Irish America

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

"GREAT IRELAND," the name given in ancient Scandinavian records to the Western Continent, may be accepted in a double sense and taken to imply a prophecy which is in a fair way of being fulfilled. It would be a work of great interest to ascertain the exact relations of the Irish to America in former times. St. Brendan, we know, is stated to have made a voyage across the Western Seas and come upon a land characterized by strange beauties. Before his time there existed the legend or tradition, which may have tempted him abroad, of the "Land of Youth." The Celtic imagination invested it with mystery, painted it radiant with all the hues of the sunset sky, and endowed it with such wonderful virtues that it gave strength to the weak, beauty to the ill-favoured, and immortal joy and youth to sad old age. According to a legend, reduced to verse by later bards, Ossian himself went thither; and instead of returning immediately as he had intended, married the king's daughter, and remained for a time which to him, indeed, seemed short. He found, however, that it had not been so brief as he imagined. When the desire to revisit his country and companions had become too strong to be dissipated by his bride's persuasions, he made his way to Ireland, but found that all had changed; his heroic kindred were dead, the people seemed of less strength and stature, bells were ringing where horns had sounded, and strange clerics were drawing the nation, whose delight had once lain in the chase and martial feats, to exercises of mortification, fasting, and prayer.

The bards make Ossian become a withered, grey old man when he descends upon the Irish soil, and deliver him up, an unwilling penitent, into St. Patrick's hands. There he passes the unlovely winter of his age, scoffing at the droning chaunt of clerics, their inhospitable board and frugal fare; angrily resenting any allusion to the spiritual condition of his former companions, and at once consoling himself and vexing the saint with reminiscences of their peerless prowess. The bards give his arguments with such earnestness that there cannot be a doubt that they found in this polemic an opportunity for venting their own secret griefs. In order to make it more pungent whilst keeping it safe, they committed numerous anachronisms; but the main feature in the myth, the existence of a western land to which a voyager had gone from Ireland, and from which he had returned, is noticeable as harmonizing with many other traits.

The Irish and the Norse were on terms of greater amity than is popularly supposed; intermarriages between the chief families were not unusual; and such legends as those indicated may have had their influence on the adventurous Scandinavians. Recent archaeological discoveries in America appear to give corroboration to the statements in the Northern tales, and countenance to the underlying facts of the Celtic myths These have been too much neglected, and for antiquated reasons Nothing is more curious, for instance, than the statements of the older annalists that Ireland was colonised from the East before the Deluge, and that during the Deluge it was inhabited. Their words, of course, have been derided by those who held the ordinary view with respect to the universality of the Flood; and we are not aware that any attempt has ever been made to rehabilitate them, although to geologists they should have been of interest and value in a late controversy. In that Norse name given to the Western Continent, and in those visions of Celtic imagination which pictured it with the attributes of a land of promise, there is something that seems strangely apposite when we consider the subsequent relationship of the Irish to America.

For centuries there has been constantly growing up a closer kinship between Ireland and that great continent, until in our days the Norse name appears to have been prophetic of what has occurred, and the Celtic dreams are found to be not wholly unrealized. The Irish in America bid fair to outnumber their kindred in the old land, whilst there also the worn and harassed Irish race appears to have renewed its youth and to have risen into prosperity, power, and influence. As Ossian in the "Land of Youth" remembered his former friends, his comrades in battle and the chase, and could not resist returning to share his good fortune with them, so likewise it would appear do the Irish in America dream incessantly of their friends and fellows in the old places of their island home. So likewise, apparently, do they feel at unrest and as sojourners in the land, because their joy is incomplete and their content marred by the memory that what is the past for them is for their kindred in the east, not a past, but a sad and persistent present. These are the feelings which are evident in their poetical effusions, and which are as clearly manifested in their prose literature, in their social actions, and in their political aspirations.

It is exceedingly difficult to arrive at anything like an accurate estimate of the real number of Irish in the United States at the present time. The population of Ireland, it is true, stood lower by two millions and a half at the last census than it did according to the census twenty years before in 1841. But that number does not represent the total of the emigration, because the annual rate of increase in the country had previously been considerable; thus, in the seven years which preceded the date mentioned, the population had increased by a quarter of a million. Whilst, therefore, this constant increase went to swell the loss, we must at the same time recollect that all the emigration did not pour into the United States, for large currents were diverted into Great Britain and the colonies; and, again, the famine slew its thousands, and tens and hundreds of thousands.

By the census of 1861 we find that there were of Irish-born persons in England 580,487; in Wales, 21,147, the number having nearly trebled in both countries during the twenty years previous. In Scotland they amounted to 204,083, and in the Islands of the British seas to 5,534, not having quite doubled in the same period, but forming in Scotland 6.6 per cent, of the whole population. In Western Australia they were reckoned as constituting 21.3 per cent, of the colonists; in Queensland, 18.4; in Victoria, where they amounted to 87,160 persons, they made up 16.1 per cent.; in New South Wales, 15.6; and in South Australia, 10 per cent. In Lower Canada they were present to the number of 50,337, forming 4.5 per cent, and in Upper Canada they constituted 13.7 per cent., their number amounting to 191,231.

But to none of these countries has the emigration streamed in such a full and continuous flood as to the United States of America: compared with this main current, all the others appear as the merest rills.

From the 1st of May, 1851, until the 31st of December, 1864, the total number of emigrants who left Ireland amounted to 1,529,225, and during this period all, with comparatively trifling exceptions, were bound for the United States. Thus the already large Irish population in the States was recruited from Ireland during those years at an average rate of about 120,000 annually. As a matter of fact, the annual emigrations have fluctuated much. Thus in the first six and three quarter years a total of 838,780, or more than half of the whole number of emigrants, fled their country. During the successive years they varied in amount from the lowest number, 64,292, in 1861, to the highest, 117,229, in 1863.

In order that the sum total may represent the whole emigration from the commencement of the second quarter of 1851 to the present year, we must add to the number given an outflow of 101,497 for 1865, of 99,467 for 1866, of 80,624 for 1867, which would give us a total of 1,810,813 for sixteen years and three-quarters. If we add to this the 12,527 who are recorded as having emigrated during the first quarter of the present year, we shall have for the seventeen years complete, a total of 1,823,340!

Taking into consideration the vast multitude of emigrants who had left Ireland in the six years preceding 1851, we are led to believe that an estimate of 3,000,000 would not much exaggerate the number of persons of Irish birth who have set foot in the United States since 1845.

Their death-rate may, from various circumstances, have been large, but then what has been the case with respect to their birth-rate? The emigrants have had amongst them a disproportionately large number of persons in the flower and vigour of life; the old and decrepit having remained behind. The consequence is that one might well expect a higher birthrate amongst the Irish in America than in Ireland. And though, on the other hand, much allowance must be made for the many hostile circumstances attendant on their new mode of life, yet nevertheless the Irish birth-rate in America remains considerable. And, what is perhaps more important, it is exceedingly high when we compare it with the birth-rate of the native population, which does not love large families. Dr. Nathan Allen, in a speech made at Billerica in 1866, made the following statement, which we find to be fully corroborated from other sources of information.

He said, with especial reference to Lowell and some other towns: "I find that in many of these towns the number of deaths with the American portion for many years far exceeds the births. But if we include the foreign element, it is not so. Their families have two or three times as many children as the same number of American families. The records in Lowell show that for some time, among the American population, there have been every year more deaths than births by about a hundred." Of two other towns—Dunstable and Wilmington—he gives the same reports; and with reference to the district generally, he states that it has been settled for about two hundred years, and that the records of native births for six generations showed an annual and progressive decrease.

The Irish race is, on the other hand, untainted by immoral theories on the subject, and is proverbially prolific. When, therefore, the native and the "foreign" elements are compared with reference to this matter, we are told by one American paper that "250,000 foreigners produce more children than a million of the "native-born." This computation is based on the birth-records of Massachusetts, where it appears that of the 35,445 births which took place there in 1860, more than one-half were children of parents born in other countries.

Whilst this decrease of productiveness in what has been termed somewhat inaccurately the "native element," appears to be largely due to physiological or natural causes, there cannot be a doubt that much of it is the consequence of the canker of social selfishness. It is not merely that immorality destroys its fruit, but owing to the decay of healthy home life, the self-indulgence of parents, and the frequency of divorce, children are considered a burthen even by some of the married. Too often, it is stated, the wife rather than be a mother will be a murderess. The infant before it has seen the light is condemned to death.* In the United States, alone amid the civilized world, newspapers are allowed to publish as advertisements the shameless and but scantily-disguised inducements of those who offer in their nostrums incentives to the murder of the unborn babe. Foeticide, or as it called in some American papers "res-tellism," has become a prevalent crime, and like many crimes it is its own avenger; for the woman who commits it, injures insidiously her own life, and the race guilty of it dooms itself to perish from off the face of the earth.

It is a dark note to a noble history, that papers designed for family reading on Sundays, should have long columns filled with hideous advertisements of this kind, and yet be published and be prosperous in a chief city in the Republic of Washington. It is, however, something that the evil results of all this have become so manifest, as to cause the organs of the clergy and of the medical profession to raise the cry of alarm, in which they are supported by the special organ of "Woman's Rights." The American Quarterly Church Review, for July, 1868, declares: "No thoughtful man can behold without solicitude the low grade of domestic morals which seems to prevail to a large extent in our New England families. The general decay of public sentiment in respect to family religion, the practical neglect of the holy scriptures, the infrequency of family prayer, the reluctance of parents to make their children obey, the transfer of responsibility for the manners and morals of children from parents to public school teachers, the common rudeness and arrogance of boys and girls, the great prevalence of untruth amongst the young, the license and familiarity of intercourse which is allowed between the growing youth of different sexes, the murder of living but unborn children, the number of illegitimate births—all these are sufficient to fill one with consternation and dismay. To all these signs of demoralization there is to be added one which is closely connected with them, which fosters them, and is fostered by them in turn—we refer to the very great and alarming frequency of divorce. This has grown to be a portentous evil It is certainly one of the most significant signs of the real condition of our domestic life. It is communicating a sad coloring to the whole inner life of the people. It is working its way from the lowest strata of society upwards, and exerting a decided influence in the control of public opinion." It quotes, from statistics furnished in the report of the Secretary of Vermont State, figures to show that to every nineteen marriages there is one divorce, and that the evil is increasing. In Massachusetts affairs are not so bad. During five years there was one divorce to every forty-four marriages, but that there is a downward tendency is evident from the fact that in the last year there was one divorce to every thirty-seven marriages. Connecticut shows the worst record of the three States. "There, the average of five years of divorces to five years of marriages is as one divorce to every eleven marriages, and during the last year as one to ten." Full statistics had not been collected for the States of Maine, Rhode Island, or New Hampshire; but it is said that there is no reason to suppose that any of them, at the best, could produce even such a record as Massachusetts.

On the other hand, a contributor writing in the same month, from Northfield in the first-named State of Vermont, to the Boston Transcript, a purely American paper, says: "The Irish, formerly seen only as hired labourers, building our railways and cities, are found in this region in the possession of farms. Several, I was told, have become owners of farms in the town (sic), which they manage very well. In our school district their children composed the majority of the scholars, and the teacher said they were the more bright and better behaved portion of the school. In a small adjoining town the Irish compose the majority of the population. This brings forward the indomitable all-pervading race under a new aspect. Are they to own and till our soil as well as build our works of improvement?"

Two great facts, therefore, remain constant: the Irish element in America is largely recruited every year from the flower of the population in Ireland, and it is productive beyond the descendants of the former settlers called "natives" There is no need to point out that, under such circumstances, the Hesperidian visions of the Celts of Ancient Erinn are in a fair way of becoming realities, and that North America may have reason soon to recognize a true prophecy in that name, which the Norse Sagas gave it, of "Great Ireland."


* Infanticide exists in England to a deplorable extent, as shown by Dr. Lankester. Certain establishments in London have also been mentioned in medical reports, where obstetric operations are said to take place in a suspiciously short space of time. But the canker of foeticide does not appear to have spread its taint as in parts of the United States, and no paper dare publish columns of such advertisements. Occasionally a low paper may insert some such quack notice, but even there it is put away in an obscure corner. The laws which consigned to the flames some tons of obscene works, in London, have no doubt had great influence in preventing flagrant solicitation to the crime.