Introduction. Asenath Nicholson (1792-1855), was born in eastern Vermont, USA. A teacher, writer and traveler, she first visited Ireland in 1844 for nearly a year. She returned and spent the period from May 1846 until September 1848, visiting the destitute in the west of Ireland. A committed Christian, Nicholson was committed to the conversion of the Catholic Irish. However, she was no crude proselytiser, but a very caring woman who was deeply affected by the misery that she witnessed all around her. In the following account, dated 17 April 1849, Nicholson describes what she witnessed in the locality of Louisburg, County Mayo.
Source. Asenath Nicholson, Annals of the Famine in Ireland, in 1847, 1848 and 1849 (first published 1851; 2nd edn, M. Murphy (ed,) (Dublin 1998) pp.136-38.
17 April 1849
With a sister of Peter Kelly I went to ‘Old Head’, and was first introduced into one of the dreadful pauper schools where ninety children received a piece of black bread once a day. It was a sad sight, most of them were in a state of rags, barefooted, and squatted on the floor waiting for a few ounces of bread, with but here and there a fragment of a book. The clean schoolmaster, on a cold day, was clad in a white vest and linen pantaloons, making the last effort to appear respectable, labouring for the remuneration of a penny a week from each family if by chance the family could furnish it. These ninety all belonged to Mrs Garvey’s tenantry, and there were others looking on who had come in likewise, not belonging to her lands, who wishfully stood by without receiving one morsel. I looked till my satiated eyes turned away at a pitiful sight like this. Neither the neat cottage, the old sea, nor my favourite Croagh Patrick could give satisfaction in a wilderness of woe like this. When will these dreadful scenes find an end?
Naught but desolation and death reigned; and the voice of nature, which was always so pleasant on the sea-coast, now united with the whistling of the wind, seemed only to be howling in sad response to the moans and entreaties of the starving around me. The holy well, where the inimitable drawing of the blind girl was taken, is near this place. In years gone by this well was a frequented spot where invalids went to be healed. It is now surrounded by stone, covered with earth, and a path about gives the trodden impress of many a knee where the postulant goes round seven times, repeating a Paternoster at every revolution, and drops a stone which tells that the duty is performed. A hole is shown in a stone where the holy St Patrick knelt till he wore the stone away. A poor peasant girl, in the simplicity of her heart, explained all the ceremonies of the devotees and virtues of the well, regretting that the priests had forbidden the practice now. A company soon entered the churchyard and set down a white coffin, waiting till the widow of the deceased should bring a spade to open the grave; and while the dirt was being taken away she sat down, leaning upon the coffin, setting up the Irish wail in the most pathetic manner. She, by snatches, rehearsed his good qualities then burst into a gush of tears, then commenced in Irish, as the meagre English has no words to express the height of the grief, madness or joy. The ground was opened but a few inches when the coffin of another was touched. The graveyards are everywhere filled so near the surface that dogs have access, and some parts of the body are often exposed.
A debate was now in progress respecting good works and the importance of being baptised into the true church. Mrs G., who professed to be a papist, disputed the ground with them, till the contest became so sharp that I retired, for their darkness was painful. It seemed like the,valley and shadow of death, temporally and spiritually.
The little town of Louisburgh, two miles from Old Head, had suffered extremely. An active priest and faithful Protestant curate were doing their utmost to mitigate the suffering, which was like throwing dust in the wind; lost, lost forever—the work of death goes on, and what is repaired today is broken down tomorrow. Many have fallen under their labours. The graves of the Protestant curate and his wife were pointed out to me in the churchyard, who had fallen since the Famine in a the excess of their labour; and the present curate and his praiseworthy wife, unless they have supernatural strength, cannot long keep up the dreadful struggle. He employed as many labourers as he could pay at four pence a day, and at four o’clock these ‘lazy’ ones would often be waiting at his gate to go to their work. He was one day found dining with the priest, and the thing was so novel that I expressed a pleasant surprise, when he answered
‘I have consulted no one’s opinion respecting the propriety of my doing so. I found ...on coming here, this man a warm-hearted friend to the poor doing all the good in his power, without any regard to party, and determined to treat him as a neighbour and friend, and have as yet seen no cause to regret it.’
This same priest was not able to walk, having been sick, but he was conveyed in a carriage to Mrs Garvey’s and most courteously thanked me for coming into that miserable neighbourhood, and offered to provide some one at his own expense to convey me into the Killery mountains, to see the ‘inimitable scenery and the wretched inhabitants that dwell there.
In company with the wife of the curate and the physician, I went there. The morning was usually sunny, but the horrors of that day were inferior to none ever witnessed. The road was rough, and we constantly were meeting pale, meagre-looking men, who were on their way from the mountains to break stones and pile them mountain-high for the paltry compensation of a pound of meal a day. These men had put all their seed into the ground, and if they gave up their cabins they must leave the crop for the landlord to reap, while they must be in a poorhouse or in the open air. This appeared to be the last bitter drug in Ireland’s cup of woe!
‘Why’ a poor man was asked, whom we met dragging sea-weed to put upon his potato-field, ‘do you do this, when you tell us you expect to go into the poor-house, and leave your crop to another?’
‘I put it on, hoping that God Almighty will send me the work to get a bit.’
We met flocks of wretched children going to school for the bit of bread, some crying with hunger, and some begging to get in without the penny which was required for their tuition. The poor little emaciated creatures went weeping away, one saying he had been
‘looking for the penny all day yesterday, and could not get it’.
The doctor who accompanied us returned to report to the priest the cruelty of the relieving office and teacher, but this neither frightened or softened these hard hearts. These people are shut in by mountains and the sea on one side, and roads passable only on foot by the other, having no bridges and the paths entirely lost in some places among the stones. We left our carriage and walked as we could; and though we met multitudes in the last stages of suffering, yet not one through that day asked charity, and in one case the common hospitality showed itself, by offering us milk when we asked for water. This day I saw enough, and my heart was sick, sick.