The Tragedy Of Bridget Such-a-one

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Walking through the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1846, amid his solitary experiment in living close to nature, Henry David Thoreau was driven by a sudden storm to find shelter in what he thought was an uninhabited hut. “But therein,” Thoreau recounts in Walden , he found living “John Field, an Irishman, and his wife, and several children,” and he sat with them “under that part of the roof which leaked the least, while it showered and thundered without.”

 

Walking through the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1846, amid his solitary experiment in living close to nature, Henry David Thoreau was driven by a sudden storm to find shelter in what he thought was an uninhabited hut. “But therein,” Thoreau recounts in Walden , he found living “John Field, an Irishman, and his wife, and several children,” and he sat with them “under that part of the roof which leaked the least, while it showered and thundered without.”

Thoreau pitied this “honest, hard-working, but shiftless man,” a laborer probably drawn to the area to lay track for the railroad and now reduced to clearing bogs for a local farmer. He also “purposely talked to him as if he were a philosopher, or desired to be one.” “But alas,” Thoreau lamented, “the culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe.”

Field “heaved a sigh” at Thoreau’s suggestion that “if he and his family would live simply, they might go a-huckle-berrying in the summer for their amusement.” Field’s wife neither sighed nor spoke. A woman of “round greasy face,” her breast exposed to suckle an infant, she “stared with arms a-kimbo” at the Yankee in their midst. The Fields left no account of this visit. Yet along with weighing the bewildering improbability of Thoreau’s suggestion, it is probable that there were other matters on their minds.

OF THE eight and a half million people in Ireland in 1845, a million perished from hunger and the disease that stalked in its wake.

By the Spring of 1846 the condition of Ireland was well known. The country was on the edge. Hunger was widespread, and though the Fields may well have been illiterate, they must have shared with fellow immigrants a growing fear of what might happen if the potato failed again, as it had in 1845. Perhaps they had already received pleas from relatives still in Ireland who had sold their livestock or fishing nets to buy the American corn the government had imported. “For the honour of our lord Jasus christ and his Blessed mother,” one contemporary letter writer to America cried, “hurry and take us out of this.”

 

The Fields themselves were part of a steady stream of Irish who had been heading to North America for more than a century. The so-called Scotch-Irish—mostly Presbyterians from Ulster—were the first to come. They settled in large numbers in Canada and the American South, especially on the westward-moving edge of settlement, away from the low country with its established churches and plantation economy. By 1790 there were at least 250,000 Scotch-Irish in the United States.

After 1815 and the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, a steep fall in prices caused an agricultural depression in Ireland. At the same time, the start of widespread canal building in the United States (the Erie Canal was begun in 1817) and the laying of the groundwork for the country’s industrial emergence drew more Irish Catholics, men whose sole marketable skill was their ability to wield a spade and whose religion, poverty, and numbers made them immediately suspect. The rough, brute work of canal building presaged the role that unskilled Irish labor would play in railroad construction, road building, and mining. Subject to cyclical employment and low wages, often living in shanties, the Irish were prized for their hard work and resented for what was seen as their proclivity to rowdiness and labor militancy.

The numbers of unskilled Irish in the cities along the Eastern seaboard grew. They lived where they worked, near the docks, foundries, and warehouses, in decaying housing that the former residents had fled or in flimsy, crowded structures erected to bring a maximum profit to their owners. By the early 1840s the increasing presence of the Catholic Irish helped prompt such prominent Americans as Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, and Lyman Beecher, progenitor of Harriet Beecher Stowe, to sound the tocsin against a supposed Catholic plot to subvert the liberties of native (i.e., white Protestant) Americans. A Boston mob attacked and burned a Catholic convent in Charlestown in 1834. In the spring of 1844 a nativist rally in Philadelphia ended in a three-day riot in which two Catholic churches, a convent, and a library were torched and a dozen people were left dead.