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

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[chapter 6]

  [p. 166]  
“There is no god, the oppressors say,
To mete us out chastisement.”


THESE splendid monuments of Ireland’s poverty number no less than one hundred and thirty, and some contain a thousand, and some two thousand, and in cases of emergency they can heap a few hundreds more. Before the famine they were many of them quite interesting objects for a stranger to visit, generally kept clean, not crowded, and the food sufficient. But when famine advanced, when funds decreased, when the doors were besieged by imploring applicants, who wanted a place to die, that they might be buried in a coffin, they were little else than charnel houses, while the living, shivering skeletons that squatted upon the floors, or stood with arms folded against the wall, half-clad, with hair uncombed, hands and face unwashed, added a horror if not terror to the sight. Westport Union had long been celebrated for its management, its want of comfort, in fire, food, lodging, and room; but stay and die, or go out and die, was the choice. Making suitable allowances for a rainy day — the house undergoing some changes when I visited it — there then   [p. 167]   appeared little capital left for comfort, had the day been sunny, and the house without any unusual up-turnings. The “yaller Indian,” here, was the dreadful thing that they told me, “swells us and takes the life of us;” and as it was there cooked, it maybe scrupled whether any officer in the establishment would select it for his food, though he assured the inmates “he could eat it, and it was quite good enough for a king.” These officers and guardians, many of them, were men who had lived in ease, never accustomed to industry or self-denial, having the poor as vassals under them; and when the potato blight took away all the means of getting rent, what with the increased taxations and the drainings by a troop of beggars at the door, they found themselves approaching a difficult crisis, and to prop up every tottering wall new expedients must be tried. Many of them sought posts of office under government, and were placed in the workhouses to superintend funds and food; and it will not be slander to say, that the cars of government have not been so fortunate with regard to the ‘slip-shod’ honesty of some of these gentry, as in the two thousand which the writer of the Crisis mentions.

When the poor complained, they were told that funds were low, and stinted allowances must be dealt out. Nor did the mischief end here; in proportion as the houses were crowded within, so were the purses drained without; and beside, in proportion to the purloining of funds, so was the stinting of food and the extra drains upon the struggling tradesman and farmer.   [p. 168]   An observer, who had no interest in the nation but philanthropy, going over Ireland, after traveling many a weary mile over bog and waste, where nothing but a scattering hamlet of loose stone, mud, or turf greets him, when he suddenly turns some corner, or ascends some hill, and sees in the distance, upon a pleasant elevation, a building of vast dimensions, tasteful in architecture, surrounded with walls, like the castle or mansion of some lord, if he knew not Ireland’s history, must suppose that some chief held his proud dominion over the surrounding country, and that his power must be so absolute that life and death hung on his lip; and should he enter the gate, and find about its walls a company of ragged and tattered beings of all ages, from the man of gray hairs to the lad in his teens, sitting upon the ground, breaking stones with “might and main,” and piling them in heaps — should he proceed to a contiguous yard, if the day be not rainy, and find some hundreds of the “weaker vessels,” standing in groups or squatting upon their heels, with naked arms and feet — should he go over the long halls, and in some inclosure find a group of pale sickly-looking children cowering about a vast iron guard, to keep the scanty fire that might be struggling for life in the grate from doing harm — should he stop at the dinner hour, and see these hundreds, yes, thousands, marching in file to the tables, where was spread the yellow “stirabout,” in tins and pans, measured and meted by ounces and pounds, suited to age and condition — and should he tarry till twilight drew her curtain, and see,   [p. 169]   in due order, these men, Women, and children led to their stalls for the night, where are pallets of straw, in long rooms (they are sorted and ranged according to sex) to lie down together, with neither light of the sun, moon, or candle, till the morning dawn, and call them again to their gruel or stirabout, to resume afresh the routine of the preceding day — would not this uninformed stranger find all his opinions confirmed, that this must be the property of a monarch, who has gathered these hetereogeneous nondescripts from the pirates, highway robbers, and pickpockets of his subjects, and had inclosed them here, awaiting the “fit out,” for transportation!

But listen! This honest inquirer is aroused by being kindly informed that this great mammoth establishment, with all its complicated paraphernalia of boilers, soup-pots, tins, pans, stools, forms, tables, and pallets, together with heavy-paid overseers, officers, matrons, and cooks, are all the work of Christian benevolence! and that the building itself cost more than would a comfortable cottage and plot of ground sufficient to give each of the families here enclosed a good support. And further, so unbounded is the owner’s benevolence, that over the Green Isle are scattered one hundred and twenty-nine more like palaces! rearing their proud turrets to the skies, furnished within with like apparatus, for tens of thousands, so that every Paddy, from Donegal to Kerry, and from Wicklow to Mayo, may here find a stool, a tin of stirabout, and pallet, on the simple condition of oathing that he owns   [p. 170]   not either “hide or hoof,” screed or scrawl, mattock or spade, pot or churn, duck-pond, manure-heap, or potato-plot, on the ground that reared him, and simply put his seal to this by pulling the roof from his own cabin. Should the inquirer be at a loss to conjecture how, when, and where this wide-spread philanthropy had a beginning, he is cited back to the good old days of Elizabeth and James, when the zealous Christian plunderer, Cromwell, prepared the way to parcel out the island, and entail it forever to a happy few, who found a race of people who would dig their ditches, build their walls, lay out their parks and ponds, for a penny or two a-day, and above all, could be made patiently to feed on a single root, and live in mud cabins, or by the side of a rock, or burrow in sandbanks, who would “go at their command, and come at their bidding;” and beside, for the unleased patch of ground, where they grew the root on which they subsisted, they paid such a rent as enabled the masters of the soil to live and fare sumptuously at home, to hunt the hare and deer over the mountain and glen, with lady, dog and gun, or to travel in distant lands. With all these appliances, they had lived on, sending care to the winds, till, from generation to generation, they found these “hewers of wood and drawers of water” had become so multifarious that, like Pharaoa’s frogs, they encompassed the whole land, covering bog and ditch, crying, “GIVE, GIVE,” till dinned and harassed with the undying clamor, they were moved to provide food and shelter in palaces of stone and mortar, where all care   [p. 171]   of food, raiment, and lodging is at an end, and they have only to eat when they are fed, lie down when bidden, rise and put on their clothes when the morning gives them light, and once a-week say their prayers in the church or chapel, as their conscience dictated, without leaving the proud roof where they are fed and housed!

These palaces certainly in this respect stand preeminent over every other portion of the earth, and tell the true story of Ireland’s strange management more than volumes of essays would do. To pauperize men, women, and children, in sight of, and walking over a rich uncultivated soil, as is Ireland, and shut them up, with no other crimes than that of compulsory poverty, where they are fed, clothed, and lodged at the governor’s option, inclosed with bolts and bars, like felons, with no more freedom than state prisoners have, is certainly a strange comment on liberty, a strange comment on the family relationship, which prohibits all intercourse between parents and children, except a few hasty moments one day in seven. The workhouses in Ireland are many of them well managed on the principles as they are established; but, as an overseer in one of the best conducted ones said, “I have been here many years, and have seen the workings and effects of a poorhouse, and can only say — the best that can be said of them — they are prisons under a different name, calculated to produce a principle of idleness, and to degrade, never to elevate, to deaden in the human heart that rational self-respect which individual support   [p. 172]   generates, and which should be kept up; and may I never be doomed to die in a poorhouse.”

Nor is this all. The unreclaimed bogs and waste hunting grounds tell, that in no country are poor-houses such an anomaly as in Ireland; and the Irishman who is willing to work, and is employed there, has no moral right to be either grateful or satisfied that he has exchanged even a mud cabin of liberty for a palace walled and locked, where his food is measured and doled, where his family are strangers to him, and all the social interchanges of life are taken from him wholly. Though a man may be “a man for a’ that,” yet he cannot feel himself one; nor does he seldom, if ever, regain that standard of manly independence which belongs to man, whatever his future lot may be.


As turnips made a prominent feature in the absence of their predecessors, the potatoes, during the famine, they should not be overlooked in the annals of that history. They were to the starving ones supposed to be a “God-send,” and were eaten with great avidity, both cooked and raw. Many of the cabiners could get but little fire, and they cooked only the tops, while the bottoms were taken raw; those who had no shelter to cook under could not well eat the tops, though they often tried to do so. It has been ascertained that turnips contain but from ten to fifteen parts of nutriment to a hundred parts, thence the quantity necessary to nourish the body must require bulk to a great amount.   [p. 173]   This root, when boiled, has ever been considered as safe a vegetable for the invalid as any in the vocabulary of esculents; and even the fevered invalid, when prohibited all other vegetables, has been allowed to partake of this, not because of its nutrition, but because of the absence of it, not having sufficient to injure the weakest body. When it was found that turnips could be so easily grown, and that no blast had as yet injured them, they were hailed with great joy by the peasants and by the people. But the starving ones soon found they were unsatisfactory, for when they had eaten much more in bulk than of the potato they were still craving, and the result was, where for weeks they lived wholly on them, their stomachs were so swollen, especially children’s, that it was a pitiable sight to see them. No one thought it was the turnip: but I found in every place on the coast where they were fed on them the same results, and as far as I could ascertain, such died in a few weeks, and the rational conclusion must be, that a single root, so innutritious and so watery as the white turnips are, cannot sustain a healthy state of the system, nor life itself for any considerable time. When going through the Barony of Erris, the appearance of these turnip-eaters became quite a dread. Invariably the same results appeared wherever used, and they became more to be dreaded, as it was feared the farmer would make them a substitute for the potato, and the ingenious landlord would find a happy expedient for his purse, if his tenants could live on the turnip as well as the potato. Like cattle these   [p. 174]   poor creatures seemed to be driven from one herb and root to another, using nettles, turnip-tops, chickweed, in their turn, and dying at last on these miserable substitutes. Many a child sitting in a muddy cabin has been interrogated, what she or he had eat, “nothing but the turnip, ma’am,” sometimes the “turnip-top;” and being asked when this was procured, sometimes the answer would be, “yesterday, lady,” or, “when we can get them, ma’am.


We turn from the turnip and see what virtue there is in black bread; and my only regret is, that my powers of description are so faint, that I cannot describe one-half of what might be told of that novel article used for many a month in the county of Mayo. The relief officers there were under government pay, and, as they asserted, under government orders; but it is much to be doubted whether the government, bad they been served with a loaf of that bread, would have ordered it for either man or beast. The first that greeted my wondering eyes was in a poor village between Achill and Newport, where, while stopping to feed the horse, a company of children who had been at school, and received a few ounces of this daily, came in with the boon in their hands. The woman of the house reached a piece to me, asking if I ever saw the like. Indeed, I never had, and had never tasted the like. Supposing it must have been accidental, and that no other of the kind had ever been made, I said,   [p. 175]   “This is not such bread as the children usually eat.” She answered, “They have had it for some weeks.” It was sour, black, and of the consistency of liver; but thinking that the baker had been mostly to blame, this bread did not make such an impression on me as that which I saw for weeks afterward.

A few days after this, a gentleman, at whose house I stopped, brought into the room a loaf of the genuine “black bread.” “Here,” said he, “is the reward of a day’s labor of a poor man, who has been sitting on the ground this cold. day to break stones.” Not one present could have told what it was, till taking it in the hand; and even then it was quite doubtful whether men would provide such a material to reward a laboring man for a day’s work; but it was indeed. so. The man who had come into possession of this boon was one among many, some of whom had walked three, four and even five miles, and had labored through a cold day in March without eating, and this bread weighed a pound. But the material and the color! The material could not have been analyzed but by a chemist, but the color was precisely that of dry turf, so much so that when a piece was placed upon a table by the side of a bit of turf, no eye could detect the difference, and it was very difficult to do so when taking it in hand. The next day, calling on a gentleman of respectability and a friend to his country, he inquired if in my excursions I had met with the bread that the relief officers were giving the poor, adding, “I will procure you a piece.” He then sent to the shop where it was kept and bought   [p. 176]   a loaf; it was common unbolted flour-bread, of a middling quality. He sent it back; they denied having or selling any other kind to the poor, or ever having done so. “Go,” said the gentlemen, “into the school where the bread is distributed, and then the facts will be palpable.” I went. A school of one hundred and forty or one hundred and fifty girls were in waiting for this bread, which had been sent for to the shop. It came, was cut in slices, and having been baked that morning, the effluvia was fresh, and though standing at the extremity of a long room, with the street door open, the nausea became so offensive that after taking a slice for a pattern, and having ascertained from the teacher that this was the daily bread which she had been cutting for weeks, I hastened home with the prize, placed the bread upon paper where good air could reach it; the disagreeable smell gradually subsided, but the bread retained all its appearance for weeks, never becoming sour, but small spots of a greenish color like mould here and there dotted upon it. These spots were not abundant: the remainder appeared precisely like turf-mould, and was judged to be so.

Where these relief officers made out this article was not satisfactorily explained. “They did as they were bidden.” Report said that some twenty-nine years before, the government had deposited in that region some continental material for bread, which had become damaged, and then could not be sold. But twenty-nine years it had withstood the ravages of rats, mice and vermin, and had now come out an eatable commodity   [p. 177]   for charity. And here it was scattered daily through mountain and glen; and for this equivalent the poor man must give up his land, take off the roof of his cabin with his own hand — for, as the government has not required this, the driver, like a slave one, ever faithful to his master’s interest and good name, tells the starving cabiner if he will not ascend the roof of his hut and unthatch it, and tumble down the stones with his own hand, that he shall neither have the pound of meal or black bread. Then this driver screens himself behind the flimsy covering that the cabiner did it with his own hands, and the landlord gravely tells you that it was done without his orders, and probably without his knowledge. Slave-owners do precisely in the same way. They employ a faithful driver, pay him bountifully, and his duty is to get the most work done in the least time, and in the best way. If a delinquent be flogged to death, the owner is always away from home or somehow engaged — entirely ignorant of the matter. But mark! however often these cruelties may be repeated, the driver maintains his post and his salary. Are the public to be so duped in either case, that the slaveholder and landlord are not satisfied with this flogging and this pulling down of houses? Why, then, are they ever repeated?

The age of black bread and pulling down houses certainly has fallen peculiarly under the reign of the Queen and her agent John Russell; yet it might be wholly unjust to impute either to their orders or even consent. The black bread was a cheap substitute for   [p. 178]   good flour or meal; and if meddlesome people had staid at home, minding their own concerns, who would ever have thought of complaining about bread? The poor starving ones had reached that point that they would swallow anything in the shape of food that could have been swallowed, without uttering a murmur.

A few pieces of this bread were put in a letter, directed to a friend in London, that the Committee there, acting for the poor in Ireland, might have a sight. The letter was carried to the postmaster, and an explanation given him of the precious gift contained in it, and the object of so doing, &c.; that it was to let the people of England see if they acknowledged this article as a provision of theirs for the poor. The letter never reached its destination; the postmaster was interrogated by the writer; he affirmed that he had seen no such letter, nor heard one word about it; when lo! this forgetful postmaster was one of the said relief officers who managed the black bread! “Whoso readeth let him understand.” Whether the poor lived or whether they died on this bread, or by this bread, I do not pretend to say, only that death was doing its work by hunger, fever, and dysentery continually.

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