Why the City attracts the new Comer

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XI (2) start of chapter

Irish emigrants of the peasant and labouring class were generally poor, and after defraying their first expenses on landing had little left to enable them to push their way into the country in search of such employment as was best suited to their knowledge and capacity; though had they known what was in store for too many of them and their children, they would have endured the severest privation and braved any hardship, in order to free themselves from the fatal spell in which the fascination of a city life has meshed the souls of so many of their race. Either they brought little money with them, and were therefore unable to go on; or that little was plundered from them by those whose trade it was to prey upon the inexperience or credulity of the new-comer. Therefore, to them, the poor or the plundered Irish emigrants, the first and pressing necessity was employment; and so splendid seemed the result of that employment, even the rudest and most laborious kind, as compared with what they were able to earn in the old country, that it at once predisposed them in favour of a city life.

The glittering silver dollar, how bright it looked, and how heavy it weighed, when contrasted with the miserable sixpence, the scanty 'tenpenny-bit,' or the occasional shilling, at home! Then there were old friends and former companions or acquaintances to be met with at every street-corner; and there was news to give, and news to receive—too often, perhaps, in the liquor-store or dram-shop kept by a countryman—probably 'a neighbour's child,' or 'a decent boy from the next ploughland.' Then 'the chapel was handy,' and 'a Christian wouldn't be overtaken for want of a priest;' then there was 'the schooling convenient for the children, poor things,'—so the glorious chance was lost; and the simple, innocent countryman, to whom the trees of the virgin forest were nodding their branches in friendly invitation, and the blooming prairie expanded its fruitful bosom in vain, became the denizen of a city, for which he was unqualified by training, by habit, and by association. Possibly it was the mother's courage that failed her as she glanced at the flock of little ones who clustered around her, or timidly clung to her skirts, and she thought of the new dangers and further perils that awaited them; and it was her maternal influence that was flung into the trembling balance against the country and in favour of the city. Or employment was readily found for one of the girls, or one or two of the boys, and things looked so hopeful in the fine place that all thoughts of the fresh, breezy, healthful plain or hill-side were shut out at that supreme moment of the emigrant's destiny; though many a time after did he and they long for one breath of pure air, as they languished in the stifling heat of summer in a tenement house. Or the pioneer of the family—most likely a young girl—had found good employment, and, with the fruits of her honest toil, had gradually brought out brothers and sisters, father and mother, for whose companionship her heart ever yearned; and possibly her affection, was stronger than her prudence, or she knew nothing of the West and its limitless resources. Or sickness, that had followed the emigrant's family across the ocean, fastened upon some member of the group as they touched the soil for which they had so ardently prayed; and though the fever or the cholera did not destroy a precious life, it did the almost as precious opportunity of a better future: the spring of that energy which was sufficient to break asunder the ties and habits of previous years —sufficient for flight from home and country—was broken; and those who faced America in high hope were thenceforth added to the teeming population of a city—to which class it might be painful to speculate.

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