Woman in the Nineteenth Century

by Margaret Fuller

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The Irish Character

In one of the eloquent passages quoted in the "Tribune" of Wednesday, under the head, "Spirit of the Irish Press," we find these words:

"Domestic love, almost morbid from external suffering, prevents him (the Irishman) from becoming a fanatic and a misanthrope, and reconciles him to life."

This recalled to our mind the many touching instances known to us of such traits among the Irish we have seen here. We have known instances of morbidness like this. A girl sent "home," after she was well established herself, for a young brother, of whom she was particularly fond. He came, and shortly after died. She was so overcome by his loss that she took poison. The great poet of serious England says, and we believe it to be his serious thought though laughingly said, "Men have died, and worms have eaten them, but not for love." Whether or not death may follow from the loss of a lover or child, we believe that among no people but the Irish would it be upon the loss of a young brother.

Another poor young woman, in the flower of her youth, denied herself, not only every pleasure, but almost the necessaries of life to save the sum she thought ought to be hers before sending to Ireland for a widowed mother. Just as she was on the point of doing so she heard that her mother had died fifteen months before. The keenness and persistence of her grief defy description. With a delicacy of feeling which showed the native poetry of the Irish mind, she dwelt, most of all, upon the thought that while she was working, and pinching, and dreaming of happiness with her mother, it was indeed but a dream, and that cherished parent lay still and cold beneath the ground. She felt fully the cruel cheat of Fate. "Och! and she was dead all those times I was thinking of her!" was the deepest note of her lament.

They are able, however, to make the sacrifice of even these intense family affections in a worthy cause. We knew a woman who postponed sending for her only child, whom she had left in Ireland, for years, while she maintained a sick friend who had no one else to help her.

The poetry of which I have spoken shows itself even here, where they are separated from old romantic associations, and begin the new life in the New World by doing all its drudgery. We know flights of poetry repeated to us by those present at their wakes,—passages of natural eloquence, from the lamentations for the dead, more beautiful than those recorded in the annals of Brittany or Roumelia.

It is the same genius, so exquisitely mournful, tender, and glowing, too, with the finest enthusiasm, that makes their national music, in these respects, the finest in the world. It is the music of the harp; its tones are deep and thrilling. It is the harp so beautifully described in "The Harp of Tara's Halls," a song whose simple pathos is unsurpassed. A feeling was never more adequately embodied.

It is the genius which will enable Emmet's appeal to draw tears from the remotest generations, however much they may be strangers to the circumstances which called it forth, It is the genius which beamed in chivalrous loveliness through each act of Lord Edward Fitzgerald,—the genius which, ripened by English culture, favored by suitable occasions, has shed such glory on the land which has done all it could to quench it on the parent hearth.

When we consider all the fire which glows so untamably in Irish veins, the character of her people, considering the circumstances, almost miraculous in its goodness, we cannot forbear, notwithstanding all the temporary ills they aid in here, to give them a welcome to our shores. Those ills we need not enumerate; they are known to all, and we rank among them, what others would not, that by their ready service to do all the hard work, they make it easier for the rest of the population to grow effeminate, and help the country to grow too fast. But that is her destiny, to grow too fast: there is no use talking against it. Their extreme ignorance, their blind devotion to their priesthood, their pliancy in the hands of demagogues, threaten continuance of these ills; yet, on the other hand, we must regard them as most valuable elements in the new race. They are looked upon with contempt for their wont of aptitude in learning new things; their ready and ingenious lying; their eye-service. These are the faults of an oppressed race, which must require the aid of better circumstances through two or three generations to eradicate. Their virtues are their own; they are many, genuine, and deeply-rooted. Can an impartial observer fail to admire their truth to domestic ties, their power of generous bounty, and more generous gratitude, their indefatigable good-humor (for ages of wrong which have driven them to so many acts of desperation, could never sour their blood at its source), their ready wit, their elasticity of nature? They are fundamentally one of the best nations of the world. Would they were welcomed here, not to work merely, but to intelligent sympathy, and efforts, both patient and ardent, for the education of their children! No sympathy could be better deserved, no efforts wiselier timed. Future Burkes and Currans would know how to give thanks for them, and Fitzgeralds rise upon the soil—which boasts the magnolia with its kingly stature and majestical white blossoms,—to the same lofty and pure beauty. Will you not believe it, merely because that bog-bred youth you placed in the mud-hole tells you lies, and drinks to cheer himself in those endless diggings? You are short-sighted, my friend; you do not look to the future; you will not turn your head to see what may have been the influences of the past. You have not examined your own breast to see whether the monitor there has not commanded you to do your part to counteract these influences; and yet the Irishman appeals to you, eye to eye. He is very personal himself,—he expects a personal interest from you. Nothing has been able to destroy this hope, which was the fruit of his nature. We were much touched by O'Connell's direct appeal to the queen, as "Lady!" But she did not listen,—and we fear few ladies and gentlemen will till the progress of Destiny compels them.


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 classes 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 expressions 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 on the remarks we hear so often on this subject.

Just Heaven!—and to us how liberal! which has given those who speak thus an unfettered existence, free from religious or political oppression; which 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 immigrants they employ,—what is thought in thy clear light of those who expect in exchange for a few shillings spent in presents or medicines, 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 habit 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, scarcely to suffer from the same maladies, with those creatures of silk, and velvet, and cloth of gold. Then, the crumbs which 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's 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 are 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 inequalities of privilege, 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 as himself? 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 wouldst have had one who was able to 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 everything, and to 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, besides 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, through 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, we cannot expect that anything 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: First, You must be prepared for a religious and patient treatment of these 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.

Second, 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 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.

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 fields, 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 visitors 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, to 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 had never seen done, if we were surrounded by new arrangements in the nature of which no one instructed us. All this we must think of 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 likely to become 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 of interest as to the places 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, or 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 by hearing 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 around 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 the 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 that will 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 mend, 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 and carry the good seed elsewhere. Will you be as selfish and short-sighted as those who 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 seaside; in short, who are always on the move whenever they feel the need of variety to reänimate 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.

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