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

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[chapter 9]

  [p. 320]  
“Shall I see thee no more, thou lov’d land of sorrow?”


THE time had come when the last long adieu must be taken of a people and country, where four years and four months had been passed, and it would be impossible to put the last penciling upon a picture like this, and not pause before laying it aside, and look again at its “Lights and Shades” as a whole. In doing so, the task is more painful than was the first labor, — First, because these “Lights and Shades” are imperfectly drawn; and second, because no future touch of the artist, however badly executed, can be put on; what is “written” is “written,” and what is done is done forever. My feet shall never again make their untried way through some dark glen, or wade through a miry bog, or climb some slippery crag to reach the isolated mud cabin, and hear the kind “God save ye kindly, lady; come in, come in, ye must be wairy.” Never again can the sweet words of eternal life be read to the listening way-side peasant, when he is breaking stones, or walking by the way; never will the potato be shared with the family group around the basket, or the bundle   [p. 321]   of straw be unbound and spread for my couch. Never will the nominal professor, who learned his Christ through respectability, without even the shadow of a cross, again coolly say, “We do not understand your object, and do you go into the miserable cabins among the lower order;” and never, oh never! again will the ghastly stare of the starving idiot meet me upon the lonely mountains I have trod; never again will the emaciated fingers of a starving child be linked in supplication for a “bit of bread,” as I pass in the busy street; though the painful visions will forever haunt me, yet the privilege to relieve will never again be mine in that land of sorrow. It is over. Have I acted plainly? — have I spoken plainly? — have I written plainly? This is all right, — for this no apology is made. But have all these plain actions, plain speakings, and plain writings, been performed with an eye single to the glory of God? If so, all is as it should be; if not, “Mene, Tekel” must be written.

These pages speak plainly of Clergymen, of Landlords, of Relief Officers, of the waste of distributions, and of Drinking Habits. Are these things so? Glad should I be to know, that in all these statements a wrong judgment has been formed, and that they have been and are misrepresented. Yes, let me be proved even a prejudiced writer, an unjust writer, a partial writer, rather than that these things shall be living, acting truths. But alas! Ireland tells her own story, and every stranger reads it.

The landlords have a heavy burden, and if the burden   [p. 322]   cannot be removed, it is right that they should be heard. Even if by their own neglect or unskillfulness they are now where they feel the wave rolling over them, and this wave is like to swallow them entirely, what philanthropist would not throw out the life-boat and take them to land? If they are not good steersmen, then place them not again at the helm; if they neither understand the laws of navigation, nor the duties of captains to the crew, assign them a place where with less power they can act without injuring the helpless, till they learn lessons of wisdom from past ages of recklessness and thoughtless improvidence. And while God says, “What measure ye mete shall be measured to you again,” yet who shall presume to deal out this promise, nor let one retaliating lisp be encouraged to clothe the oppressive or careless landlord in like rags that his tenants have worn. Give him a second coat, and though his hands may not be adorned with rings, yet dress him in clean garments, and put shoes upon his feet. If you give him not the “fatted calf,” yet feed him not on the one root which his scanty pay has compelled the sower and reaper of his fields to eat, strip him not of the last vestige his habitation may possess of decency and comfort, and shut him not in the walls of a workhouse, to lie down and rise up, go out and come in, at some surly master’s bidding. Let him walk among men, as a man breathing free air on God’s free earth that he has freely “given to the children of men.” Say not to him, when you see that his day has already come, “Ah! I told you   [p. 323]   so.” Conscience, if he have any, will tell him that, and if he have not any, you cannot furnish him with one. There are landlords in Ireland who have measurably rendered what is “just and equal,” if not wholly so. There are Crawfords and Hills, who have done nobly and outlived the storm, and there are many others, who like them have acted well, but could not, and have not outlived it. In one crumbling mass, they and their tenants are looking in despair on each other without cause or disposition to recriminate, and when they part, it is like the separation of kindly members of one family, united by one common interest. These are some of the bright spots, green and fresh, which still look out upon that stricken country, and leave a little hope that lingering mercy may yet return and bless her with the blessing that adds no sorrow.

The minister, too — shall his sacred name and calling be on the tongue and pen of every wayfaring traveler who may chance to pass through his parish, and tarry but for a night — who may hear but a passing sermon, and that a good one, too, and hasten away and denounce him as a hireling or unfaithful? Let candor, courtesy and Christianity forbid it!

The watchmen on Ireland’s wall have had a stormy, bleak night to guard the city, and amid the roar of tumultuous tempests have scarcely known how to guide or to warn the lost traveler into a safe shelter — they may have seen danger through a false glare — they may have warned when no danger was nigh, and they may have wrapped their robes about them, and hid from an enemy   [p. 324]   when they were the only leaders that could have led to victory. Some have split on the fatal rock — love of gain; others are insnared by the deceitful, flattering word, “respectability.” This above all others seems to be the hobby; nor is it confined to the Established Church: they as a body are so well paid and honored, that they have less need to keep up a struggle respecting the name, as most of them (the curates excepted) can and do hang out the indisputable sign — a carriage, and its accompaniments; and if the character of such an one be inquired after, however he may live, and how far removed from the vital principles of the gospel he may be, if not among the vilest, “Oh! he is very respectable; if you should see his gardens, and grounds, and carriage, and then his glebe-house, and his wife and daughters — they’re the ladies.” The dissenting classes, who profess by their very dissenting, that they believe more fully that the regenerating spirit of the gospel calls for newness of life, and nonconformity to the world; yet to induce the world to follow them, to become members of their body, they must throw out the bait of “respectability,” to keep up an influence which conformity to the world alone can do; that part of the legacy which Christ left, they acknowledge is a good one when applied to real martyrdom. When the disciples were told that if they hated me, they will hate you also, and that they must “rejoice and be exceeding glad,” when all manner of evil should be said of them, for his sake; but for disciples in the nineteenth century the constitution of things is changed,   [p. 325]   and as a “good name,” the wise man tells us, “is better than precious ointment,” this “good name” must be obtained, even though a few circumstantials in the Christian creed should be modestly suspended. This “good name” is the last thing that the professed Christian will leave in the hands of Christ; he will intrust him often with his property, his indefatigable labors, and even life itself; but his reputation, ah! his reputation is too sacred to go out of his hands; and mark! this reputation is one acquired according to the customs of the world. Here is the fatal split, here it is, where he who purchases this article, purchases at the expense of that vitality, and indwelling principle of holiness, which, if nurtured and kept alive, by walking in the liberty of Christ, will go on from one degree of grace and glory, till the perfect man in Christ is attained.

The dissenting Christians of Ireland, many of them, are wealthy enough to be respectable; and though they are not in general as high as their “Established” brethren; yet those who have a regium donum can figure somewhat genteelly, and if they do not attain to the highest notch they do what they can; if they cannot keep a coach and four, they would not be inclined to ride meek and lowly, as their Master did through the streets of Jerusalem, and will get the best carriage their means will allow.

Now respectability is not to be despised; but seeking it at the expense of that humility, that condescending to men of low estate, that not only giving to the poor, but doing for the poor, and doing too at the expense of   [p. 326]   our own ease, and in face and eyes of the customs of a God-hating world, is reprehensible, and wholly and entirely aside from the precepts and examples of Christ and his followers; and though to the blameworthy this may appear severe, because true, yet I cannot be a faithful recorder of what I saw and experienced in Ireland, without leaving this testimony, which I expect to meet at the judgment, that a proud, worldly, respectable Christianity is the first great deep evil that keeps that country in a virtual bondage, from which she never will escape, till the evil be removed. The awful gulf which is placed between the higher and the “lower orders” there, is as great between professed Christians and the world, as between the estated gentleman or titled lord, who makes no pretension, and in many cases much greater. There are lords, sirs, and esquires in Ireland, who would sooner admit a bare-foot into their back-door and hear his tale of woe, than would many of the dissenting classes, of so-called followers of the meek and lowly Jesus. Why is it so? Simply this, not because these lords and gentlemen were Christians, but because they were not in danger of losing a standing which a worldly government had given them, by so doing, while the dissenter, a step lower in worldly honor, without sufficient vital piety to fall back upon, must keep the respectable standing that he had, or he was lost forever. And before closing these pages, duty requires to correct statements which have been made by many of the misjudging class of Irish who read the first volume, and have said that I had no opportunity to give a true account   [p. 327]   of the character of the people there, because I mingled with none but the lower classes — I give the following illustrations: — This is a mistake wholly and entirely. I did not make long visits with the higher orders except in few cases, not because I was not treated with all the courtesy and attention that vanity would require by some of these, but because my message was to the poor; and the attentions of the great were not recorded for many reasons, among which, some of the most prominent are, that many such persons do not wish to read their names on the random pages of an unpretending tourist, or a vain smattering one; and if their vanity could be fed the greater caution should be used to withhold flattery, for they are in no need of compliments; and beside, they have only done what they could easily do without sacrifice, and are required by the common claims of civility to strangers, as well as by the higher requirements of the gospel, to do. And, again, what traveler who has whirled through that island on a coach, and who, in his own country was scarcely known, beyond his humble seat in the church or chapel where he was wont to sit, but has carefully wrapped a complimentary card, given by a titled gentleman, to a dinner, to show to his family to the third, and probably fourth generation, of the great honor bestowed on him. And in conclusion, on this part of the subject, let it be said, that access was gained to every class of people in Ireland, some by “hook and by crook,” and others by an “abundant entrance,” and by a greater part of them was I treated with more courtesy   [p. 328]   than by those a notch or two below, in worldly standing.

The old hackneyed story of popery in Ireland has been so turned and twisted that every side has been seen — nothing new can be said about it. There it stands, its principles are well known, its superstitions and persecuting character, its idolatries, and all its trimming and trappings, are the same in essence, as when Queen Elizabeth put her anathemas forth against its creeds and practice; and with all her errors she maintains a few principles and practices which it would be well for her more Bible neighbors to imitate. Her great ones are more accessible; the poor of their own class, or of any other, are not kept at such an awful distance; the stranger is seldom frowned coolly from their door; to them there appears to be a sacredness in the very word with which they would not trifle; the question is not, is he or she “respectable,” but a stranger; if so, then hospitality must be used without grudging. In the mountains, and sea-coast parts, it has ever been the custom to set the cabin door open at night, and keep up a fire on the hearth, that the way-faring man, and the lone stranger, should he be benighted, could see by the light that there is welcome for him, and if they have but one bed, the family get up and give it to the stranger, sitting up, and having the fire kept bright through the night. This has been done for me, without knowing or asking whether I was Turk or Christian; and were I again to walk over that country, and be out at nightfall in storm or peril, as has been my lot, and   [p. 329]   come in sight of two castle-towers, one a Roman and the other a Protestant owner; and were the former a mile beyond, my difficult way would be made to that, knowing that when the porter should tell the master a stranger was at the gate, he would say, “Welcome the stranger in for the night, or from the storm.” The Protestant might do the same, but there would be a doubt. His answer would probably be, “A stranger! How comes a stranger here at this late hour? tell him we do not admit persons into our house unless we know them.” Christian reader, this is one strong reason why you should admit them, because you do not know them. The Catholics are much more humble in their demeanor, and certainly much more hospitable and obliging in all respects, as a people. They are more self-denying, will sacrifice their own comforts for the afflicted, more readily will they attend their places of worship, clothed or unclothed, and beggars take as high a place often in the chapel, as the rich man; the “gold ring and costly apparel,” is not honored here, as in the Protestant and dissenting churches; and it is remarked that when any turn to the Protestant faith, they never lose that condescension, nor put on those pretences of worldly respectability, as their Protestant brethren do.

A little for the Relief Officers at parting. To those who have been intrusted with money for the poor, and have been bountifully paid for the care of the loan put in your hands, if you have done by the starving poor, as you would that they should do unto you in like circumstances — if you have given the same quality and quantity   [p. 330]   of bread, that you should be willing to receive and eat — if you have never sent a starving one empty away, when you had it by you, because ease would be disturbed — if dinners and toasts have not drained any money that belonged to the poor; then “well done, good and faithful servant;” and if you have may you be forgiven, and never be left “to feel the hunger.” My lot was to be once in a house where a sumptuous feast was held among this class of laborers, and that was in the midst of desolation and death. They “tarried,” to speak modestly, “a little too long at the wine” that night, and drank toasts, which, if they honored the Queen, did little credit to men in their station, and in their responsible work. But I have seen and handled the “black bread” for months, and have told the story. I have seen many sent from the relief, on days of giving it out, without a mouthful, and have not a doubt but many died in consequence of this, when they should and might have been fed. Time will not allow of dwelling on these cases; but one which was vividly impressed, and particularly marked at the time, may serve as a specimen. Going out one cold day in a bleak waste on the coast, I met a pitiful old man in hunger and tatters, with a child on his back, almost entirely naked, and to appearance in the last stages of starvation; whether his naked legs had been scratched, or whether the cold had affected them I knew not, but the blood was in small streams in different places, and the sight was a horrid one. The old man was interrogated, why he took such an object into sight, upon the street, when he answered   [p. 331]   that he lived seven miles off, and was afraid the child would die in the cabin, with two little children he had left starving, and he had come to get the bit of meal, as it was the day he heard that the relief was giving out. The officer told him he had not time to enter his name on the book, and he was sent away in that condition; a penny or two was given him, for which he expressed the greatest gratitude; this was on Wednesday or Thursday. The case was mentioned to the officer, and he entreated not to send such objects away, especially when the distance was so great.

The next Saturday, on my way from the house where the relieving-officer was stationed, we saw an old man creeping slowly in a bending posture upon the road, and the boy was asked to stop the car. The same old man looked up and recognized me. I did not know him, but his overwhelming thanks for the little that was given him that day, called to mind the circumstance; and, inquiring where the child was, he said the three were left in the cabin, and had not taken a “sup nor a bit” since yesterday morning, and he was afraid some of them would be dead upon the hearth when he returned. The relieving-officer had told him to come on Saturday, and his name should be on the book, he had waited without scarcely eating a mouthful till then, and was so weak he could not carry the child, and had crept the seven miles to get the meal, and was sent away with a promise to wait till the next Tuesday, and come and have his name on the books. This poor man had not a penny nor a mouthful of food, and he said   [p. 332]   tremulously, “I must go home and die on the hairth with the hungry ones.” The mother had starved to death. He was given money to purchase seven pounds of meal; he clasped his old emaciated hands, first fell upon his knees, looked up to heaven and thanked the good God, then me, when the boy was so struck with his glaring eyes, and painful looks, that he turned aside and said, “let us get away.” The old man kept on his knees, walking on them, pausing and looking up to heaven; and thinking myself that seven pounds would not keep four scarcely in existence till Tuesday, we stopped till he came upon his knees to the car; he was given money enough to purchase as much more; when, for a few moments, I feared that he would die on the path. His age, exhaustion by hunger, and the feelings of a father, together with the sudden change, from despair to hope, all were so powerful, that with his hands clasped, clinching the pennies, and standing upon his knees, he fell upon his face, and for some time remained there; he was finally restored to his knees, and the last glimpse we had of this picture of living death, he was behind us on the path, descending a hill upon his knees. What his destiny was, I never knew; but the relieving-officer expressed no feelings of compunction when told of it some time after, nor did he know whether he had applied again. If he died, what then? was the answer. This solitary case is only a specimen of to say the least, hundreds, who might have been saved, had these stewards applied the funds where most needed. Those who were obliged to walk miles,   [p. 333]   and lie out over night upon the highway-side, were sent back to come again, while those who lived nearest, had the most strength, and could clamor the loudest for their rights, were soonest supplied. This relieving officer was an Irishman, and though among some of these there was great compassion and long continued, yet as a whole the English were much more so; and had they, without being advised or influenced in the least by the Irish landlords and Irish relieving-officers, taken their own course, much better management of funds and better management for the suffering would have followed. The English were unused to such sights as Ireland in her best times presents, besides they never had oppressed these poor ones, while the rich, powerful Irish, like our slaveholders in the United States, had long held them writhing in their grasp, some of them beside had been too lavish, their means for sporting and pleasure were lessening, and why not take their share of what they wanted, while it was in their hands? The English officers, entirely unacquainted even with the location of distressed districts, till, for the first time, their eyes were saluted with these frightful sights, would certainly be led to apply means, when and where more experienced ones should direct. The Irish landlords too, had another strong temptation. They had many comfortable farmers, who till the famine, had not only paid them good rent, but had turned the worst soil into beautiful fields. They must either abide on the land and pay less rent, or none at all, till the famine ceased, or they must emi-   [p. 334]   grate. Now a few hundred pounds would keep these tenants on their feet, and pay the landlord. And if these landlords had not before been influenced by the grace of God to do justice, it cannot be expected in this peculiar crisis they should suddenly be transformed to act so against their own worldly good. Who would trust a dog with his dinner if the dog be hungry? These are not random strokes made to finish a book, nor to gratify a splenetic sourness — particular prejudices have not been the spring of motion in this work; but being flung into all and every position, how could I but see all and everything that fell in my way? In the worst districts my tarry was generally the longest, and in some cases I literally carried out the precept, “Into whatever house ye enter there abide and thence depart,” where the most information could be gained, and the family who invited me were able to supply all needful things, and had urged the visit, however protracted it might be; and in the face and eyes of all sincerity on their part, they had been taken at their word, and though the blarney grew thinner and weaker, yet I had long since accustomed my palate to bread without butter or honey, and potatoes without gravy or salt.

Ireland possesses an ingredient in her composition, beyond all other nations — an elasticity of such strength, that however weighty the depressing power may be, she returns to her level with greater velocity than any people whatever, when the force is removed. Then arise to her help; let every Protestant and Dissenter put on the whole armor; let them together cast tithes and   [p. 335]   regium donums “to the moles and to the bats,” and stand out in the whole panoply of the gospel; then indeed will they appear “terrible as an army with banners;” let their worldly respectability be laid aside for the “honor that comes from God;” let them do as Christ did, “condescend to men of low estate.” Who can tell, if the professed church of Christ of all denominations should do her first work there, but that a loophole would be made, through which government might look beyond the dark cloud that has covered her reign over that island, and joyfully say, “Live, for I have found a ransom!” For though government now holds the church in her hands, could she do so if the church was moved by an Almighty power? God now suffers, but does he propel? Is not the machinery of the church there one of the “sought-out inventions,” which never emanated from the uprightness of God? See to it, see to it, and then talk with success of the idolatries of popery.

The dark night had come, my trunk was packed, and the vessel was in readiness that was to bear me away. When I entered that pretty isle in June, 1844, all was green and sunny without, water, earth, and sky all united to say this is indeed a pleasant spot, but why I had come to it I knew not, and what was my work had not been told me; step by step the voice had been “onward,” trust and obey — obey and trust. The ground had been traversed, and in tempest and darkness my way was made to the packet, on the Liffey, with one solitary Quaker, who was compelled to hurry   [p. 336]   me among the tumultuous crowd without time to say ‘Farewell.’ A few friends had assembled to meet me there, who had been tried ones from the beginning, but so great was the crowd, and so dark was the night, that they found me not.

The spires of Dublin could not be seen, and I was glad — I was glad that no warm hands could greet me; and above all and over all, I was glad that the poor could not find me; for them I had labored, and their blessing was mine, that was a rich reward; and when my heart shall cease to feel for their sufferings may my “tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”


“Sow thy seed, there is need, never be weary,
Morning and evening withhold not thine hand;
By the side of all waters let faith and hope cheer thee,
Where the blessing may rest is not thine to command.
“Do thy best, leave the rest, while the day serveth —
Night will assuredly overtake noon;
Work with thy brother, while he thine arm nerveth,
Without him, or for him, if holding back soon.
“As the grain, often pain, doubt, care, and sadness,
The husbandman needs must commit to the soil,
Long to struggle with darkness and death, if in gladness
He may hope e’er to reap the new harvest from toil.
“Sow thy seed, there is need, never mind sorrow,
Disappointment is not what it seems to thee now;
Tears, if but touched by one heavenly ray, borrow
A glory that spans all, — the bright promised bow!”

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