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

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Through the romantic snow-topped mountains of Doughhill, a son of Mrs. Wilson conducted me on her car to Ballycroy, or Croy Lodge, the cottage on a most wild coast, where Maxwell wrote his “Wild Sports of the West.” We wound among mountains of the most lofty kind; and hanging over the sea, reflecting their snowy sides from its molten surface, with a bright morning sun shining upon them, they were strangely beautiful. The panorama was exceedingly interesting, and the more so that the peasants appeared better fed than any I had met in the country. The relief-officers here might be more attentive, seeing that this destitute spot so inclosed could yield no possible relief.

Stopping to feed the pony, a woman entered, whom we had passed an hour before, with a little girl peeping   [p. 189]   out from under a cloak upon her back. She told us she had been at Mulrone the day before, in hopes of getting a little meal, and was disappointed; it was not the day that the relief was given out. They were penniless, and had not eaten since the day before, and the walk was nine miles. Having in my reticule a sweet biscuit, it was given to the pretty and clean hungry child. She took it, and gave me a “God bless ye, lady,” but could not be prevailed to eat it; she wrapped it in her pinafore most carefully, looked up to her mother and smiled, but would not break it. “How is this?” I asked the mother; “she cannot be hungry.” “She is indeed hungry, but she never saw such a thing before, and she cannot think of parting with it, hungry as she must be.” Such self-denial in a child was quite beyond my comprehension, but so inured are these people to want, that their endurance and self-control are almost beyond belief. Giving her a piece of bread, she ate it with the greatest zest — she had seen bread before.

We took her upon the car, and for three miles she rode under my cloak, with her biscuit snugly wrapped in her apron, holding it most carefully between her hands; and when we set her down, at the turn of the road and I saw her little bare feet running away, and heard her last word of “bless ye, lady,” with the precious treasure safely secured, I prayed the Savior that he would take that little lamb of his flock, and shelter her in his bosom from the bleak winds of adversity, that are so keenly blowing and withering the cheek of many   [p. 190]   a fair blossom in that stricken country. Some days after the mother found me, and said the biscuit was preserved, “to remember the nice lady!” How little does it take to make such poor happy! The country was bleak and barren, and a cordial welcome to Croy Lodge after dark was a pleasant salutation. Here, shut in from wind and cold by a bright turf fire, clean cloth, and good dinner, had there been none starving without, the evening would have been a pleasant one. Ballacroy had suffered much, but it was not Belmullet. That ghastly look and frightful stare had not eaten out all the appearance of life and hope which many manifested. A visit to the national school gave not a very favorable impression of the state of the children; nearly a hundred pale-faced and bare-footed little ones were crowded into a cold room, squatting upon their feet, cowering closely together, waiting for ten ounces of bread, which was all their support, but now and then a straggling turnip-top. The teacher, with a salary of £12 a year, could not be expected to be of the nicer sort, nor of the highest attainments in education. The improvement of the children would not in some time fit them for a class in college.

From this university I went to a hunting-lodge kept by Mr. Wilson, accompanied by the kind teacher, who insisted that a watch-dog, kept by the gentleman for the purpose of guarding the premises, would “ate me” if I went alone. Assuring him that the dogs in Ireland had always treated me with great urbanity, and that I feared no harm, he would not allow it; the   [p. 191]   “blackguard,” he added, “will rend ye;” and he kindly conducted me to the door. The dog growled; speaking kindly to him, he led me through the hall, and when I was, seated, doglike, he put his amicable nose upon my lap. The master approvingly said, “That dog, madam, is very cross and even dangerous to any ragged person or beggar that approaches the premises; but when one decently clothed enters, he welcomes them as he has done you.” So much for the training of dogs, and their aptness in acquiring the spirit of their masters.

Never before, in Ireland, had so good an opportunity been presented me of becoming acquainted with the trade of a real sportsman, its merits and demerits, as now; and knowing that the occupation had been in the country quite a celebrated one, I hoped here to learn its real advantages.

Mr. Wilson was keeping the lodge for Mr. Vernon, of Clontorf Castle, near Dublin, to hunt and fowl as he best could. “I am dying,” he said, “with rheumatic pains, brought on by wading through the bogs in pursuit of the hare and wild fowl.” He had a noble company of dogs, terriers and pointers, and was surrounded with all the respectable insignia of a hunter of olden time. “It is a frivolous employment,” he observed, “and I have long been sick of gaming.” The room was hung round with all sorts of game which is taken by these gentry; and his little daughter of four years of age brought me a book containing pictures of hares, foxes, fowls and dogs, and quite scientifically   [p. 192]   explained the manner of taking them, the tact of the scenters, and the duty of the pointers, so that I was initiated into the first principles of this fashionable trade; she could read intelligibly, and when I committed an error in the pronunciation or understanding of the maneuvers of leaping ditches and following dogs, she set me right, wondering at my dullness, and sometimes rebuking it. This child had superior talents, and had the mother who cultivated them the spirit of Timothy’s mother and grandmother, she might and would be capable of much use in her age. Her father said she had a great taste for the tactics of hunting and fowling, and had acquired her knowledge of reading so young by the fondness of studying the pictures and spelling out the names of the games. Perverted knowledge! and when carried to the extent that some who call themselves ladies in Ireland have done, and practiced with that zest that many have manifested, it becomes a romantic mania, quite in keeping with the mountain squaw of the American forest, whose undaunted prowess and athletic exercises give her a manliness of look and manner which would not disgrace a Spartan.

An opportunity of improving upon the lessons my young teacher had given me, afterward offered itself in the person of a lady, whose talents at this pursuit had been cultivated to a high extent. She would on a cold morning jump upon her favorite hunting-horse, caparisoned in true hunter’s style, her ready attendants, hounds, pointers and terriers in advance or pursuit,   [p. 193]   and gallop at full speed, till some scenter should get upon the track; then hedge and ditch, valley and hill, were scarcely heeded. The sure-footed horse knew his duty, and no circuitous route was taken; if a hedge intervened, it was leaped or broken through; if bog or slough sunk him mid-deep, her cap and feather were soon seen tossing “high and dry” above all mire and danger, pursuing still faster as excitement grew warmer, till the lucky dogs gave signal that the object was secured; then the delight, the ecstasy, of seeing the palpitating victim in its agonies, in the power of her faithful pets; and thus the live-long day the sport continued. At night she returned, with the dogs, game, and companion of her chase, who was sometimes her father, who had delighted from her childhood to cultivate this fondness in his daughter; sometimes it might be a brother, and sometimes a generous party would compose the company. But the coming home, the sit-down for the recital of the pleasures of the day, if the victim were a hare, this was a valuable equivalent; the manner of its flight, its narrow escapes, its terror, was so delightful to witness, when the dogs were close upon it, and then the dying, all would be minutely described, the dogs would be gathered and caressed, each by his pet name. A good dinner around the family table was served to each, and two or three of the largest always slept in a bed with some members of the family. The most exquisite tenderness was manifested lest the dear creatures should suffer cold or hunger. Yet this tender-hearted Miss, who could not   [p. 194]   suffer an unkind word to fall upon the ear of her favorite pointer, would go into raptures of delight at the agonies of the timid hare. Her features seemed to have acquired a sharpness, her expression a wildness, her skin a brownness, and her whole appearance was like a true hunter, living and enjoying the constant pursuit.

There is a kind of enchantment, a witchery, hung round an open air exercise like this, which the more it is practiced the more it is loved, till all that tends to elevate the mind, and cultivate the best principles of the heart are effaced; and it is quite doubtful whether the subject of this false pursuit can ever become truly and substantially a valuable member of society.

But Croy Lodge must not be forgotten. In and around it, upon the exciting sea-shore, was much that would have given delight, had all been as plentiful about every hearth and table as was around the one at which I was sitting. The first Sabbath after my arrival, a written invitation from an officer of the coast-guard was sent us to attend church service across the strand in his watchhouse. An open boat conveyed the family and myself to the thatched station-house, where in tasteful array were arranged officers, and all the instruments for killing, hanging in glistening order upon the walls, while in the midst of this embryo battle-field the young curate from Belmullet read his prayers and sermon in a most becoming manner; and we returned in company with Mr. Hamilton, the coast-guard officer, who closed the evening by reading and prayer. A   [p. 195]   Sabbath of singular mixture — boating, prayers, and warlike paraphernalia, all in the same breath; by ministers, officers, and hunters, all believing and practicing these different professions. Religion is strangely stirred up in Ireland, it makes a kind of hodge-podge in everything, and is marked with little or no distinction in anything.

Monday, a visit to Doona across the strand, introduced me to some curiosities. The tide was ebbing, and for a quarter of a mile before reaching the castle we were to visit, we saw stumps of large trees, which centuries ago must have been a rich grove, though not a tree at present is anywhere on the coast, and the sea now occupies the entire lawn, where these once stood. The family residing near the castle are of respectable lineage, by the name of Daly, and in true Irish ancient style set before us meat, bread, and potatoes, the last the greatest compliment that could be paid to a guest. The castle, Maxwell says, was built by Granauile; but not so, its whole structure is so different, its walls so much thicker than any in the days of Grana’s reign, that its date must have been centuries before. Its history has an incident which will render it a lasting name.

Not a century ago, the christening of a farmer’s child was in progress one night in a house near by — the waiting-boy was sent to get a fresh supply of turf — he dropped his torch of bogwood among the dry heap, which was piled in the castle, which so heated the walls that they crackled and tumbled, and in their fall   [p. 196]   set fire to a multitude of casks of contraband spirits. The explosion so frightened the jolly inmates, that they fled in dreadful terror from the ruins, and they now stand as that night’s festival left them, giving the solitary advantage of showing the thickness of the walls, and the curious construction of a building, whose true origin has not been certainly defined. Once, it was a spot of proud grandeur; now a heap of desolation marks the whole for many a mile, where gardens and groves once were planted.

Wednesday morning, at five, I took a car for Bangor, met the mail-coach, and went through a cold, dreary country for twenty miles, to Crossmolina. A little cultivation and a few trees tell the traveler that the town is near. Six miles further we reached the hospitable house of Peter Kelly, mentioned in these pages — and surely no character is better deserved than is his for that excellent trait; and the kindness I received under his roof never can be forgotten. Such families should live in the records of history as pleasant mementoes for the grateful, and examples for the parsimonious, that if such can be taught, they may have the benefit of using hospitality without grudging. The cheerful sacrifices made in the house, that I might not only stay, but be made comfortable, were so in contrast with the pinching and squeezing which often is met in families of the “would-be-thought hospitable,” that surely it might be said, that he descended from a generous stock, as instinct not cultivation seemed entirely the spring of action in him.

  [p. 197]  

The remembrance of Ballina is “sweet and pleasant to the soul.” That “Codnach of gentle flood,” the sweet river Moyne, that flows quietly and richly through the green meadows there, must leave pleasant associations in the minds of all lovers of nature who have wandered upon its banks. Though it was in the dark days of the famine, in the dreary month of February, that I entered Ballina, yet everything looked as if men and women of good taste and good feeling dwelt there. It was here that the indefatigable Kincaid labored and died, in the year 1847. His simple tablet hangs in the church where he preached; but he needed no marble monument, for his name will be held in everlasting remembrance. “He was eyes to the blind, and the cause he knew not he sought out.” Free from sectarianism, he relieved all in his power, and spoke kindly to the bowed down; he wiped the tear from the eye of the widow and fatherless, and brought joy and gladness into the abodes of those who were “forgotten by their neighbors.” He had a co-worker in his labors of love, who died a little before the famine, in the person of Captain Short. He had been a naval officer; but by the grace of God had become a follower of the meek and lowly Jesus, and devoted his time, talents, and wealth, to the cause of God and his fellow-creatures. In their lives, these two, like Jonathan and David, were united; and in their deaths they were not long divided. Mr. Kincaid, who was but thirty-five, left a widow, and son and daughter. The widow is worthy to bear his name. She too, like him, is found   [p. 198]   among the poor, promoting their temporal and spiritual good in every possible way. In her are united much that makes woman appear in that dignified light, that tells for what she is intended, and what she might be, if kept from the trammels of a false education, and early brought into the covenant of grace.

I met the widow of Captain Short in the wilds of Erris, and her name and remembrance were pleasant to my heart. In her house in Ballina I passed happy hours. She entered feelingly into my object in visiting Ireland, and it is but just to say, that though not one pound was then at my command to give in charity, yet had thousands been in my possession to bestow, I could not have wished more kindness than was manifested to me then. Their courtesy seemed to be of the genuine kind flowing from the heart. The town has a population of ten thousand inhabitants, Episcopalians, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Roman Catholics; the latter claiming the majority. The ladies here were much interested for the poor; a society for spinning and knitting was in operation, and the eagerness of the women to procure work was affectingly manifested on the day of meeting, when crowds would be waiting in the hall, some falling upon their knees, begging for spinning to be given them, when the most that spinners could earn would be eightpence a week. Those who prepared the flax by hackeling could earn from eighteen-pence to two shillings a week. So far have manufactures cheapened this work, that the ladies who give it lose at that low price. The distress of Ballina was increasing,   [p. 199]   the poor-law system is impoverishing all the middle classes, who must become paupers, if not beggars, unless their taxes are reduced. No complaint was made in this place of the partiality or neglect of relieving officers, all seemed to bless the hand that fed them; and however rebellious the Connaught people may be, no indications were here given of insurrection.

The Baptist minister, who is a missionary, stationed there, with his praiseworthy wife and children, has been an instrument of doing much good. Without being a proselyter, he had gathered a church counting nearly a hundred, chiefly from the Romish population; his humble chapel stands open, the seats free; and passers-by often step in from curiosity, and stay from inclination, till their hearts become impressed with the truth, and they are finally led to unite in building up a church which they once supposed was heresy. The character of this missionary may be told in a few words which a lady in the Protestant church uttered, in answer to — “Who is the most active laborer in town among the poor?” “Mr. Hamilton does the most good with the least noise, of any man among us.”

A respectable banking-house is established in the town, at the head of which is an Englishman; his active wife is an Irish lady. They are friends to Ireland, and not blind to the causes of its evils.

It has been remarked, that most of the English who reside in Ireland become quite attached to both country and people, prejudices being blunted by nearer acquaintance. The six weeks of pleasant acquaintance   [p. 200]   there cultivated, must be exchanged for different scenes. This old seat of kings, with its raths, stones of memorial, green meadows, gentle flowing Moyne, and abbeys, but above all the people, courteous in manner, and kind in action, must be left forever.

The last day of February, 1848, will be remembered as one that took me reluctantly away from a town and people peculiarly endeared to my heart. I was not coldly hurried away to a coach alone, leaving the family in bed who had taken their farewell the evening before; Miss O’Dowda, Miss Fox, and two little daughters of Peter Kelly accompanied me, and as the high-mettled horse galloped and hurried us away, I looked a sad and tearful adieu. The sun was bright, the meadows on the banks of the Moyne were green, and the ride full of interest. The same sun was shining, the same river flowing — but where were the proud kings with their shields of gold and warlike bearing that once held their sway over this pretty landscape? Dead, dead some moss-covered stone in a crumbling castle or abbey tells their demise, and the children of the mountains heedlessly trample on the monument. The children, yes, the children of Ireland, cling to my heart beyond and over all else, and when fond remembrance turns to Ballina, the courteous, well-disciplined, affectionate children of Peter Kelly, sometimes make me regret that I ever had seen them, because I shall see them no more. The Irish, both in high life and low, are a pattern to all Christian nations in the early training of their children. No visitor has cause to dread the clamor,   [p. 201]   in a house, or the confusion and breaking up of all that is comfortable and quiet at table in an Irish family. They are not first at table — first and best served — monopolizing all attention to their own pampered palates — selecting the most palatable food, &c., but seldom are they present with guests, and if so, their demeanor in most cases is an honor to the governess and mother who has disciplined them. We soon found ourselves on the borders of the celebrated Ponton Lakes; but who shall describe them? “Why,” said one in Ballina, “among all the tourists who have visited Ireland, have none more particularly described these lakes, and the whole scenery?” For this plain reason, description must here fail. There is so much in such varied confusion and beauty, that nothing is particularly marked; the eye is lost in the view as a whole. Before the famine, I was whirled one cold day over the one-arched bridge by a surly coachman, who, in answer to my inquiries of the picturesque scenery, said, “That it was a divil of a starved rocky place, and he was glad when he saw the end on’t.” The lakes on this sunny day had the finest opportunity to set off their transparency; and for many miles they glistened, widening and narrowing, bordered by all manner of fantastic rocks and heath, till we reached the Ponton Bridge, which passes over a narrow neck, connecting the two lakes. These lakes are called Cullen and Coma. The current flows different ways in the course of the day, as Lough Cullen has no vent but to discharge its overflowing waters into the larger lake.   [p. 202]   Lord Lucan has built an hotel, police barracks, and a few cottages, under the wooded rocks which overlook Lough Cullen; but all seem quite deserted under Cummer mountain, having only a care-taker to tell its pedigree. The rocks are thrown together upon one side, in masses, as if ready to fall asunder; some lying at the foot of cliffs, as if precipitated from them, and one of immense weight is poised upon a summit, by a small point, which to the passer-by appears as if jostling ready to fall; and we were told that a skein of silk could be drawn between the two rocks. We took the road from the lower lake to the left, and followed the tortuous ravine till we reached a small one-arched bridge, opposite which is a most picturesque barren island, covered with heath, and a black rock, which contrast beautifully with the blue water of the lake; the wooded hillocks, bordering the lakes with varied foot-paths, give the visitor all the advantages of pleasant views from their elevation upon the bold expanse, and the rocky shore upon the other side.

In its moss-covered rocks, and richly wooded hills, Ponton resembles Glengariffe, but it wants the curling smoke between the rocks, and the tree-tops, ascending from turf cabins, and here and there a flaxen-headed urchin upon the top of the thatch to make the whole picture. We wound along, meeting now and then a sudden peep, through trees, on the path which leads three miles farther to the once tasteful domain of Mr. Anderson, which afterward I visited with Mrs. Bourke, and found the mansion desolate, the walks grown up   [p. 203]   with weeds; and all the ancient grandeur, which once was here displayed, reminds one of the old blasted fortunes of a hunter, who had exhausted his wine-casks, drunk the last health, and sounded the last horn over these broad lakes, and now tattered and slip-shod, was recounting his hunting valor in some shebeen house, where whisky, pipes, and song enliven the present, and put out all light of the past. The declining sun warned my friends that they must return; leaving me to walk, or sit upon a stone, while waiting for the coach that was to take me to Castlebar. I saw the last wave of the hands of the kind young ladies and flirting of the handkerchiefs of the little Kellys, as they whirled around the point which took me from their sight. It was not a mawkish sentimentality that made me feel like giving up the coming lonely hour’s to an indulgence of weeping. I was alone, in a land of strangers, amid famine, pestilence, and death, going I scarcely knew where, and could not expect to find another Ballina before me; and the last few weeks served to heighten the contrast of what had been suffered, and what must rationally be expected to await me. The coach came, and shut me in, and no more was seen till Castlebar was reached. Here was a town that had tasted deeply the cup of woe; she had a splendid poorhouse, and it lacked no inmates, yet the streets were filled with beggars. Many beautiful seats of respectable families are about the town, some in tolerable vigor, and some giving the last look upon former grandeur. Some interesting facts are recorded of this old assize town.   [p. 204]   Many trees have borne on their limbs the bodies of miserable culprits; and now the more genteel drop effects the same work in a different way.

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