A Young Irish Pioneer

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XVI (6) start of chapter

Few instances of this 'affection and disinterestedness' could exceed that displayed by a mere child from Kilkenny. Pat —— was but thirteen years old when he determined, if possible, to go to America, having heard that he had an uncle who lived in St. Louis, Missouri. His idea of America was what might be expected from a child of his age,—his notion being, that every boy in that favoured country was his own master, and had a pony to ride whenever he wished for that enjoyment. His motive in urging his father and mother to consent to his perilous enterprise was the desire to make his fortune, and be able to bring out all his family, and make them, according to the story-book formula, 'as happy as the days are long.' The parents of the boy allowed themselves to be persuaded by him, especially as his uncle would be certain to receive and take care of him; and a steerage passage to New Orleans having been procured, the little fellow started on his venturous journey. Landing at New Orleans, he, knowing nothing of the country, imagined that he could easily walk to St. Louis, as he might from Kilkenny to the neighbouring town! Hearing that the goal of his hopes—the city in which his uncle lived—was nearly 2,000 miles distant, he was sorely afflicted. He went from steamboat to steamboat, asking sailor, steward, and captain, 'did they know his uncle? would they take him to St. Louis?' and telling them his name was Pat.

Sailors and stewards and captains of the Mississippi boats are not invariably the mildest of mortals; therefore it must not be a matter of surprise that the eager questions of the poor Irish boy with the beseeching eyes were more often replied to in a rough and surly manner than otherwise. If those to whom he applied troubled themselves to think of him at all, it was as a foolish or importunate cub who had no business to bother them with his stupid nonsense. What was his uncle to them? or did they care a cent whether his name was Pat Blank or Pat anything else? He was bade get about his business, and that quickly too. The child began to sob and pray; and as, sobbing and praying, and sorely bewildered, he was wandering about the levee, he was remarked by a kind-hearted gentleman, who asked him why he cried. He replied that he wanted to go to his uncle in St. Louis, and that no one would take him, and that he would gladly work his way. The meeting was providential, for there was not on the Mississippi a braver, a kinder, or a better man than Captain Durack, the Irish commander of one of the finest steamers that ever ran the risk of a snag or a blow-up. The captain had pity on the helpless child, and took him into his boat, where he at once made himself useful.

In fact, such was the willing spirit and gentle disposition of the little fellow, and such his anxiety to oblige everybody, that he became a general favourite. After a nine days' steaming, the vessel reached St. Louis, where Pat landed, high in hope, his pockets containing more money than he had ever before possessed, the passengers having liberally rewarded his willing services. He found his uncle, but found him—a confirmed drunkard, fast sinking into the grave which his own folly was hourly preparing for him. Cruelly disappointed in the hopes he had so fondly cherished, the boy again sought his friend the captain, who adopted him, and procured for him the appointment of assistant steward in a steamboat on the Upper Mississippi, in which position the young official earned money rapidly, and acquired the good wishes of all who knew him. His friend the captain was made his treasurer, likewise the repository of his hopes and intentions respecting his family at home. For them —his father and mother, his brother and two sisters—the boy offered up many a fervent prayer; and not unfrequently was he observed on his knees under the wheel-house absorbed in his devotions.

The boat, on arriving in port, would remain for an interval of a week or so, and during that time the young Irish lad would attend school, and in this way laid the foundation of his education. While he was thus employed, carefully hoarding his money, and acquiring by snatches some of the learning for which he eagerly strove, he was overwhelmed with the sad news that reached him from home,—that his father and mother were both dead, and that his brother and sisters were in the workhouse! He was so affected by this distressing intelligence, that his health gave way, and his kind protector the captain feared he was falling into a consumption.

The pious boy unburdened his sorrows to a good priest in St. Louis, who cheered him by his advice and sympathy. The vision of his little brother and sisters—the latter only eight and ten years old—in the workhouse, haunted him day and night. To rescue them from that degrading position, and bring them out as soon as possible, was now the great duty of his life; and with this additional motive for economy, every cent he could save was entrusted to the care of his patron and treasurer the captain. He sent 20l. to an uncle in Ireland, to pay for the passages and outfit of his brother and sisters, reserving something for their support on their arrival. Having achieved that first grand work, he next turned his attention to the object of his fondest ambition—the Priesthood; and he resolved, if possible, at once to commence the studies necessary for that sacred calling. He presented himself to the then Superior of the College of St. Mary, of the Barens, Missouri, to whom he confided his touching history and his passionate longing for a religious life. The good Irish priest was deeply impressed by the simple recital, and gave the lad a free place in the seminary. The zealous student soon went through all his studies, was ordained a priest, and became one of the most efficient missionaries of the diocese of St. Louis. The children, whom their brother's love had rescued perhaps from a life of poverty, arrived safely; the infant sisters were adopted by a community of the Sacred Heart in the same diocese, and the brother is a respectable member of one of the learned professions.

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