August 16, 1894
I wish to call the attention of the readers of THE INDEPENDENT to a pitiful story recently told by Mr. William O’Brien in a letter to the English papers, and to their comments upon it.
The story is that of Achill, a little rocky island on the west coast of Ireland, so barren that it would with difficulty furnish food for three or four hundred people, but upon which about five thousand are now starving. These wretched folk, Mr. O’Brien states, have no natural tastes nor aptitudes for any kind of work but that of tilling the ground. They have no ground to till. What is to become of them?
This question, and the answer which has already promptly been given to it by the leaders of thought and action in England, have an especial meaning and interest for Americans which our foreign kinsfolk probably do not perceive.
As to the immediate case of need, the English people will take care of Achill. They are both rich and kindly, and will have no corpses at their doors if they can help it. But it is the terms of the answer which they have given to the appeal which concerns us.
“A few years ago,” some of the leading papers say, “the answer to this Achill problem was easy. These poor folk could have been shipped en masse to America. But now the United States will not permit them to land; something must be done for them at home.”
Something at once is done. A ferry is projected, by means of which the people of Achill can bring fish to the English market, thus opening a new and profitable industry for them; hotels are planned and advertisements issued in which the picturesque mountain scenery, the wild sea-caves and the bathing beaches of Achill are extolled, in the hope that tourists will be drawn to the island and will bring to it the prosperity which they have carried to the equally barren and over-populated Engadine. Employment on the mainland is to be provided for the male population during the winter.
When the United States, slow to take alarm, at last perceived that her shores were deluged by a tidal wave of pauperism and vice, which would soon submerge all law and order, she established the present restrictive protection. Feeble and insufficient as it is, it has been vehemently opposed not only by politicians, who wish to swell the vote for one party or the other, but by many charitable, well-meaning folk, who urged that if we refuse this shelter to these helpless paupers they will be left to perish at home.
The case of Achill answers their plea. The immediate result of our refusal to accept the burden of the sick and starving foreigner is that his prosperous brother himself goes energetically to work to help him.
This is as it should be. The islanders of Achill, if fed and clothed, will be happier left on their native rocks than stifling in the tenement houses of Boston and New York; the prosperous Englishman will be benefited in mind and morals by his charitable effort, and this country will be relieved by a small fraction of the weight now laid upon her.
The English papers, while commenting upon this case, and the present impossibility of shunting the wretched islanders upon us, almost invariably add a word of congratulation to them because they cannot be banished to this country, sometimes giving detailed accounts of the suffering of Irish emigrants here, from “homesickness and lack of work and food.” There is now, and always has been, indeed, a strange lack of perception among intelligent foreigners of the burden laid upon us by the emigration from their own shores. We have opened our doors for more than a century to receive the poor and oppressed of every race. The problem we set ourselves in the beginning was to elevate in the school of humanity the material which other nations cast out as refuse and useless. We might not unreasonably expect, at least an appreciation of the difficulty of our task from the educated classes of those peoples who have themselves failed in it.
On the contrary foreign newspapers, while critisizing the late labor war in Illinois, sought vainly for “the cause of such fierce hate and sudden revolt of class against class,” declaring that “the character of the American race was grave and sweet.” It apparently never occurred to them that the cause might be sought in the anarchical principles and methods imported with foreign immigrants among us.
The fact, however, that the races whose refuse population we have so long received, do not appreciate the difficulty of our work, is of little moment. The question now is, How long can we continue the work with safety?
Sane Americans no longer thrill with patriotic zeal when they think of their country as the mighty, clean, safe City of Refuge for all the world. It is no longer either clean or safe. If its gates shall be kept open much longer the refugees will be its rulers.
If they are shut, each of the rich foreign countries who have dumped their unable classes upon our shores will be forced to care for them at home, as England has just done with Achill. America is not the only shelter open for the needy. Great Britain, France and Germany each have vast vacant territories waiting for colonists. The tide of emigration will be turned to them if we bar it out.
With us the question of barring it out is no longer one of sentiment or duty, but simply one of digestion. The country is absorbing more foreign matter than it can assimilate and retain its identity. That man commits suicide who forces more food into his system than it can digest. So does the nation.
That is the whole case in brief.
1. O’Brien’s letter appeared June 23, 1894; for a sample response see The Spectator of June 30, 1894, p. 896.
2. Immigration Act of 1891.
3. Labor protests in Chicago in 1893, known as the Haymarket Affair. Laborers sought an eight-hour workday. It began in peace but after the police killed several laborers, someone threw a explosives at police officers. By the end of the subsequent unrest, police and laborers had been killed. Several anarchists were arrested and charged with the bombing, though no evidence supported any of them having thrown the explosive. Four anarchists were hung, one committed suicide, and the others had their death sentences commuted to life in prison. The source for the quote that follows is unknown.