Poor Irish Workers

Editor's Note: This excerpt from John Mactaggart's Three Years in Canada: An Account of the Actual State of the Country in 1826-7-8 (originally published in London, England, in 1829), is based on observations he made while working for the British government as a clerk on the Rideau Canal. His anti-Irish bias, very common to the English Upper Classes of the time, is clear from the start.

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Travellers in general have set their faces against poor people emigrating to Canada. There is nothing in which I am more willing to coincide in opinion with them than this. Food is not to be had there merely for the eating; it requires considerable exertion to make a living, as it does in almost every other place. Neither is employment readily obtained; a common labourer can find nothing to do for almost six months in the year, until he has learned how to wield the hatchet. He may then find employment in the woods; but it takes an Irishman a long time to learn the art of the hatchet, if he has been used chiefly to spade and shovel work, which is quite a different kind of occupation. When he first commences hewing down trees, he often hews them down upon himself, and gets maimed, or killed; and if he attempts squaring, he cuts and abuses his feet in a shameful manner. The common people of Ireland seem to me to be awkward and unhandy. What they have been used to they can do very well; but when put out of their old track, it is almost impossible to teach them anything. A Glasgow weaver, although not bred to spade and pick-axe, as they are, makes a much better settler, can build a neat little house for his family, and learn to chop with great celerity, so that in a short time nobody could suppose that he had been bred amongst bobbins and shuttles.

It is a singular fact, too, with the Irish, that if they can get a mud-cabin, they will never think of building one of wood. At By-town, on the Ottawa, they burrow into the sand-hills; smoke is seen to issue out of holes which are opened to answer the purpose of chimneys. Here families contrive to pig together worse even than in Ireland; and when any rows or such like things are going on, the women are seen to pop their carroty polls out of the humble doors, so dirty, sooty, smoke-dried, and ugly, that really one cannot but be disgusted; and do what we will for their benefit, we can obtain no alteration. If you build for them large and comfortable houses, as was done at the place above-mentioned, so that they might become useful labourers on the public works, still they keep as decidedly filthy as before. You cannot get the low Irish to wash their faces, even were you to lay before them ewers of crystal water and scented soap; you cannot get them to dress decently, although you supply them with ready-made clothes; they will smoke, drink, eat murphies (potatoes), brawl, box and set the house on fire about their ears, even though you had a sentinel standing over them with fixed gun and bayonet to prevent them.

Living then in such a manner, what must the consequence be in a climate such as Canada? It is bad in Ireland, but there it is worse. They absolutely die by the dozens, not of hunger, but of disease. They will not provide in summer against the inclemencies of winter. Blankets and stockings they will not purchase; so the frost bites them in all quarters, dirt gets into the putrid sores, and surgical aid is not called in by them, until matters get into the last stage. In summer, again, the intolerable heat, and the disregard they pay to their health, by living as they do, and drinking swamp waters, if there be none nearer their habitations, instead of spring or river water, bring on malignant fevers of all kinds.

It is my opinion, that one-tenth of all the poor Irish emigrants who come to Canada perish during the first two years they are in the country; and when they will not amend their ways of their own accord, there are few will be found alive after being five years in the country On the public works I was often extremely mortified to observe the poor, ignorant and careless creatures, running themselves into places where they either lost their lives, or got themselves hurt as to become useless ever after. Some of these, for instance, would take jobs of quarrying from contractors, because they thought there were good wages for this work, never thinking that they did not understand the business. Of course, many of them were blasted to pieces by their own shots, others killed by stones falling on them. ...

Emigration of the poor may probably answer a good end, as lessening the dense population of Ireland; but it certainly will never do for Canada, unless some other methods be devised than those now observed. It may perhaps be argued, that they are necessary as labourers at public works; I would say, no such thing. If I had any work to perform in Canada of my own, I would not employ any Irish, were it not for mere charity. The native French Canadians are much better labourers, as they understand the nature of the country, can bear the extremes of the climate much better, keep strong and healthy, and always do their work in a masterly and peaceable manner; whereas the Irish are always growling and quarrelling, and never contented with their wages.

The Canadians are quite able, too, to perform all the public labour of that country; and those who can direct them in their own language succeed extremely well. I am certain that if all masters understood the language, as many of them do, the poor Irish would receive no employment, as I before stated, except out of mere charity. The Canadians are every way superior labourers in their own country, and repay their masters much better. Let some plan, therefore, be found to keep these people (the Irish) at home; and I think it is possible to find out one. Emigration only increases their distress, and they may just as well die in Ireland as in Canada.


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