For reasons which it is unnecessary to write down I left New York abruptly; and here I am in Chicago. This great city of the western prairies is one of the wonders of the world. The first wooden home built in Chicago is a good wooden house still. But as a friend has promised me a book, in which I shall find the statistics of the city, and a full account, of its rise and progress (if rise and progress can be applied to what appears to have leaped full-grown into existence) I shall defer further notice of the subject till I shall have conned over the facts and figures in my friend’s book. This I believe is one of the reasons why the Fenians have decided to hold their first general convention here. I find opposition railway lines here as I have seen opposition cars or steamboats in Ireland. There are at least two shortest and most direct routes to every place by rail from Chicago. Talking of railways, all the arrangements connected with them appear to be excellent in this country. I got over my 850 miles from New York to Chicago in thirty-six hours, and with as little inconvenience as might be. You can have a bed in a sleeping carriage for a dollar, in which you may enjoy a tolerable night’s rest, while making for your destination at the rate of a mile a minute or thereabouts. The carriages – cars is the word in America – are very large, capable of accommodating about fifty persons each. They are comfortably and even elegantly fitted up – velvet cushioned seats, looking-glasses, stoves, private closets, rooms supplied with water, basin, towels, &c., for washing. There is a door at each end of the car, outside which is a platform about two and a half or three feet wide. At each side of this platform are the steps by which you can get on or off the cars. As the behind platform of the first car almost touches that in front of the second, and so on to the end of the train, you can walk through all the cars, even when the train is at full speed. Tickets are good for twenty days, so that if a traveller meets any inducement to tempt him to loiter on his journey he can do so at any point by merely applying to the conductor for what is called a stop-over pass. But the way they manage the baggage is most to be admired of all. There is a brass plate attached to each trunk or bag, or whatever it is; you get a corresponding plate (about the size of a halfpenny); and though you may have to change trains twenty times during the journey, you never need trouble yourself about the baggage. Present your checks at the end of the journey, and you are sure to have your traps all safe. Little worth noticing occurred during my journey westward. I was rather disappointed than otherwise with the glimpse I got of the country. The wooded portions had nothing of the primeval forest about them; all the old timber having been cut away years ago. The reclaimed land has a half cultivated appearance, which is not pleasing to the eye. The farm-steads, however, are neat and comfortable. There is nothing like what we call a yard attached to them. They appear to have been pitched at random in the middle of the fields or orchards; the trees, or corn, or grass, as the case may be, growing up to the doors and windows on every side. I notice, too, that wherever there is a cluster of houses, however small in America, there is sure to be a tapering church spire in its midst, from which suppose I am to infer that the Americans are a highly religious people. As the greater part of my journey was by night I supposed I missed seeing a good deal that was worth seeing. I recollect being astonished by wat I pronounce the most brilliant display of fireworks I ever witnessed. On peering out through the darkness my eyes were dazzled by millions of stars rushing past. It was like being whirled with the speed of lightning through the tail of a comet. However, it was only the firemen shovelling out the red-embers of the wood fire. The white smoke of this fire is very tantalising in the day time, as it perpetually comes like a thick cloud through which you have as little chance of seeing the country as through a stone wall. It is only by a good deal of dodging from one side to the other that you can manage to gratify your curiosity. So much for railway travelling.
I was not many hours in Chicago when a friend called on me to say that a few good Irishmen wished to see me. By the way some of the best Irishmen on the face of the globe are in Chicago. I accompanied my friend, and instead of being introduced to some half dozen compatriots, in a quiet room, as I expected, what was my astonishment to find myself in a splendid brilliantly-lighted hall, in the midst of a large meeting. The hall was the Fenian hall, and the meeting was the regular weekly meeting of the brotherhood. As the latest arrival from their well-beloved motherland, of course I was warmly greeted; – but enough of this.
It is a mystery how a country, whose children are so passionately devoted to her, has been kept in chains so long. But then all this passionate devotion was allowed to waste itself away in sighs until lately. The Fenian Brotherhood have set to work in the right way to turn it to practical account. I find the “Secret Society” calumny has been levelled against them here, also. Of course, nothing could be more utterly unjust and unfounded than this charge. How reasoning beings could be got to credit such an absurdity is to me a mystery. The attack upon the Brotherhood here was fierce and general, but they have come through the ordeal not only unscathed, but stronger and more earnest than ever. The assault was opened upon them in the early part of last summer. Week after week they heard themselves denounced in one or more of the Catholic churches in the city. At last they resolved to make a demonstration in the shape of a picnic on the Fourth of July. This brought a broadside from all the Catholic churches together upon their devoted heads; the bishop himself in propria persona, raising his voice against them this time. (I understand his lordship is related to a certain archbishop in Ireland, who, as far as I can see, is the father of this lamentable proceeding at home and abroad.)
The bishop and clergy implored, warned, denounced; and concluded by threatening all sorts of consequences upon the heads of those who would attend the picnic of the Fenian Brotherhood. The result was that the picnic was the most splendid and the largest affair of the kind ever seen in these parts. So successful was it, that though everything was provided on the most expensive scale, the treasurer found upwards of a thousand dollars in his hands when all was over. This sum has added fifty splendid rifles and bayonets more to the armoury of the Fenian Brotherhood. Since the Fourth of July the faintest whisper has not been uttered either publicly or privately against the organization. They manage these things better in America. As a sincere Catholic, I an convinced that the real enemies of our church are those politico-ecclesiastical autocrats who attempt to throw dust in the eyes of the people, and all who directly or indirectly aid them in the attempt. I do not deny that the motives of some of these men are good. But if they succeed in defeating this present effort, not only to free but to save Ireland – when the grave closes over the Irish Nation, it will be a poor consolation for the Irish people to reflect that their own clergy drove a nail in her coffin – with the best intentions in the world. However, I am not afraid. The people are not so ignorant as not to know that they have a perfect right to judge for themselves in all temporal concerns. Here they see Catholic bishops and priests blessing the banner of the Republic, and urging their flocks to pour out the last drop of their blood in preserving the Union; while Catholic bishops and priests on the other side bless the Southern flag with equal fervour, and call upon their people to go forth and conquer under its folds. So do these good men differ among themselves, as they have a perfect right to do. The Irish people in America have come to the conclusion that they, too, have a perfect right to form an opinion as to the merits or demerits of a cause. I don’t think we are so far behind hand in this way at home either, as some may imagine. We begin to see that the priest as the minister of religion and the priest as an ally of Dublin castle are quite distinct from each other. Many good priests believe this, themselves; it were time they began to preach it too. * * * * *
I have just witnessed a procession upon a grand scale. It was for the purpose of inaugurating a “fair,” for the benefit of wounded soldiers. The procession was really the most imposing pageant I ever saw- but I’m not going to attempt a description of it. I am assured this fair will produce a very large sum of money. Donations of every kind have been poured in from all parts of the Union. Everything is accepted – from a pin-cushion to a steam-engine, from a bunch of grapes to a barrel of potatoes, from a live canary to a dead goose. The fair sex, ever foremost in the work of charity (by which I do not simply mean alms-giving) contribute most on these occasions. Not only do they ply their needles, and exercise their taste and ingenuity in the production of the useful and ornamental beforehand – but they attend the fair, day after day, as saleswomen, and even as auctioneers. The principal difference I see between this fair and the bazaars at home is the cartloads of fruit, potatoes, vegetables, corn, &c., sent in by the farmers; and the ploughs and implements of all kinds contributed by the manufacturers. I believe the American people are fond of display, just as they are fond of talk. But out of this display comes hard cash for good and holy purposes. And the “tall talk,” after all, is followed or accompanied by manly deeds at this side of the water. Ah! it is only when men parade and talk and do nothing that parade and talk are contemptible.