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Nicholson, Asenath, 1792-1855 / Annals of the famine in Ireland (1851)

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[chapter 1]

“Stript, wounded, beaten, nigh to death,
I saw him by the highway-side.”

THOSE who have read the volume called Ireland’s Welcome, have been informed that I left New York in the spring of 1844, for the purpose of exploring and ascertaining, by eye-witness, the real condition of a people whose history has been mixed with fable, and whose true character has been as little understood as their sufferings have been mitigated.

In pursuing this work, the object is not precisely the same as in the preceding one; that was but the surface — the rippling of that mighty sea, whose waves have since been casting up little else but “mire and dirt,” and whose deep and continual upheavings plainly indicate that the foundations, if not destroyed, are fast breaking up. I then aimed at nothing more than giving a simple narration of facts, as they passed under observation, leaving the reader to comment upon those   [p. 14]   facts, as their different features were presented to the mind.

Some, and possibly many, have been grieved that so much “plainness of speech” has been used; but here emphatically “flattering titles” should have no place; opiates have served no other purpose for diseased Ireland than to leave undisturbed the canker-worm that was doing more effectually his deadly work within. “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace, eventually brings down the chastenings of the Almighty, and He has shown in language that cannot be misunderstood, for the last three years, that He sitteth in the heavens, overturning and overturning the nations of the earth, and, in his own due time, He whose right it is to rule will rule. The stone is rolling, and its velocity increases as it proceeds. The potato has done its work, and it has done it effectually: it has fed the unpaid millions for more than two centuries, till the scanty wages of the defrauded poor man have entered into the “ears of the Lord of Sabaoth,” and He is now telling the rich that “their gold and silver is cankered,” and that their day is coming speedily.

We are gravely told that the year 1844 was one of great abundance, and that the peasantry were then a contented and happy people; but listen! the year 1844 was a year of abundance, but did the poor man share in this abundance — was he contented and happy? Why then was the whole country rocking “to and fro” with the cry of repeal? and, Why was O’Connell in prison? Were the people all singing in their chains,   [p. 15]   not feeling the galling of the fetters, till he aroused them from their “contented” sleep? Did his fiery breath fan up embers that had lost all power of life? and were there no heartburnings beneath the tatters of the degraded cabiner, that strongly prompted to make a struggle for that liberty, which God has by birthright bestowed upon all bearing his image? A struggle they would have made, had one nod from the prison grates of O’Connell given the signal. Though there was no clamor, yet the leaven was silently leavening the whole lump, and they appeared anxiously waiting for some event, which they felt must come, they knew not whence, nor cared not how.

But the year of abundance. From June 1844 to August 1845, I visited the middle and southern part, including all the sea-coast, always on foot in the most destitute regions, that I might better ascertain the condition and character of the peasants in their most uncultivated state. What I then saw of privation and suffering has been but partially sketched, because the “many things” I had to say the world was not then able to bear, neither are they now able to bear them all; but posterity will bear them, and posterity shall hear them. Please read the partial sketch of Bantry, Glengariffe, and the sea-coast of Kerry, given the years 1844-5, and enter into some floorless, dark, mud cabin, and sit down upon a stool, if haply a stool be there, and witness the “abundance” of those happy fertile days. Again and again did I partake of a scanty meal of the potato, after a day’s walk of miles, because   [p. 16]   I knew a full repast would deprive the family of a part of the supply in reserve for the meal, which by multitudes was then taken but once a day.

Mark! these are not isolated cases, but everywhere in the mountainous regions, upon the sea-coast, and in the glens; from Dublin to the extreme south did I daily meet these facts. Nor was this privation of short continuance: from Christmas to harvest the poor peasant must stint his stomach to one meal a day, or his seed for the coming crop would be curtailed, and the necessary rent-payer, the pig, not be an equivalent to keep the mud cabin over the head of his master.

So much for “abundance;” now for “content.” That there was an unparalleled content, where anything approached to tolerable endurance, cannot be denied, but this was their religious training; however imperfect their faith and practice may be, in patience they have, and do exemplify a pattern which amounts almost to superhuman. “We must be content with what the Almighty puts upon us,” was their ready answer when their sufferings were mentioned; yet this did not shut their eyes to a sense of the sufferings which they felt were put upon them by man, and their submission seemed in most cases to proceed from the requirements of the Almighty, rather than from ignorance of their wrongs; for in most instances the parting question would be, “Don’t ye think the government is too hard on us; or do ye think we shall ever git the repale, and will Ireland ever be any better,” &c. That they are a happy people so long as any ray of hope   [p. 17]   remains, or when they share in common the gifts of Providence, must be allowed; yet their quick perception of justice often manifests itself, where any loop-hole is made which promises amendment to their condition, and when the flickering spark of life is kindled within them. They have committed bold and wicked acts, which revenge prompted by a sense of injustice alone would do. Justice long withheld, and oppression multiplied proportioned to uncomplaining endurance, sometimes awakes to a boldness almost unequaled by any but the savage of the wilderness; nor do they wait for the night, or seek any other concealment, than to make sure of their prey — they care not who sees them, or on what gallows they are hung, if the hated victim be out of the way.

“Hark! from yon stately ranks what laughter rings,
Mingling wild mirth with war’s stern minstrelsy.
His jest — while each brave comrade round him flings,
And moves to death with military glee.
Boast, Erin! boast them tameless, frank and free,
In friendship warm, and cool in danger known,
Rough Nature’s children, humorous as she.
And he, great chieftain, strike the proudest tone
Of thy bold harp, green Isle, the hero is thine own.”

Seldom do they murder for money, and in no country where oppression has ruled have the oppressed plundered and robbed so little as in Ireland, yet they can plunder and rob; and these crimes are multiplying and will multiply till a new state of things places them in a different condition.

I was riding upon a coach in the second year of the   [p. 18]   famine, in a lonely part of the west, when the coachman pointed me to a corner around the wall, and remarked, “When I passed this place to-day, a man lay dead there who had been killed some hours before by one of the tenants living upon the land here.” “Why did he do the shocking deed?” I inquired. “A good deed, by dad,” was the answer. “Why lady, he was the greatest blackguard that ever walked the earth; he was agent to a gentleman, and he showed no mercy to a poor man that was toilin’ for the potato; but as soon as the famine was sore on the craturs, he drove every one into the blake staurm that could not give the rent, and many’s the poor bein’ that died with the starvation, without the shelter; and wouldn’t ye think that such a hard-hearted villain better be dead, than to live and kill so many poor women and helpless children, as would be wanderin’ in the black mountains this winter, if he should live to drive ’em there.” Now, this is certainly unchristian logic, but it is resentful nature’s logic, and in accordance with all the principles of national killing. In vain I preached and held up a better principle — “A great good had been done to all the parish, and all the parish should be glad that so many lives had been saved by this one which had been taken.”

It was night, and I felt a little relief when a policeman ascended the coach, who was going in quest of a coroner; a sad deed, he added, but the murdered man was hard-hearted, and no doubt that it was some of the tenants on the land of which ho was agent who did the   [p. 19]   work, yet not one has escaped. “And why,” retorted the driver, “should a hap’orth of ’em take up the heel; they have done a good deed, and if they’re hung, it will be better than the starvation.” The policeman was silent, and I was not anxious to pursue the fruitless argument with one who saw no light, but through the medium of doing unto others as others do to him. And where this principle prevails, as it does in the hearts of all the unsanctified, the wonder is that so few have been the lawless deeds that have been transacted in that oppressed country for centuries gone by. The mischief is all laid at the door of the Papists; and when I speak of the Christianity of Ireland, I would do it with caution — I would not “hurt the oil or the wine,” — I would not “judge nor set at naught my brother,” — but I would say deliberately and conscientiously, that if those who call themselves the only true light of that benighted land, the only safe lamps to guide to the heavenly country, were more careful to show mercy and walk humbly, they might long ago have seen a better state of things. Yes, had Bible men and Bible women possessed that love in heart which has been upon the tongue; had they manifested that tenderness for Christ, as they have for a party, a name, or a church; had they been as assiduous to win souls to Christ by love and kindness, as they have to gather in their tithes by law and violence, many who are now scoffing at a “truth held in unrighteousness,” might have been glorying in one producing holiness and peace. But I forbear: “murder will out,” wrong will be righted,   [p. 20]   however painful the process, and though judgment long delay, yet it must come at last; the wheel of Providence is ever rolling, and every spoke belonging to it must in turn be uppermost, and the oppressed cannot always be at the bottom.

The object of this volume is to place before the world a plain and simple outline of what is called the Famine of Ireland, in 1846-7-8-9.

But before I take the reader down the sides of this dreadful gulf, before I uncover to him the bowels of that loathsome pit, on the margin of which he often may have tremblingly stood, I will gird up his mind for the conflict, by taking him, in the autumn of 1845, and the spring of 1846, through the more fertile and happy north, where we are told that better management has produced better results; there we shall find mementos of deep interest, when, ages now passed away, this people stood out to surrounding nations not as a “byword and hissing,” but as a noble example of religion, industry, and prosperity, which few if any could then present. And though its early history is quite obscured by fiction, and interlarded with poetical romance, yet all this serves to prove that the remains of a true coin are there, or a counterfeit would not have been attempted.

Not only in the north, but scattered over the whole island, are found inscriptions on stone, some standing above ground and others buried beneath, which, by their dates and hieroglyphics, tell you. that centuries ago men lived here, whose memories were honored, not   [p. 21]   only for their valor in war, but for their purity of life. It was not till I had faithfully explored the interior and southern coast, that the early history of this people had been much studied; as my object then, was to see them as they are found in the nineteenth century, without investigating particularly their age or pedigree. In my later excursions facts so startled and convinced me that their pretensions to former prosperity and greatness were not fabulous, that I regretted for my supineness on the subject; for I found by well authenticated history, that the common saying among the peasantry that Ireland was once “a land of saints,” was founded in more truth than her enemies or even friends are ready to acknowledge; and the belief is quite confirmed in my mind, that when searching for truth concerning a nation “scattered and peeled,” as the Irish have been, the true ore can better be found in the unpolished rubbish, in the traditions of a rude nation, retained from age to age, than among the polished gems of polite literature, written to please rather than instruct, and to pull down rather than build up.

It has never been my lot to meet with a straightforward, impartial, real matter-of-fact work, written on that devoted country, till since the famine commenced. It has been suggested that an Irishman could not write an impartial book on his country, and an Englishman or Scotchman would not.

The last three years have abundantly proved, that there are many Englishmen, who can not only feel, but act for that poor despised island, who would rejoice   [p. 22]   to see her rise, yes, who would and do take her by the hand, who not only talk, but make sacrifices for her welfare; and let me record it with gratitude, that posterity may read the efforts they have made and are still making, to place this down-trodden people among the happiest nations of the earth. Gladly would I record, were the privilege allowed me, the names of those Quakers, those Dissenters of all denominations, and many of the Churchmen too, who have done much in the days of darkness, for the starving poor of that land; yes, let me record as a debt of gratitude I owe to England, the scenes I have witnessed, when some box of warm clothing was opened, when the naked, starving women and children would drop upon their knees, and clasp their emaciated fingers, and with eyes raised to heaven, bless the Almighty God for the gift that the kind English or blessed Quaker had sent them; and while I was compelled to turn away from the touching view, my heart responded Amen and Amen. Let this suffice, that when in these future rages truths may be recorded that will not always be so salutary, yet be assured these truths are such as should be told, and they will not meet any cases mentioned in the above — in other language, they will not fit where they do not belong.

My position in regard to the condition and feeling of Ireland during the famine, was different from all others; I must necessarily look at things with different eyes, and different sensations from what others could do; I was a foreigner, could not expect, and did not   [p. 23]   ask, any reward either in praise or money for the interest I might take in that country; I was attached to England, as the race from which I descended, and pitied Ireland for her sufferings, rather than I admired her for any virtues which she might possess; consequently, my mind was so balanced between the two, that on which side the scale might have preponderated, the danger of blind partiality would not have been so great.

Besides, the country had previously been traversed, the habits and propensities of the cabiners been studied, they had been taken by surprise when no opportunity was given for escape or deception. I was always an unexpected guest, and gave them no time to brush up their cabins, or put on their shoes, if happily they might have any. When the famine came over them, they were placed in a different position to draw out their feelings toward others, and the pangs of hunger induced them necessarily to act unreservedly; all party feeling was lost, and whoever gave them bread was the object to which they most closely hung, and to those who rudely sent them empty away, the answer was often made, “May the blessed God never give ye to feel the hunger.”

And here it must be written that, though some might be ungrateful, yet such were the exceptions; as a people they are grateful, and patient to a proverb. Not a murmuring word against God or man did I once hear among all the dying, in those dreadful days, and the children were taught by parents and teachers to   [p. 24]   fall on their knees morning and evening, to pray Almighty God to “bless their kind benefactors and keep them from the hunger,” and many have died with these prayers on their lips. I must not enlarge; these things are not mentioned to probe afresh the painful sensations which philanthropists have felt for Ireland, but to bear a testimony to facts, which deserve to be recorded; and should any of these facts appear exaggerated, let it be said that no language is adequate to give the true, the real picture; one look of the eye into the daily scenes there witnessed, would overpower what any pen, however graphic, or tongue, however eloquent, could portray.

As my eye was single to one object, as I have ever peculiarly felt that I was acting for eternity, in acting for Ireland, the candor I use must be forgiven, and the pronoun I can make no other apology but sheer necessity, as no we had a part in anything essential which will be recorded in these pages.

When the hand that pens these pages, and the heart that has been lacerated at these sufferings, shall have ceased together, may Ireland and her benefactors “live before God.”

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