The Irish Character.

The Irish Character.

  Since the publication of a short notice under this head in The Tribune several persons have expressed to us that their feelings were awakened on the subject, especially as to their intercourse with the lower Irish. Most persons have an opportunity of becoming acquainted, if they will, with the lower class of Irish, as they are so much employed among us in domestic service, and other kinds of labor.

  We feel, say these persons, the justice of what has been said as to the duty and importance of improving these people. We have sometimes tried, but the want of real gratitude which, in them, is associated with such warm and wordy professions of regard, with their incorrigible habits of falsehood and evasion, have baffled and discouraged us. You say their children ought to be educated, but how can this be effected, when the all but omnipotent sway of the Catholic religion and the example of parents are both opposed to the formation of such views and habits as we think desirable to the citizen of the new world?

  We answer first, with regard to those who have grown up in another land and who, soon after arriving here, are engaged in our service.

  First, as to ingratitude. We cannot but sadly smile at the remarks we hear so often on this subject. Just Heaven, and to us how liberal! who has given those who speak thus an unfettered existence, free from religious or political oppression, who has given them the education of intellectual and refined intercourse with men to develop those talents which make them rich in thoughts and enjoyment, perhaps in money too, certainly rich in comparison with the poor emigrants they employ, what is thought in Thy clear light of those who expect in exchange for a few shillings spent in presents or medicine, a few kind words, a little casual thought or care, such a mighty payment of gratitude? Gratitude!—Under the weight of old feudalism, their minds were padlocked by habits against the light; they might be grateful then, for they thought their lords were as gods, of another frame and spirit than theirs, and that they had no right to have the same hopes and wants, hardly to suffer from the same maladies with those creatures of silk and velvet and cloth of gold. Then, the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table might be received with gratitude, and, if any but the dogs came to tend the beggar’s sores, such might be received as angels. But the institutions which sustained such ideas have fallen to pieces; it is understood, even in Europe, that

“The rank is but the guinea stamp,
The man’s the gowd for a’ that.”
“A man’s a man for a’ that;”

  And being such, has a claim on this earth for something better than the nettles of which the French peasantry made their soup, and with which the persecuted Irish, “under hiding,” turned to green the lips white before with famine.

  And, if this begins to be understood in Europe, can you suppose it is not by those who, hearing that America opens a mother’s arms with the cry “All men born free and equal,” rush to her bosom to be consoled for centuries of woe, for their ignorance, their hereditary degradation, their long memories of black bread and stripes? However little else they may understand, believe they understand well this much. Such inequality of privileges among men all born of one blood should not exist. They darkly feel that those to whom much has been given owe to the Master an account of stewardship. They know now that your gift is but a small portion of their right.

  And you, O giver! how did you give? With religious joy, as one who knows that he who loves God cannot fail to love his neighbor a shimself? With joy and freedom, as one who feels that it is the highest happiness of gift to us that we have something to give again? Didst thou put thyself into the position of the poor man, and do for him what thou wouldest have had one able do for thee? Or, with affability, and condescending sweetness made easy by internal delight at thine own wondrous virtue, didst thou give five dollars to balance five hundred spent on thyself? Did you say, “James, I shall expect you to do right in every thing and attend to my concerns as I should myself, and, at the end of the quarter, I will give you my old clothes and a new pocket handkerchief, beside seeing that your mother is provided with fuel against Christmas?”

  Line upon line and precept upon precept the tender parent expects from the teacher to whom he confides his child, vigilance unwearied, day and night, throughout long years. But he expects the raw Irish girl, or boy, to correct at a single exhortation the habit of deceiving those above them, which the expectation of being tyrannized over has rooted in their race for ages. If we look fairly into the history of their people and the circumstances under which their own youth was trained, they cannot expect that any thing short of the most steadfast patience and love can enlighten them as to the beauty and value of implicit truth, and having done so, fortify and refine them in the practice of it.

  This we admit at the outset. 1st. You must be prepared for a religious and patient treatment of those people, not merely uneducated but ill-educated, a treatment far more religious and patient than is demanded by your own children, if they were born and bred under circumstances at all favorable.

  2d. Dismiss from your minds all thought of gratitude. Do what you do for them for God’s sake and as a debt to humanity, interest to the common creditor upon principal left in your care. Then insensibility, forgetfulness or relapse will not discourage you, and you will welcome proofs of genuine attachment to yourself chiefly as being tokens that your charge has risen into a higher state of thought and feeling, so as to be enabled to value the benefits conferred through you. Could we begin so, there would be hope of our really becoming the instructors and guardians of this swarm of souls which come from their regions of torment to us, hoping, at least, the benefits of purgatory.

  The influence of the Catholic Priesthood must continue very great till there is a complete transfusion of character in the minds of their charge. But as the Irishman or any other foreigner becomes Americanized, he will demand a new form of religion to suit his new wants. The priest, too, will have to learn the duties of an American citizen; he will live less and less for the Church and more for the People, till, at last, if there be Catholicism still, it will be under Protestant influences, as begins to be the case in Germany. It will be, not Roman, but American Catholicism—a form of worship which relies much, perhaps, on external means and the authority of the clergy, for such will always be the case with religion while there are crowds of men still living an external life, and who have not learned to make full use of their own faculties, but where a belief in the benefits of confession and the power of the Church, as Church, to bind and loose, atone for, or decide upon sin, with similar corruptions, must vanish in the free and searching air of a new era.

  At present, the Catholic priesthood are the best friends of these poor people, and, if they do them harm, do them also great good. All that is desirable is that they should also have other friends as sympathizing, as well acquainted with their wants and weaknesses, and who view their situation from another point. Thus they would have the benefit of various aids and means.

  Between employer and employed there is not sufficient pains taken on the part of the former to establish a mutual understanding. People meet in the relations of master and servant who have lived in two different worlds. In this respect we are much worse situated than the same parties have been in Europe. There is less previous acquaintance between the upper and lower classes. (We must, though unwillingly, use these terms to designate the state of things as at present existing.) Meals are taken separately, work is seldom shared, there is very little to bring the parties together, except sometimes the farmer works with his hired Irish laborer in the field, or the mother keeps the nurse-maid of her baby in the room with her.

  In this state of things the chances for instruction, which come every day of themselves where parties share a common life instead of its results merely, do not occur. Neither is there opportunity to administer instruction in the best manner nor to understand when and where it is needed.

  The farmer who works with his men in the field—the farmer’s wife who attends with her women to the churn and the oven, may, with ease, be true father and mother to all who are in their employ, and enjoy health of conscience in the relation, secure that, if they find cause for blame, it is not from faults induced by their own negligence. The merchant who is from home all day, the lady receiving visiters or working slippers in her nicely furnished parlor, cannot be quite so sure that their demands, or the duties involved in them, are clearly understood, nor estimate the temptations to prevarication.

  It is shocking to think to what falsehoods human beings like ourselves will resort to excuse a love of amusement, or hide ill-health, while they see us indulging freely in the one, yielding lightly to the other; and yet we have, or ought to have, far more resources in either temptation than they. For us it is hard to resist, to give up going to the places where we should meet our most interesting companions, or do our work with an aching brow. But we have not people over us whose careless hasty anger drives us to seek excuses for our failures; if so, perhaps—perhaps, who knows? we, the better educated, rigidly, immaculately true as we are at present, might tell falsehoods. Perhaps we might, if things were given us to do which we never had seen done, if we were surrounded by new arrangements in the nature of which none instructed us. All this we must think over before we can be of much use.

  We have spoken of the nursery-maid as the hired domestic with whom her mistress, or even the master, is most likely to be acquainted. But, only a day or two since, we saw, what we see so often, a nursery-maid, with the family to which she belonged, in a public conveyance. They were having a pleasant time, but in it she had no part, except to hold a hot, heavy baby and receive frequent admonitions to keep it comfortable. No inquiry was made as to her comfort—no entertaining remark, no information as to the places of interest we passed was addressed to her. Had she been in that way with that family ten years, she might have known them well enough for their characters lay only too bare to a careless scrutiny; but her joys, her sorrows, her few thoughts, her almost buried capacities, would have been as unknown to them and they as little likely to benefit her, as the Emperor of China.

  Let the employer place the employed first in good physical circumstances, so as to promote the formation of different habits from those of the Irish hovel and illicit still-house. Having thus induced feelings of self-respect, he has opened the door for a new set of notions. Then let him become acquainted with the family circumstances and history of his new pupil. He has now got some ground on which to stand for intercourse. Let instruction follow for the mind, not merely by having the youngest daughter set, now and then, copies in the writing-book, or hear read aloud a few verses in the Bible, but by putting good books in their way if able to read, and by intelligent conversation when there is a chance, the master with the man who is driving him, the lady with the woman who is making her bed; explain to them the relations of objects round them; teach them to compare the old with the new life. If you show a better way than theirs of doing work, teach them, too, why it is better. Thus will the mind be prepared by development for a moral reformation; there will be some soil fitted to receive the seed.

  When the time is come,—and will you think a poor, uneducated person in whose mind the sense of right and wrong is confused, the sense of honor blunted, easier of access than one refined and thoughtful? Surely you will not, if you yourself are refined and thoughtful, but rather that the case requires far more care in choice of a favorable opportunity.—When then the good time is come, perhaps it will be best to do what you do in a way to make a permanent impression. Show the Irishman that a vice not indigenous to his nation (for the rich and noble who are not so tempted are chivalrous to an uncommon degree in their openness, bold sincerity, and adherence to their word,) has crept over and become deeply rooted in the poorer people from the long oppressions they have undergone. Show them what efforts and care will be needed to wash out the taint. Offer your aid, as a faithful friend, to watch their lapses and refine their sense of truth. You will not speak in vain. If they never mind, if habit is too powerful, still their nobler nature will not have been addressed in vain. They will not forget the counsels they have not strength to follow, and the benefits will be seen in their children or children’s children.

  Many say—“Well, suppose we do all this, what then?—They are so fond of change they will leave us.” What then? Why, let them go to carry the good seed elsewhere. Will you be as selfish and short-sighted as those who will never plant trees to shade a hired house lest some one else should be blest by their shade?

  It is a simple duty we ask you to engage in; it is also a great patriotic work. You are asked to engage in the great work of mutual education, which must be for this country the system of mutual insurance.

  We have some hints upon this subject, drawn from the experience of the wise and good—some encouragement to offer from that experience, that the fruits of a wise planting sometimes ripen sooner than we could dare to expect. But this must be for another day.

  One word as to this love of change. We hear people blaming it in their servants, who can and do go to Niagara, to the South, to the Springs, to Europe, to the sea-side; in short, who are always on the move whenever they feel the need of variety to reanimate mind, health, or spirits. Change of place, as to family employment, is the only way domestics have of “seeing life.” The only way immigrants have of getting thoroughly acquainted with the new society into which they have entered; how natural that they should incline to it? Once more, put yourself in their places, and then judge them gently from your own, if you would be just to them, if you would be of any use.*

“The Irish Character.” New-York Daily Tribune, 15 July 1845, p. 1.