On Rural Society on the Eve of the Great Famine

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On Rural Society on the Eve of the Great Famine

1844–1845

Asenath Nicholson

Asenath Nicholson (1792–1855) was a New England widow of Puritan stock who visited Ireland in the 1840s, initially for the purpose of distributing Bibles to the poor. Such efforts to convert Irish Catholics were common among evangelical Protestants in this period, but Nicholson's evangelicalism was tempered by strong reform principles. Her accounts of her Irish labors reveal a degree of empathy with suffering Catholics rarely found among her Irish coreligionists.

SEE ALSO Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Great Famine; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Rural Life: 1690 to 1845

We have had many "Pencillings by the Way," and "Conciliation Halls," and "Killarney Lakes" from the tops of coaches and from smoking dinner tables. But one day's walk on mountain or bog, one night's lodging where the pig, and the ass, and horned oxen feed,

"Like Aaron's serpent, swallows all the rest."

"Remember, my children," said my father, "that the Irish are a suffering people; and when they come to your doors, never send them empty away." It was in the garrets and cellars of New York that I first became acquainted with the Irish peasantry, and it was there I saw they were a suffering people. Their patience, their cheerfulness, their flow of blundering, hap-hazard, happy wit, made them to me a distinct people from all I had seen. Often, when seated at my fireside, have I said to those most dear to my heart, "God will one day allow me to breathe the mountain air of the sea-girt coast of Ireland—to sit down in their cabins, and there learn what soil has nurtured, what hardships have disciplined so hardy a race—so patient and so impetuous, so revengeful and so forgiving, so proud and so humble, so obstinate and so docile, so witty and so simple a people." . . .

And now began my cabin life. I had read with the deepest interest in the writings of Charlotte Elizabeth, that the peasantry of the county of Kilkenny were unrivalled in kindness; but burning words from graphic pens would faintly delineate what I there experienced from that interesting people. . . .

The next morning Anne again called to invite me to her house, and to say she had been sent by a few in the parish, to invite me to attend a field dance which was to be on the next day, and the Sabbath. In surprise I was about to answer, when Anne said, "I knew you would not, and told them so, but they begged I would say that they had no other day, as all were at work, and sure God wouldn't be hard upon 'em, when they had not other time, and could do nothing else for the stranger." I thanked them heartily for their kind feelings, and declined. Judge my confusion, when about sunset on Sabbath evening, just after returning from Johnstown, where I had attended church, the cabin door opened, and a crowd of all ages walked in, decently attired for the day, and without the usual welcomes or any apology, the hero who first introduced me seated himself at my side, took out his flute, wet his fingers, saying, "This is for you, Mrs. N., and what will you have?" A company were arranged for the dance, and so confounded was I that my only answer was, "I cannot tell." He struck up an Irish air, and the dance began. I had nothing to say, taken by surprise as I was; my only strength was to sit still.

This dance finished, the eldest son of my hostess advanced, made a low bow, and invited me to lead the next dance. I looked on his glossy black slippers, his blue stockings snugly fitted up to the knee, his corduroys above them, his blue coat and brass buttons, and had no reason to hope that, at my age of nearly half a century, I could ever expect another like offer. However I was not urged to accept it. Improper as it might appear, it was done as a civility, which, as a guest in his mother's house and a stranger, he thought, and all thought (as I was afterwards told) he owed me. The cabin was too small to contain the three score and ten who had assembled, and with one simultaneous movement, without speaking, all rushed out, bearing me along, and placed me upon a cart before the door, the player at my right hand. And then a dance began, which, to say nothing of the day, was to me of no ordinary kind. Not a laugh—not a loud word was heard; no affected airs, which the young are prone to assume; but as soberly as though they were in a funeral procession, they danced for an hour, wholly for my amusement, and for my welcome. Then each approached, gave me the hand, bade me God speed, leaped over the style, and in stillness walked away. It was a true and hearty Irish welcome, in which the aged, as well as the young, participated. A matron of sixty, of the Protestant faith, was holding by the hand a grandchild of seven years, and standing by the cart where I stood; and she asked when they had retired, if I did not enjoy it? "What are these wonderful people?" was my reply. I had never seen the like. . . .

I had seen a dance, a wake, and a faction, but had never seen a fair; and being invited to occupy a seat in a chamber at Urlingford, which overlooked the field of action, I did so. "You'll not see such fun, ma'am, now," said my companion, "as you would have seen before the days of Father Matthew. Then we had a power of bloody noses, broken bones, and fine work for the police; but ye'll see fine cattle, and fat pigs; and maybe it's the bagpipes ye'd like." . . .

The fair, as a whole, was not censurable; never on any public day in any country had I heard so little profanity and noise, or seen so little disorder and disputing, the tinkers excepted. The peasants, too, were tidily dressed, and with great uniformity; the men in blue coats, corduroy breeches, and blue stockings; whilst a blue petticoat, with a printed dress turned back and pinned behind, coarse shoes, and blue or black stockings (when they have shoes), a blue cloak, with a hood to put over the head, in case of rain, constitute the dress of the women; and thus attired, a Kilkenny peasant seeks no change in storm or sunshine. The habits of cooking and eating have scarcely varied for two centuries; their cabins, their furniture, have undergone little or no change; the thatched roofs, the ground floor, the little window, the stone or mud wall, the peat fire, the clay chimney, the wooden stool, the pot, and the griddle, have probably been the inheritance of many generations. As to cleanliness, their habits are varied, as with all other people; and if few are scrupulously tidy, few are disgustingly filthy. Though every peasant in the Emerald Isle knows that he belongs to the "lower order" (for his teachers and landlords are fond of telling him so), the Kilkenny rustic, by his self-possessed manner in presence of his superior, says, "I also am a man"; and you do not see that cringing servility; you do not hear "yer honor," "yer reverence," "my lord," and "my lady" so frequently as among many of their class in other parts of Ireland. They are not so wretchedly poor as many; for though few can afford the "mate," except at Christmas or Easter, yet most of them can purchase an occasional loaf, and "the sup of tay," and all can, and all do, by "hook or by crook," get the "blessed tobacco." They are fond of dancing, and a child is taught it in his first lessons of walking. The bagpipes and fiddle are ever at their feasts, especially the latter; and the blind performer always receives a cordial "God bless you." . . .

Thirteen miles brought me to the pleasant town of Durrow, where I stopped for the night, to take passage in the morning for Dublin. Here I found an afflicted woman, whose husband had seven years before gone to New York, and she had not once heard from him. The sight of an American opened anew the channels of grief, which had already done a serious work. Kindness was here lavished without weight or measure, and when I called for my bill in the morning, "We cannot ask you anything, for you have had nothing," alluding to a straw bed which had been prepared by my request. I paid them more than the ordinary price, for they had done more than is customary to be done for lodgers.

At five, while the waning moon and twinkling stars were still looking out upon the beautiful landscape beneath them, I was upon the car, with a talkative young coachman, and rode five miles, passing the domains of the rich, whose high walls and wide-spreading lawns made a striking contrast with the thatched hovels and muddy door-yards of the wretched poor around them. Never had I ridden in Ireland when the stillness, the scenery, and the hour of the morning all so happily combined to make the heart rejoice as now. But the one dreadful, ever-living truth, like a spectre, haunts the traveller at every step; that Ireland's poor, above all others, are the most miserable, the most forgotten, and the most patient of all beings. I heed not who says the picture is too highly drawn. Let them see this picture as I have seen it, let them walk it, let them eat it, let them sleep it, as I have done. . . .

I have spoken plainly, that I might render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and as I visited Ireland to see it as it is, so I report it as I found it. I have stayed to witness that which, though so heart-rendering and painful, has given me but the proof of what common observation told me in the beginning—that there must needs be an explosion of some kind or other. But awful as it is, it has shown Ireland who are her worthy ones within her, and who are her friends abroad, and it will show her greater things than these.

May God bring her from her seven-times-heated furnace, purified and unhurt, and place her sons and daughters among the brightest of the stars that shall shine for ever in the kingdom of heaven, is the sincere desire of the writer.

Asenath Nicholson, Ireland's Welcome to the Stranger, or an Excursion through Ireland in1844 & 1845for the Purpose of Personally Investigating the Condition of the Poor(1847), pp. iii–iv, 87, 90–91, 96, 97–98, 218–219, 456.