded philosophers had an opportunity of estimating at its right value the greatest, the grandest capital of which man could be possessed, especially in a new country, in which nothing has been done, and in which everything is yet to be done. Here is the green forest, the home of the squirrel or the wild cat. For the purposes of human life, of man's enjoyment, that green forest is unavailing. Without the labour of man not all the money in Threadneedle Street or Wall Street will suffice to convert that verdant wilderness into pasture or arable land. The energy, the industry, the endurance of man—of the penniless, or it may be the despised, emigrant, —these are worth any number of millions of money. Lack these, and silver and gold are as worthless as dross, as valueless as if they lay in the depths of the mine, or were still incorporated with their rocky matrix. Those Irish emigrants who landed in Prince Edward Island forty, thirty, or twenty years since, had to go into the forest and fight their way, rood by rood, acre by acre, and win their daily bread by ceaseless labour, until field was added to field, and the encircling forest was driven back by the resistless force of human energy—by the power of the same God-giving capital which is as capable of making the old country—the natural home of that hardy, patient, and laborious race—bloom like a garden, as it is of hewing abundance, beauty, and civilisation out of the wilderness in other lands.

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