Well-earned Success

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XV (4) start of chapter

One evening in a great Eastern city I met in social intercourse some five-and-twenty or thirty Irishmen from all parts of Ireland, every one of whom was either progressing, prosperous, or rich; and all, without an exception, owed everything they possessed to their own energy and good conduct. During the evening a scrap of paper was handed to me, on which was written the words—'There are more than four millions and a half of dollars represented at this table—all made by the men themselves, and most of it within a few years.' The Irishman who sat next to me was the possessor of a twelfth of the whole. He had not been more than sixteen years in the country, and until some years after he landed in America he had no connection whatever with mercantile affairs. A few dollars and the clothes in which he stood—such was his capital. He had no poor Irish gentility to embarrass him; and at the head of a dray-horse he might be seen soon after his arrival, his frock-coat not altogether suited to his rough employment, and his boots fatally damaged in sole and upper. But in a short time he made and saved money, and he went from one thing to another, mounting step after step of the commercial ladder; until he now is partner in one of the finest concerns of the city, and enjoys the highest repute for probity and enterprise. At the same table sat one who, a native of my own city, had been earning at home four shillings a week—eightpence a day—at a certain employment, but who was then the owner of a prosperous establishment, in which several hundreds were profitably employed. Intelligence, sheer industry, and good conduct,—these the secret of his success.

In the same city I know an Irishman who holds perhaps as prominent and responsible a position as any man within its walls, he having the management of one of the most splendid concerns in America. He had a situation in Ireland of some 100l. a year on a public work; but being a young man of good education, clear brain, and magnificent health, he thought he could do better in America. There was not a bit of false gentility about him, yet he sought to procure a situation at least as respectable as that to which he had been accustomed; but the moment the last sovereign was turned into dollars, and the dollars were rapidly vanishing, he determined he would not be idle a clay longer. 'I saw,' he said, 'there was nothing for it but work, and I was resolved to take anything that offered, I didn't care what. I spent a portion of the morning knocking about here and there, trying to get such employment as I would prefer; but it was not to be had. I was too late, or they didn't want me. 'Come,' said I to myself, 'there must be an end of this kind of thing; the way to get along is to begin with something; so I turned into the first livery-stable I came to, and asked the owner did he require a hand to rub down his horses; he said he did, and that he would willingly employ me. 'All right,' said I; 'so I stripped off my coat, turned up my sleeves, and set to work. And I assure you I slept well that night. I was not long there, having soon found what suited me better—and here I am now, thank God.'

As I was leaving a city 'down South' I was accompanied some way in the 'cars' by a number of my countrymen—every man of them prosperous, respectable, and 'self-made. Near me was a gentleman rather advanced in years, of the kindest expression, the softest voice, and eyes mildly beaming through a pair of gold-rimmed glasses. A thorough American, he was no less a devoted Irishman. I was speaking of the climate, and its effect on the constitution and health of our people, when he said, in his soft voice—'My dear sir, it all depends on a man's prudence or imprudence. The climate is dangerous to those who are foolish—who drink to excess. Any climate would be injurious to them; but this climate, though much talked against, is not dangerous to the sober man. My dear sir, there is an instance of it in my own person —I worked on a canal for three years, often up to my waist in water—'

'You, sir!' I could not help exclaiming.

'Yes, my dear sir'—his eyes mildly beaming at me through the gold-rimmed glasses, and his voice catching a softer intonation—'Yes, my dear sir, I was often up to my hips in water; and at the end of the time I had my health perfectly, and a considerable sum saved—quite enough to begin with. I kept my health, because I never drank—while hundreds of our countrymen were literally dying around me, I may say withering in my sight, all the result of their own folly. Poor fellows! the temptation was great, and the whisky was to be had for next to nothing.'

'But,' I said, 'you surely had not been used to rough work of that kind?'

'Very true, my dear sir; but what was I to do? I knew I had come to a country in which no man—no stranger certainly—could be idle without great injury to himself; and as I had no immediate opportunity of getting such employment as I myself would have preferred, and was accustomed to, why, my dear sir, I took that which offered. And, on the whole, I am not sorry for it.'

My friend then branched off into the adaptability of man to various climates; and, taking a wide and rather comprehensive range of inquiry, he hurried me through several countries of the world, at the same time broaching a number of plausible theories, evidently favourites of his. As I grasped his honest hand, and felt the mild light of those kindly eyes beaming at me through the gold-rimmed spectacles, I pictured to myself that man of soft voice and cultivated mind, working up to his hips in mud and slush, and the Southern sun raining its fierce fire on his head. But there he was, not a bit the worse for his hard work —on the contrary, both personally and philosophically proud of what he had gone through.

Two instances of energy and determination must close a list which could be added to to any extent.

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