Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Westward ho!
A bustle at the basin communicating with the river, the cheery cries of toiling seamen, the metallic clank of the revolving capstan, and occasional brief stern words of command, announcing some event of interest, I hastened to join the crowd of curious spectators.
The Albatross was about to take wing for a Transatlantic port, freighted, not with the textile skill of Manchester, or subtle strength of Sheffield, but with hundreds of precious human souls whom fair, but unhappy Ireland, could no longer feed or shelter—outcasts from the Ark urging their reluctant flight across the heaving waters in quest of some emergent Ararat;—poor unfledged nestlings, remorselessly turned out into the pitiless weather by the parent bird to shift for themselves—scant of feather, inexperienced, apprehensive and forlorn!
Yet strangers to each other, but united by the tie of a common misfortune and equally dim future, they clustered together on the littered deck, regarding with vacant wonder the busy seamen, whom they ignorantly persisted in obstructing; listening apathetically to their remonstrances, looking vaguely on the scenes about to pass away for ever; their thoughts meanwhile being far distant in the hovel of their birth, and with the desolate loved ones.
Partings there were few; most of the adventurers had already past through that ordeal: what grief there might be was subdued—manifested chiefly by a dejected silence, by the occasional utterance of an involuntary “Wirra!” or by a heavy sigh from some sad-eyed woman. There were none of the tearful farewells—the convulsive embraces of suppressed emotion, or unrestrained wailings of feeble self-abandonment, so painful to the accidental spectator. Some few of more buoyant temperament had merged regrets in cheerful anticipations, or had become oblivious of the sad past and uncertain future in contemplating the novelty of the immediate present, and had a light jest and easy smile at any one’s service. Occasionally one might be descried who had sought a temporary Lethe in the bottle, but these were exceptional cases; poverty enforcing temperance where perchance principle or prudence might not have restrained.
At length, freed from restraint, the Albatross slowly glided into the turbid river, the fluttering topsails were sheeted home, while the musical ripple round the prow directed seaward told that the voyage had commenced, and the former world had past away. A pause of silent suspense ensued, into which was compressed an infinity of tremulous thought, while the emigrants wistfully regarded the receding shore; then, a kindly cheer of farewell arose from the sympathising spectators, whereto, catching at the pretext to relieve their overburthened bosoms, they responded by a shout, meant to express defiant resolution, but subsiding into a dolorous wail. Thus they departed to the promised land.
When the last rope linking the vessel to the English shore had been cast off, she virtually ceased to belong to our world otherwise than in vision, and was as disconnected from us in reality as though oceans rolled between. When she vanished in the haze with her precious freight, she passed from the material present into a region of shadow whereon the mind speculates painfully. What fortunes may betide those ocean wanderers, and will they ever emerge again from that lower world?
Let Fancy accompany the exiles on their voyage to that western land whither they hasten, discontented with the present, and perchance too confident in the future.
While those of the ruder sex are disconsolately eyeing the receding shore, the associates of their fortunes are below arranging for their comfort. The darkness of that nether Hades—whence exhale so many sighs—is dimly lighted by occasional lanterns, sullenly swinging from the beams, as if to measure the hours of imprisonment, like the pendulum oscillating by a couch of anguish. The atmosphere is murky, thick, and redolent of bilge water and other marine odours, that seem the proper emanation of those sickly flames, without the aid of which, however, extrication would have been hopeless from the perplexity of trunks, barrels, and chests of unmanageable dimensions, that block up the narrow passages running fore and aft. The berths on either hand, tier above tier, are confusedly littered with the scanty bedding and sordid attire of their proprietors; fresh loaves have been hastily thrust into Sunday hats—pats of butter are imperfectly hidden in old shoes—kettles protrude from the thin covert of the blankets—and black bottles shyly retire from the treacherous light into remote corners. The poor household stuff suggests mournful reflections on that poverty whereof these mean trifles are the all, and on the insatiability of the desires whereto so little is absolutely needed. Yet, out of these scanty elements will the wives and daughters of the exiles form the semblance of a home, and find a temporary happiness. Woman, whatever sky be above us, only thy love can give us that!
Amid this chaos, here and there wander men in hopeless quest of missing baggage, children are niched in berths silently munching furtive apples, women are weeping uncomplainingly while making the most of their poor furniture for the comfort of their families, pausing at times to invoke some child that, indifferent to maternal anxiety, has escaped to the upper air. On a barrel in some retired nook is seated its owner, keeping discreet watch over the safety of all his earthly possessions, contemplating the anxious scene with calmness, and solacing himself with an aromatic pipe.
As day slowly wanes, one by one, “the boys” reluctantly descend with ashy faces, and cast themselves despairingly down anywhere, mutely appealing for relief to the suffering women. Night descending veils their anguish, but with night arrive new distresses.
As the Albatross proceeds down the Channel, the breeze freshens, and veering to the westward, renders it necessary to shorten sail and make all snug for the night—a nautical procedure contemplated with ignorant alarm by those passengers able to raise their aching heads. When the reduced topsails rise again, and the ship is brought suddenly to the wind, a collision ensues and shakes the gigantic frame, followed by a deafening crash and a universal wail below, as though the end of all things had arrived.
Amid a breathless chorus of Paters and Aves, tremulous hands grope eagerly for matches, which flash in all directions to the great amusement of Jack who is squinting down the hatchway. On the reappearance of lights all things seem to have drifted to leeward into ruin and annihilation. Crockery has been reduced to primeval dust—boxes have betrayed their sorry secrets, and barrels have resigned their stores. Loud is the lamentation over a destruction caused by lack of care, or over the personal injuries received. Cornelius has had his foot jammed. Molly has lost a favourite tooth. Larry has innocently acquired a black eye, and Bridget has sprained her thumb. These calamities, however much to be regretted, have the good effect of diverting the sufferers from needless alarm, and prompting healthy exertion. Some feeble efforts at arrangement are made, and exhausted by varied emotions, they relapse into torpor which is not repose.
The morrow’s sun flashes on a landless sea flecked with foam by the keen breeze, which, though it may give zest to the rude fare of Jack recovering from the effects of late enjoyment, has a diametrically opposite action on the exiles. A few convulsive attempts are made to cook coffee, generally issuing in melancholy failure, much to the amusement of the Sea-Tritons, who, possessing “dura ilia” themselves, have no bowels of compassion for distresses whereto they are not subject.
Some days elapse ere the emigrants are familiarised with the novelty and discomfort of their position. As each berth is designed to acccommodate five guests, their joint contributions forming a common bed, many are brought into disagreeably close relations with utter strangers that delicacy revolts against. When different sexes are thus mixed, as frequently occurs, the outrage on the modesty of the reluctant women needs no comment. Constant exposure to the observation of strange men generates immodesty—even the reluctant knowledge of impurities pollutes the soul—the unwholesome atmosphere irretrievably taints those who have once breathed it.
From this enforced association, however, clearer knowledge is acquired in a few days of the true natures of new acquaintance than is ordinarily possible in genteel society, where decorum prevents other than accidental glimpses of the serene heights or dark abysses familiar to the souls of others. Circumstances demand much gentleness and mutual forbearance from the voyagers, and those who are wise display them, if not from natural kindliness, yet from discreet regard for their own comfort; but there are natures so innately evil, or so unhappily uncultured, as to prefer rendering those around them miserable, and such find ample material for hourly contention within the narrow limits of their berths.
As they recover from sea-sickness, the thoughts of the voyagers, after so long abstinence, revert fondly to culinary matters. There is no lack of provision: beside their private store of potatoes, oatmeal, &c., the ship is legally bound to furnish a periodical allowance, and many artifices are used to obtain an undue share of these provisions, which are seldom used unless the private stock has been improvidently exhausted. The wanton waste by those—most of whom have known in their own land the direst extremity of hunger—is astonishing. From some occult reason the Celtic peasant does not relish the white pilot-bread. “I doesn’t like the feel of it under me tooth,” says Dennis, while steadily demanding, in the idea of “getting the worth of his money,” that which he then tramples under foot.
When the instinct of hunger revives, the emotion is general and profound. A continuous procession ensues between the steerage and the galley of persons bearing vessels indicating the nature of their employment. Extremest caution is needed in venturing to approach the intermediate steps thronged by the anxious votaries, each imploring the bystander to abstain from touching the sacred pot or kettle then being tremulously borne to the expectant family. Below, whatever be the hour, in some dark corner the steam is rising from a pot of “praties,” around which cluster a select few, whose tastes are simple as their appetites are keen.
The cooking-ranges on deck are now the general resort for business or amusement. There, white-armed Norah bewitches all beholders by the shy grace wherewith she fries a rasher; there, Larry Regan, that spruce young bachelor, under pretext of lighting his dudeen, whispers sweet flattery to the dark-eyed colleen, whose blushes belie her feigned and decorous displeasure; there, while the pot is boiling, Mrs. Malony claims sympathy for matrimonial distresses; Mrs. O’Halloran ostentatiously sighs over vanished wealth; and precocious children await opportunities for petty theft or mischief.
Many are the quarrels about priority of claims to the use of the fires. At times the anger of the disputants vents itself otherwise than in vituperation, and the single combat frequently changes in a twinkling into a general melée, wherein each idler hastens to take part. The officers are at times obliged to separate the combatants at personal hazard, though occasionally the “heady current of the fight” is so strong and impetuous that only a copious deluge from the fire-engine can quell it. It is needless to say that Jack and his comrades witness these little passages of arms with huge delight.
There is abundant opportunity for indulgence in those mutual confidences that the impulsive voyagers incline to. The glories of former fights are homerically told, mysterious games are played with greasy cards, Jacobite songs are sung, little amatory scenes occur, and the smoke of numberless pipes ascends from the hatches, or broods in an odoriferous cloud below. The Celt never loses that factious spirit to which most of his misfortunes are in some degree attributable; and here, where common misery should induce amity and kindly feeling, all those party distinctions re-appear that had embittered his former life. Whatever else may have perished, hate survives, and constitutes the background of the picture. Papist and Protestant, Whig and Tory, North and South, play their little antics on this narrow proscenium as earnestly and vindictively as before in Ireland, and generate continuous ill-will and frequent rights.
From the previous habits of its tenants, ere the passage is over the steerage becomes as filthy as might be expected from their personal uncleanliness. Ablutions are rare; what linen there is assumes that hue euphemistically termed Isabeau, and vermin familiar to man so disgustingly abound, that no care can exempt the fastidious from their attack.
The monotony of sea life is disagreeably varied by an occasional gale, to the great alarm of the passengers, and delight of Jack and his comrades, who assume a contemptuous superiority to them, very amusing and not altogether unmerited, for the relations of the sexes seem here to be strangely reversed—the women exhibiting far more courage, energy, and endurance than the men. The pretty alarm that the dangers of the seas may elicit from the girls seems coquettishly assumed for the occasion; and while the husband yields to unmanly despondency, his delicate wife is frequently seen toiling for her family, and cheering them up, in a way demanding admiration.
But these endurances have at length an end. Hurried preparations for departure are made, and all array themselves in holiday attire, for the earnest seamen are arranging the anchors and chains to guard against those casualties peculiar to the coast. The ocean has lost the serene azure tint, suggestive of mysterious depths; the purple cloud on the western horizon deepens before the advancing prow, and is rapidly resolved into the Jersey Highlands; from the multitude of sails that fleck the smooth surface, like a flight of snowy sea-fowl rocked to slumber by its rhythmical undulations, one approaching yields a sallow pilot, regarded with as much interest and awe as though he had descended from some higher sphere. Expectation, standing on tiptoe, surveys with naïve wonder the villas half hidden by foliage amid the green hollows of Staten Island, the defiant cannon of Fort Hamilton, or, glancing across the gleaming bay, admires the brilliant city and the surrounding forest of shipping. Among these the Albatross alighting, folds her wearied wings, is moored to a wharf in the Hudson River, the voyage is ended, and they too are in Arcadia.
We follow the fortunes of that larger class of immigrants who will have to depend on sweaty, grimy, servile labour for subsistence, even in Arcadia.
Attired in jauntily worn but battered hats, brass buttoned blue dress-coats, of the era of the gracious George IV., corduroy continuations, worsted hose, and huge brogues, worthy of the admiration of the sedate American; under the officious guidance of the predatory tribe usually besetting strangers, they reach those dens of the poor Irish that the authorities have vainly sought to cleanse. In all the large American cities the incautious stranger is apt to stumble unawares on some foul neighbourhood, which—after escaping from the impure intricacies wherein he was entangled, as in the cunning meshes of a net—he ascertains to be the abode of negroes, Irish, and the other Pariahs of society. As in some parts of Europe and the East a particular quarter of a city is allotted to the Jewish tribe, which the Gentiles scrupulously avoid, so, in Arcadia, the Irish have their appropriate Ghetto; and thither those unwary passengers by the Albatross, who are without friends to welcome them to the New World and receive them to their homes, are led to be pillaged.
Received by the host with a facile smile as treacherous as the many tinted radiance of the decanters ostentatiously adorning the bar, which is essential in these establishments, the strangers abandon themselves to enjoyment. But all pleasures fade, and a few days exhaust at once their means and the graciousness of their entertainer. Spurred by his taunts they look around for employment, and learn with surprise that, to those constituting the mass of the immigrants, it is as difficult of attainment in New York as in Dublin. As the larder of a Spanish inn, while promising so much, yields on investigation only pan y uevos, bread and eggs; so, beyond their readiness and need to work, their qualifications are generally expressible in one word—muscle.
As the Celt is gregarious and prone to herding with his folk in the squalid recesses of towns in place of inhaling pure country air, the pauper population of the great American cities receives constant accessions of those who prefer dwelling in a state of indolent and vicious destitution—alarming to the statesman and philanthropist—to earnest and systematic exertion. These depend on fortuitous labour round the docks and markets, and may be found drinking poisonous liquors, when they have money, at vile groggeries—feeding al fresco on broken victuals, and burrowing at night like rats in some dilapidated building, or reposing in the markets or on the wharves.
Some, more thrifty and decorous, gradually insinuate themselves into permanent employment. Larry is invested with the charge of a dray or hand-cart; Con ascends a hackney-coach box; Dennis is initiated into the Plutonian mysteries of a foundry; Micky devotes himself to stone cutting; and Phelim sweats under the burden of the hod. These attain in time a more or less reputable status as citizens; they marry and beget children; they carouse after their labours; they take a riotous share in municipal affairs, and show their fitness for political liberty by selling their votes to the best bidder. On gala days, attended by a brass band, and armed as the law directs, they parade under the Irish flag in the showy uniform of that gallant volunteer corps, the “Irish Green;” they vituperate the Protestantism of their tolerant fellow-citizens; they howl patriotically for war with tyrannical England; they contribute lavishly to support their clergy; and dying in the odour of sanctity, they are succeeded by sons ignorant and narrow-minded as themselves.
Others turn with distaste from the restraints of urban life. Murtough, tying up his few chattels in a kerchief, turns his back contemptuously on the busy city; and, cutting a “bit ov a shtick” from the first hedge, with a short black pipe in his mouth, trusting like the young ravens to Providence for his food, he seeks fresh fields and pastures new. Little knots of these “boys” are frequently to be seen in the interior, in the enjoyment of a desolate freedom, leading a careless gipsy life, part predatory, part eleemosynary: reposing at noon under shady trees with their pipes in their mouths, and at night slumbering sweetly in accidental barns. Murtough travels thus from village to factory, from canal to railroad, ready to turn his hands to any drudgery. He seldom remains long in one place, he knows not the endearments of a home, but leads a vagrant, animal existence, without books or enlightenment; living from hand to mouth by hardest labour, varied by an occasional ferocious fight or wild carouse; generous but reckless, until, his fine physical frame exhausted by toil and irregular habits, he expires in some public hospital or on the road-side, and is interred like a beggar. Sad end to so much that was noble!
Repelled by the hardships of such a career, with the Celtic aptitude to arms, others sigh for military comfort. Tall, athletic, and good-looking, Brian finds no difficulty in enlisting; is arrayed in the blue uniform of the Republic, shown how to discriminate between his hands, taught to face to the right or left, and is marched to glory. Here his wants are abundantly provided for without trouble to himself: the pay is liberal, the duties not too onerous; if the discipline be severe, the morality is agreeably lax; little peccadillos that affect only himself are viewed more leniently than in civil life: provided he punctiliously respects the articles of war, and infringe not the military code, keeping wisely on the windy side of the law, Brian may drink, wench, gamble, and fight without reproof. So fascinating is this easy life, that the Irish constitute half of the American army, and thus contribute directly to the aggrandisement of the State.
The simple agricultural life is unattractive to the Celt. He is repelled by toils requiring patience and forethought so foreign to his nature. Rural scenes charm him not; he shuns solitude, and is superstitiously averse to that austere shadow and silence of the vast American forests grateful to earnest and reflective minds.
Perhaps compelled to fly from cities by some misunderstanding with his old enemy the law, Patrick may occasionally retreat to the frontier, and, boldly squatting anywhere, apply himself, under the spur of necessity, to clearing a small patch of ground, and erecting thereon a sheltering hovel. This effected, he sits down to enjoy himself under his vine and fig-tree for the rest of his life. His negligent husbandry easily obtains from the virgin soil wherewithal to support his family in rude abundance, and even to barter for the whisky and tobacco requisite to his enjoyment. But beyond this he has no care, and appreciates none of the refinements or necessities of civilisation. He has too much leisure to be thrifty, the industry of man being in an inverse ratio to the bounty wherewith nature satisfies his wants. Thus the cabin becomes dilapidated, the fences are neglected, the pigs browse luxuriously on the cabbages; while Pat smokes his pipe before the door, and gazes curiously on the wayfarers, indifferent to the shrill objurgations of his slatternly spouse, or the future of his bare-footed imps, who are already the pests of the neighbourhood.
The travellers on the Mississippi may frequently observe upon its margin, under the immediate shadow of the Cottonwood and cypresses, mournfully awaiting the havoc of the axe and ravage of the annual flood, a fragile tenement formed of a few loose pine boards inclined against a withered tree. The tenant of that modest home has cut the piles of firewood that the steamer stays her earnest speed and for awhile intermits her thick breath to receive. Like the drift wood left by the receding stream, to wither in the sun or rot in the sickly shade, and change into new forms of vegetable life, so has some luckless Celt been cast upon that shore to supply the necessities of commerce at the cost of life. His attenuated form and uncertain gait indicate both the pestilential influences whereto he is exposed, and the fatal solace whereto he has recourse in his wretched solitude. The day is not distant when he will fail in appearing to welcome the advancing vessel, or claim the wonted fiery draught; but the carrion birds, sullenly rising from their repast in the swampy thicket, on the approach of the curious, will reveal the cause of his absence.
The reader will be interested as to the fortunes of the female passengers by the Albatross.
Should no friends welcome them on arrival, they seek domestic service, through the agency of the numerous intelligence offices. American women generally despise, and reluctantly undertake, servile duties, leaving them to be monopolised in the north by Irish, more to their own satisfaction than to that of their mistresses, who are eloquent in abuse; but, remembering that elsewhere also servants are proverbially “the greatest plague of life,” we hesitate in confirming their complaints.
Factory employment the immigrants rarely resort to, from dislike to the attendant restraints. Many acquire houses of their own ere their youth has faded, and give sons to the Republic. The Americans attribute to them a somewhat lax morality, and it cannot be concealed that the demoralising influences of the passage render many notoriously unchaste.
The inquiring reader demands whether the Celtic peasantry have benefited by change of clime?
In some respects, yes. They have added to their material comforts, and are never exposed to actual want. But, they have not availed themselves of the social advantages open to them. They remain intolerant, illiterate, and factious. They never associate or assimilate with the children of the soil. They bring into Arcadia all the antipathies of their former life and acquire others. As formerly they hated the Saxons, they now hate the “na-tives,” and the aversion is mutual.
The Americans assert, that “any indirect benefit derived from the access of these ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water,’ is counterbalanced by admission of the elements of discord into the Republic—of intolerance into religion—of rancour into foreign relations—of venality and riot into elections—of vice and pauperism into the large cities of the Union.”
The late political associations, the Native American and Knownothing parties, were designed to counteract these evils, attributed to the Irish element of the population, by rigidly excluding either Irish or Catholics from participation in political power, but the only result has been to exasperate previous animosities.
Whatever be the truth or the falsity of the American charges, it should be remembered that prosperity has always its compensating evils, and that while enjoying the one, the Americans cannot entirely free themselves of the others. If the development of the resources of the Republic is in a great measure due to immigration, they must manfully accept its inseparable accompaniments.
The interfusion of this Irish element imbued with a frantic hatred of England, requires, however, serious considerations here, for it exercises a most malevolent influence on our relations with America. The Celto-American press panders to this prevalent feeling in its constituents by preaching a crusade against England, in and out of season. Now this is of very serious import to us even now, and there is no saying to what giant stature and capabilities of evil this national hate may grow, thus industriously fomented by demagogues for their private benefit. However averse to this policy the American may be, disposed to regard with a kindly eye the land of his fathers, dear to him from community of interests and feeling, yet, this constant vituperation insensibly influences him, profits by any accidental occurrence to irritate him, and cunningly appeals at all moments to the elements of his worser nature. Should these agencies not suffice, yet, the Irish element, receiving constant accessions to its numerical strength, may eventually attain the desired end by outvoting him!
Quod Dii Avertite!