Missionary, philanthropist and traveller. She was born Asenath Hatch in the village of Chelsea, eastern Vermont, in the United States on 24 February 1792. She was the daughter of early American settlers Michael and Martha Hatch. Her religious affiliation is unknown but she was said to be a member of the Protestant Congregational Church. This church emphasised the importance of the bible, freedom of the individual, and autonomy for local churches. Nicholson worked as a teacher in Chelsea during the summer months. In the early 1830s, she moved to New York and opened a small school. There, she met and married Norman Nicholson (1790–1841), a merchant who was also interested in charity and reform. Together, they opened a temperance boarding house, which provided cheap accommodation to poor working people and immigrants. It served a moral purpose also: reform and improvement. The Nicholsons were influenced by the ideas of Sylvester Graham (1784–1851), a prominent Presbyterian minister, a temperance crusader, and an advocate of vegetarianism. Graham also advocated abstinence and discipline in diet, cleanliness, and regular exercise as a means to a good moral life. The Nicholsons were liberals in politics, although described by some contemporaries as radicals because they condemned slavery and criticised colonisation. They both operated several boarding houses in the city.
When visiting the slums near to her boarding houses, she was deeply moved by the plight of the immigrant poor, particularly the Irish in the Five Points area of New York. Nicholson was fascinated by the cheerfulness and patience of the Irish immigrants and decided after the death of her husband in 1841 to visit Ireland to study the people in their own environment. She arrived in 1844 and she travelled around the country for six months investigating the conditions in rural Ireland. She avoided cities and the society of the well-off. Her mission was to bring the bible to the Irish poor. With a grant of bibles from the Hibernian Society in Dublin, she distributed them to those who could read and arranged bible readings for those who could not. She was critical of what she considered the idleness and indulgence of many upper- and middle-class Dublin women. She admired the women of the Belfast Ladies Association for the Relief of the Irish Destitution. She spent over a year travelling throughout the country, mostly on foot, often covering as much as 32 km (20 miles) in a day. During this time she wrote Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger or Excursions through Ireland in 1844 and 1845 (published 1847), which records her travels. She also warned of the dangers of unemployment in the Irish countryside. She was described by some as very eccentric, but her concern for the Irish and their wretchedness was sincere and heartfelt.
In 1846 Nicholson returned to Ireland. In January 1847, during the worst winter of the Famine, she began her one-woman relief operation in Dublin: a soup kitchen in Cook Street and the relief of the poor in the lanes of the Liberties. In July 1847 she left Dublin for the poorest regions of the West, from Ballina to Erris. She distributed food and clothing, visited the poor, the sick, and the starving and did her best to draw public attention in England and America to their wretched condition. She stayed here until the spring of 1848 and described her experiences in Annals of the Famine (1851) and Lights and Shades of Ireland (1850). She emphasises the breadth and depth of her investigation, entering people’s homes, in city and countryside: ‘walking and riding, within and without, in castle and cabin, in bog and in glen, by land and by water in church and chapel, with rector, curate and priest’. She concentrated on describing the nature of human suffering. She drew on the bible, on hymns, and on literary allusions to describe the suffering of the Irish poor. She believed that the Famine’s devastation was ‘not a divine judgement, but the failure of man to use God’s gifts responsibly’.
Nicholson criticised the Established Church for failing in its stewardship of its relief resources but above all she regarded the Government schemes to relieve distress with contempt. She condemned the wasting of grain in the making of alcohol. She distinguished between relief officials, whom she dismissed as bureaucratic, hierarchical and self-serving, and local volunteer workers, including clergy of all denominations and some resident landlords, whom she praised as compassionate and selfless. She reported that many government officials or ‘hirelings’ were guilty of crimes ranging from the unnecessary delay in distributing relief to embezzlement of government funds. She argued that provision of employment would be better than relief. She praised the establishment of industrial schools. She called for radicals such as the English abolitionist George Thompson to come and see the degraded conditions of people fed on a programme of government relief. She advised English MPs to call upon American assistance for Irish relief.
Nicholson in her writings draws analogies between the position of American slaves and the Irish lower classes:
‘never had I seen slaves so degraded. These poor creatures are in as virtual bondage to their landlords and superiors as is possible for the mind and body to be’.She stressed that her greatest object in writing Light and Shade of Ireland was to show the effects of the Famine on all classes, rather than to detail scenes of death by starvation.
In 1850 she travelled as an American delegate to the International Peace Conference in Frankfurt. She advocated radical reform, expressing her sympathy for the leaders of Young Irelanders, William Smith O’Brien and John Mitchell who, she believed, were driven into the rebellion of 1848 by their philanthropic love of country and deep sense of justice. She had little time for Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal campaign because she believed that Ireland’s need of employment and land reform were more important than Repeal.
She was, in principle, supportive of Protestant missionary colonies. However, she wanted conversions to come from conviction not hunger. She exposed the Achill Mission for its lack of Christian charity. She admired the Famine work and the crusade for temperance of Fr Theobald Mathew of Cork.
Nicholson decided to leave Ireland in 1848 when she thought the worst of the Famine was over. She spent time in England and later on the continent before returning to America in early 1852. Little is known about her life after that. She died of typhoid fever in New Jersey on 15 May 1855.
Writings, Biography & Studies. Asenath Nicholson, Ireland’s welcome to the stranger, or Excursions through Ireland in 1844 (London 1847; repr. & ed. by Maureen Murphy, Dublin 2002). Asenath Nicholson, Annals of the Famine in Ireland in 1847, 1848 and 1849 (New York 1851; repr. & ed. by Maureen Murphy, Dublin 1988). Helen E. Hatton, The largest amount of good: Quaker relief in Ireland, 1654–1921 (Kingston ONT 1993). Chris Morash & Richard Hayes (ed), Fearful realitites: new perspectives on the Famine (Dublin, 1996). Maureen Murphy, ‘Asenath Nicholson and the Famine in Ireland’, in Maryann Valiulis & Mary O’Dowd (ed), Women in Irish history (Dublin 1997) 108–24. Melosina Lenox-Conyngham (ed), Diaries of Ireland: an anthology, 1590–1987 (Dublin 1998). Alan J. Singer, Debating the future of social studies (Hempstead NY 2005).