What a poor Irishman can do

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XIII (11) start of chapter

As an evidence of the progress and present position of the Irish in San Francisco, a few significant items might be quoted from the record of the Assessor of Taxes; but it is sufficient to state that, with the exception of four others, not Irish, six Irishmen are the highest rated of its citizens. One fact, however, renders further details unnecessary—namely, that while the Irish constitute one-fourth of the population of San Francisco, or 30,000 out of 120,000, they are considered to possess one-fourth of the entire property of the city, or 20,000,000 out of 80,000,000 of dollars. And yet of every 100 Irish who came to San Francisco, as to California generally, 75 were either poor or scantily provided with means. Few, indeed, brought any money capital with them, but they had energy, industry, with capacity for all kinds of work; and though they came from a country in which enterprise had little existence, and industry not at all times a fair field or a right reward, these men and women of Irish race soon caught the spirit of the American—the right spirit for a new country, the genuine 'Go-ahead'—that which always looks forward and never looks back.

With the mention of a single case—of an Irishman who was certainly one of the seventy-five per cent, who brought with them to the land of gold but little of the world's goods—I may usefully conclude this sketch of the Irish in California. It may be given in the words of my informant, a gentleman who left Ireland for America in 1849. He says: 'There is one circumstance in connection with my coming to America that has always, and will always, give me great pleasure. I mention it with a view to enable you to judge of what a poor Irishman can accomplish in this country with a fair field before him. About the time I was making up my mind to come to California, I was then engaged in building some public works in the town of Sligo. I had then in my employment, and for a short time before, a confidential labouring man. At that time he had a wife and six children in the poor-house in Tullamore, in the King's County, to which he belonged, having been dispossessed of a small piece of land in that neighbourhood. When I mentioned to him that I was going to California, he fell on his knees and implored me to take him with me. I was at first thunderstruck at the idea of his willingness to leave his family, and go to so distant a country, and I so expressed myself to him. But he answered me—"If I remain here, I lose my employment, and I, too, must go into the poor-house, and then all hope is over." I felt too keenly the truth of his reply. I could make no further objection, and I told him I would take him with me. In a year after his arrival in this country he sent home money, took his family out of the work-house, and sent his children to school. They are all now here, his daughters well married, his sons in good situations, and the old couple, with two of their younger children, born in California, living in a comfortable way on a good farm, from which no bailiff can eject them. The simple statement of the history of this family speaks volumes, in my mind, of what the Irish can do in America.'

In this language speaks another Irishman, a Californian resident of long standing, whose name is held in merited respect by all who know him: 'Thus, in general with but a poor beginning, in a manner friendless, strangers in a strange land, have our people struggled and fought, and been victorious. Their bones will lie far away from the hallowed dust of their kindred; yet every mountain, hillside, and valley in this favoured land will give evidence to posterity of their toil, enterprise, and success. Their footprints, marking the genius and traditions of their race, their love and veneration of the old faith, and the old country from which they were such unwilling exiles, shall endure in the land for ever.'

As this sheet was going through the press, my attention was attracted by an article in the Monitor of San Francisco, from which I quote the concluding passage, written, as I believe, in the right spirit:—

It is our interest to have as many of our countrymen here as possible; and, moreover, we honestly believe no other country holds out such advantages for their coming. They have not the prejudices of race or religious bigotry which exist in some parts of the East to contend with; unskilled labour is more respected here than there, and finally, the natural resources of the country are greater, and the population less dense than in any of the Atlantic States. Why cannot the Irishmen of this city form a society for diffusing a knowledge of California's resources among our countrymen, and communicating with employers throughout the State, for securing immediate employment on their arrival? We almost feel a scruple about encouraging emigiation from poor depopulated Ireland, where the fortunes of our race have yet to be retrieved; but in England and Scotland there are nearly a million of Irishmen from whose ranks we could easily obtain an annual immigration of many thousands by a system such as that we have just proposed. We know by experience the state of feeling existing among our countrymen in Europe, and we believe that by a plan such as we have described, an immense Irish population could be drawn here, to both their own and our advantage. The Irish of California are wealthy and liberal, and surely such a society as the one we have proposed could be easily started among them. We hope our suggestions may turn the attention of some of them to the practical development of Irish immigration from England and the Eastern cities.

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