Hard times... but US writer’s famine diary is a must-read

In his weekly column, John Arnold looks at the works of Asenath Nicholson, an American who visited Ireland in the 19th century and wrote about the Famine.
Hard times... but US writer’s famine diary is a must-read
Asenath Nicholson, an American who visited Ireland in the 19th century and wrote about the Famine

I SELDOM get a chance to read any books at this time of year. There is always an accumulation of volumes in the house which come annually as much appreciated Christmas presents.

I think I may have written some few years ago about my vision of an idyllic January holiday — one where I could get to a foreign shore.

I’m no sun lover or worshipper but once, about five years ago, we got away for a week in the first month of the year. At the best of times I’m no great lover of clothes and when on holiday truly I ‘travel light’.

Well, on that trip I suppose my luggage allowance was maybe 15kg and I took a dozen or so books that I’d got in the previous year. Over that sunny week I read the lot — oh joy, oh bliss.

It may not be most people’s idea of a winter break, but far from the madding crowds, to be able to just read from daybreak to sundown, as the song says ‘Oh, to think of it, oh, to dream of it, fills my heart with joy’.

Once calves start arriving in springtime on a farm, it’s hard to make plans of one sort or another, and generally the time for reading disappears.

My problem with reading is that I tend to read books from start to finish — sometimes over two nights but where possible, if I have four to six hours together, it’s off with the phone, out with the book, and on with the radio for ‘background’ effect. I generally indulge my passion on winter nights by a good roaring fire.

About a month ago, a friend sent me two books he thought I might like. Both were written by a woman called Mrs Asenath Nicholson, a native of Vermont, one of the New England states in the north-east of America.

While running a boarding-house in New York in the 1830s and 1840s, Mrs Nicholson, a widow, had come into contact with so many impoverished Irish immigrants. A very religious lady, she decided to see for herself what Ireland was like — and why were so many destitute Irish people fleeing their native country.

She was a trained teacher and had a huge interest in social reform based on innate Christian principles.

In May, 1844, she left New York on the Brooklyn and a month later, via Liverpool, she arrived in Kingstown, as Dun Laoighaire was then called. She travelled around Ireland for the remainder of 1844 and into the following year. She kept extremely detailed diaries because her mission, or ambition, was to document the ‘state of the nation’.

The Irish folk-song 'The Wearing of The Green' dates back to the aftermath of the United Irishmen Rising of 1798 and it has the line ‘She’s the most distressful country that ever yet was seen’. Well, that’s exactly what Mrs Asneath Nicholson found in Ireland.

In 1847, the New York publishers Baker and Scribner published her book Ireland’s Welcome To The Stranger. Presumably, the author must have sent her ‘copy’ or ‘manuscript’ back to America by some other boat.

I’ve no idea if it was a best-seller but it surely caused a sensation in the New World as it graphically painted a picture of abject poverty and near starvation.

In the year her first book was published, the author started chronicling the awful events of ‘Black ’47’. All changed, utterly changed, was an apt description of her second book because the calamity of the ‘Great Famine’ was now a reality.

Annals of The Famine in Ireland in 1847, 1848 and 1849, her second book, was published by the E. French company in 1851, also in New York.

Just two years ago, in 2017, both of Mrs Wilkinson’s volumes were republished by Books Ulster. I’d be lying if I said I’ve enjoyed reading them — there’s little enjoyment in hearing true tales of starvation and death and stench and misery and desolation. They are, however, amazing insights into Ireland on the veritable cusp of the famine.

The author traverses the country, though spending little time in Ulster. Older ‘travel guides’ to Ireland exist but these were mainly penned from a touristy point of view, lauding the beauty spots, rivers, lakes, mountains and the ‘Seats’ of the Landed Gentry, whose abodes were in stark contrast to the hovels described by the lady from Vermont.

Near Bantry, she described ‘houses’ upon rocks near the town: “Like an African kraal, the door was so low as to admit a child of ten or twelve, and at the entrance a woman put out her head with a dirty cloth about it; a stout pig was taking its breakfast within, and a lesser one stood waiting at a distance. The woman crouched over the busy swine with her feet in the mud and asked what I wanted?”

In her first book, details are given of breakfast, dinner and supper consisting of boiled potatoes and a cup of salt. Things weren’t quite as bad in the towns and cities. On her first visit to Cork city in early 1845, she breakfasted on cream, bread and jam — when she returned Leeside two years later all these etceteras, as she described them, were long gone.

The books aren’t what you’d call easy reading. The content is disturbing and the author has a strange style. Her religiosity comes through at all times, with Biblical quotes and parables regularly interspersed with the saddest of descriptions.

The disposal of bodies is oft mentioned — you could hardly use the term funeral by any stretch of the imagination. When we think that one million died and one million left in a few years, it gives an idea of the devastation wrought on Ireland in that half a decade.

What I found interesting in the extreme was the two-tier society that existed in the country all during those awful years. Mrs Nicholson saw the interiors of fine mansions and grand houses where ‘lords and ladies’ dined and fine wined whilst their neighbours were dying in ditches.

As I say, these volumes are not for the faint-hearted and one must accept the author’s zealous outlook on life, on death and the hereafter, but for a first-hand account of the Famine ravages, Nicholson’s work is outstanding: “A short excursion to Castlemartyr, 15 miles from Cork, took me through a richly cultivated country, where fields of wheat, barley and oats are ripening for the harvest; but five fields of blasted (blighted) potatoes that we passed... the people had not yet recovered strength and courage to look out again on the world, as in days gone by.”

This is an account written in 1848 so even then things were not yet back to normal.

Mrs Nicholson describes in detail her meeting with Fr Mathew in Cork and journeys to Cove, Cloyne, Passage and Blarney.

Just last week, after trying to absorb the details of Asenath Nicholson’s two books, a friend called. He has a cousin in New York. That cousin has a neighbour in the Big Apple whose ancestors left north-east Cork in 1847 and he was looking for information on the Famine in Cork.

The man that went with his family in 1847 may have been evicted or may have gone under a Landlord’s Land Clearance Scheme, where his fare to the New World would be paid.

I suppose in 1846 or 47, if you were hungry and had no food supplies and the Landlord came and ‘offered’ to buy out your Lease for a few pounds and send you to America, you really hadn’t much of a choice.

Thanks, Liam, for giving me these magnificent works.

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