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

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I soon left for Cork. A visit to the house of Mr. Murry, who, in union with his fellow-laborer, Jordan, had established a church of the Independent order, under the auspices of the Irish Evangelical Society.

Their labors are blessed; the Roman Catholics appear to feel that in that little organization good is doing, and often when mention was made of it the answer would be, “they are a blessed people.” Many expressed a desire that they might build a chapel, and some few had actually contributed a little for that purpose. These men had preached Christ and treated the people kindly, and they met with no serious opposition. They had been impartial in their distributions   [p. 235]   through the famine, and had never attempted to proselyte either by a pound of Indian meal, or “ten ounces” of black bread.

A rainy morning took me from Castlebar, and in a few hours I reached Tume, and first visited the workhouse. Eighteen hundred were here doing the same thing — nothing; but one improvement, which is worth naming, distinguished this house. All the cast-off bedclothes and ticking were converted into garments for the poor, and given them when they left the house. Their rags which they wore in, were all flung aside, and they went decently out. Next I visited the convent, and here found half a dozen nuns hiding from the world, and yet completely overwhelmed with it. They had a company of four hundred children, most of them who were starving in the beginning of famine, and have instructed and fed them daily. This was the first school I had visited during the famine, where the children retained that ruddiness of look and buoyancy of manner, so prevalent in the Irish peasantry. “We have tested,” said a nun, “the strength of the Indian meal. These children, through last winter, were fed but once a day on stirabout and treacle, and had as much as they would take; they were from among the most feeble, but soon became strong and active as you now see.” They assembled for dinner, and as had been their custom, they clasped their hands and silently stood, while one repeated these words: “We thank thee, O God, for giving us benefactors, and pray that they may be blessed with long life and a happy death.”   [p. 236]   “The good Quakers,” said a nun, “have kept them alive; and the clothes you see on them are sent through that channel, all but the caps, which we provide.” These children were taken from filth and poverty, never knowing the use of the needle, or value of a stocking, and now could produce the finest specimens of knitting, both ornamental and useful. And looking upon these happy faces one might feel that Ireland is not wholly lost. My next visit was in the workhouse at the old town of Galway. The distress here had been dreadful, and most of them seemed waiting in silent despair for the last finishing stroke of their misery. One cleanly-clad fisherman of whom I made inquiries, invited me to visit the fishermen’s cottages, which before the famine were kept tidy, and had the “comfortable bit” at all times; “now, the fisheries are lost, we are too poor to keep up the tackle, and are all starving.” I followed him to a row of neat cottages, where the discouraged housekeepers appeared as if they had swept their cottage floors, put on the last piece of turf and had actually sat down to die. “Here we are,” said one, (as she rose from her stool to salute us,) “sitting in these naked walls, without a mouthful of bread, and don’t know what the good God will do for us.” This fisherman then showed me into the monks’ school-rooms, who were teaching and feeding a number of boys, and showed me some new fishing nets which the kind Quakers had sent, and he hoped, if they did not all die, that the “net might sairve ’em.”

  [p. 237]  

The workhouse here was on the best plan of any I had seen; the master and matron had been indefatigable in placing everything in its true position, and appeared to feel that their station was a responsible one, and that the poor were a sacred trust, belonging still to the order of human beings. The food was abundant and good, and the parents and children allowed to see and converse together oftener than in other like establishments; and now, in March, 1850, the same report is current, that good order and comfort abound there, beyond any other. Everlasting peace rest on the heads of those who do not make merchandise of the poor for gain.

From Galway, Limerick was the next stopping-place, and the poorhouse in that place was so crowded, the morning so rainy, and the keepers so busy in gathering the inmates to the “stirabout,” that but little that was satisfactory could be obtained.

Cork was reached in the evening, with the loss of a trunk by the inattention of the coachman, but in a few days it was restored by the honesty of a passenger. As the comfort of the traveling public depends so much on coachmen, and as passengers beside have a heavy fare to pay, it would be unjust to the public, as an individual, not to give a second testimony to the celebrated Bianconi’s cars and carmen. I should have been happy to have found that my complaints in the first volume respecting this establishment were not realized as habits, but merely accidental, and that further acquaintance might insure greater esteem; but a   [p. 238]   second trial told me that thus far severity had not exaggerated. I paid my passage at Limerick for Cork, went to Fermoy without any serious difficulty; here vehicles and horses were changed, my trunk placed beyond my care, new passengers seated till the car was quite overcharged, when the carman said with insolence, as he saw me waiting for a seat, “Get on and stand up, or else stop till to-morrow, I’ll not wait for ye.” “My passage is paid to Cork, my trunk is beyond my reach, or I would wait,” was the answer. “Get on quick and stand there, or you’re left.” I ascended the seat, and holding by the luggage, rode ten miles standing in much peril, while the carman occasionally looked around, and made some waggish joke, much to the amusement of decently-clad gentlemen, not one of whom offered me a seat. The reader may justly inquire — Is this the Irish politeness, of which so much has been said in these pages? It is not instinctive Irish politeness — this is always pure and always abundant; but it is the habit put on and cultivated, by such as having no claim to family or rank, have, mushroom-like, started suddenly from a manure-heap into a little higher business, and having no education that has in the least disciplined the mind, they at once assume the airs of imperious landlords, and keepers of “whisky-shops,” as the best means of establishing their advanced standing.

The county of Cork is the largest county in Ireland, and once had four walled towns:— Cork, Youghal, Kinsale, and Bandon. It has an extensive sea-coast,   [p. 239]   and ten good harbors. It is everywhere well watered, and was once supplied with all kinds of game and cattle, wool, and woolen and linen yarn. It, like all Ireland, has been sifted and shaken, divided among septs and kings, and is now resting under the gracious shadow of the Queen Victoria. The population numbered in the year 1841 about 107,682. The beautiful River Lee, where vessels from the Cove of Cork enter, flows through the city, giving from the hill top and side to the neat trellised cottages that hang there a cheerful aspect of life and commerce which few towns can claim. A sail from Cove Harbor up the Lee, to the city, cannot be surpassed in beauty, on a pleasant evening. The Venetian boatman might here find material enough to add a new stanza to his Gondolier song; and if angels retain any wish for the sin-scathed scenery of earth, they might strike here their golden harps, and sing anew the sweet song

“Peace on earth, and good will to men.”

The whole distance is so variedly enchanting that the overcharged eye, as it drops its lingering curtain upon one fairy spot, pauses, in doubt whether its next opening can greet beauties like the last. Cove, now a town containing a population of about 7000, is built upon the sloping side of a hill, in Terraces; and at the foot of the hill is a line of houses called the Beach and Crescent.

This beautiful town, now named Queenstown, in honor of the landing of Victoria, in the summer of   [p. 240]   1849, when Her Majesty placed her foot for the first time on that green isle, and honored that spot with its first impression, was, half a century ago, but a miserable fishing hamlet, the remains of which are most hideously and squalidly looking out, on the north side, called “Old Cove.” However squalid the old houses may look, there are more redeeming qualities here than any town in Ireland. It is snugly sheltered from winds by the hill; and this hill is so continually washed with fresh showers from the buckets of heaven, that it needs no police regulations to keep the declivity in a condition for the most delicate foot and olfactory nerves to walk without difficulty or offense. Then the broad old river spreading out beneath its foot, presenting a harbor of six miles in length and three in breadth, dotted with four islands, Spike, Hawlbouline, Rocky, and Coney, with two rivers, Ballinacurra and Awnbree, beside many pretty streamlets emptying into it. The harbor is backed by hills of the greenest and richest, and ornamented with five Martello towers, so called from a tower in the Bay of Martello, in the island of Corsica. As nearly all the present names of places in Ireland had an Irish root, and this root has a signification, a knowledge of these, places the history in many cases in a clear and useful light. The village and glen of Monkston stretched along, with the church and old castle, with spire and towers overlooking the whole, first meet the view; then a mile further, Passage, a village extending nearly a mile, with a quay and bathing houses, and taken as a whole is interesting, as a   [p. 241]   busy thoroughfare. Blackrock Castle soon catches the eye, and its situation and happy construction can hardly be improved by imagination. It looks out upon Lake Mahon and the picturesque islands which dot it; and further on upon the right is Mount Patrick, where stands the tower dedicated to Theobald Mathew; and before reaching Cork, embosomed in trees, is the seat of Mr. Penrose, called Woodhill, and possesses the undying honor of the spot where the daughter of Curran was married to Captain Henry Sturgeon. It is long since Moore sung in sweet strains the never-to-be-forgotten melody of

“She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps,
And lovers are round her sighing;
But coldly she turns from their gaze and weeps.
For her heart in his grave is lying.
“O! make her a grave where the sunbeams rest,
When they promise a glorious morrow,
They’ll shine o’er her sleep like a smile from the West,
From her own lov’d island of sorrow.”

Cork stands on a marshy spot; its name in Irish is Corcaig, signifying a moor or marsh, and the city owes its origin to St. Fin Bar, who first founded a cathedral, in the seventh century, near the south branch of the Lee, and from this beginning Corcaig-more, or the great Cork, arose; and though this city has passed through changes and great sufferings, yet it has for a long time maintained a respectable, if not high standing, for intelligence. Schools are numerous, and some of them of a high order, and the laboring classes are mostly well educated in a plain way. The Roman   [p. 242]   Catholics give nine thousand children gratuitous instruction in the various schools, and the Protestants have done much, their schools being liberally endowed, and probably it would not be exaggeration to say, that in no city in the kingdom of like population would more people among the poorer classes be found who could read, than in Cork. The convents, too, have done nobly in this respect, educating a multitude of children of the poor without any compensation. J. Windell has justly said, that “the great majority of the working class are all literate, and generally acquainted with the elements of knowledge; the middle classes, in intelligence, and in the acquisition of solid as well as graceful information, are entitled to a very distinguished place.” The Royal Cork Institution has a library of from five to six thousand volumes, the Cork Library has nine thousand volumes, and the Cork Mechanics’ Institute has a small one, beside private libraries of considerable note. It may be doubtful whether it can be said that, as in the one in Belfast, there are in it no works of fiction. The summer of 1848 found the city rallying a little from the fearful effects of the famine; for in a county so large, embracing so much sea-coast, marshy ground, &c., there must be found many poor in the best times in Ireland. The Friends’ Society, connected with the Dublin Central Committee, acted with untiring efliciency; and Theobald Mathew labored for months in giving out American donations which were intrusted to him. The nuns, too, had children to a great amount, whom they daily   [p. 243]   fed. The British Association, likewise, were there, but death fearfully went on. Let the walls of that workhouse tell the story of the hundreds carried out upon “sliding coffins,” and buried in pits. Let the cemetery of Theobald Mathew show its ten thousand, which he buried there in huge graves, opening a yawning gulf, and throwing in lime, then adding coffinless bodies daily, till the pit was filled; then opening another, till ten thousand were numbered! The rain had washed the loose dirt away in some spots, and parts of the bodies were exposed in a few places. A painful sight!

The Cork Committee acted most efficiently, and the name of Abraham Beale has left there a sweet and lasting remembrance. Beside the city of Cork, the rural districts were in the greatest distress, and this benevolent, indefatigable laborer turned his energies unceasingly to those districts, faithfully discharging his duty, till his health failed; and his biographer states, that “His last act of public duty was the attendance of the Relief Committee, in which he had so assiduously labored.” Typhus fever took him in a few days to the “mansion” which, doubtless, was prepared for him; for though he said, “I have been but an unprofitable servant,” yet the living testify that his profiting appeared unto all. He died in August, 1847, while the scourge was still raging; and in 1848 his name was fresh on the lips of many in that city, who, with his two bereaved sisters, say, they have lost in him a friend and a father. “The memory of the just is truly blessed.”

  [p. 244]  

Though in the summer of 1848 many were suffering, yet the workhouse was not filled with the dying as before, and the “sliding coffin” never met my eye. The indefatigable nuns still were overwhelmed with children, many of whom were placed there by Father Mathew, and in one contiguous to his chapel were about thirteen hundred, who were fed when food could be obtained. One of the most affecting items of the famine, if item it may be called, is the multitude of orphans left in that afflicted country, and the saying was becoming quite a common one, when a hungry child was asked where he lived, or where his father and mother were, to answer, “They died sir (or ma’am), in the stirabout times.” This alluded to the year 1847 particularly, when the “stirabout” was most in vogue. The “black bread times” now have an imperishable name in the west of Ireland, and “Soyer’s soup” will not die in the memory of the wags of Dublin, till wars, pestilence, and famine shall cease to the ends of the earth.

The environs of Cork had not lost any of their charms by the scourge, and Blarney seemed to have put on new beauties; her old castle and Blarney stone, now supported with two iron grasps, are still looking forth from the shrubbery and trees, which wildly surround it, for the good taste of the owner keeps the pruning knife confined to his enchanting gardens and walks, and allows nature here to frolic according to her own vagaries. The sycamore, oak, arbutus, elm, ash, holly, copper-beech, and ivy, were mingling and commingling,   [p. 245]   without any aristocratic airs of family descent or caste.

A stranger here would wonder what famine could have to do in these pleasant grounds; and while rambling among its moss-covered stones, wild flowers, and creeping ivy, its shady seats, alcoves, and grottos, we felt that an Italian gardener could scarcely make a spot more enchanting, even though an Italian sky should mingle its blandness.

The company, too, in such places, has much to do in heightening or diminishing the pleasure, and even beauty of such scenes. Mine was a happy lot this day. The young Beales, who were the party, with a London acquaintance, had a natural and cultivated relish for treats like these, and while we were taking our pic-nic in that grove of delights, gladly would I have forgotten the sorrows of the past and avoided a dread of the future, but could not; for notwithstanding Blarney pleasure grounds, we were in woe-stricken Ireland still, and we knew that desponding hearts and hungry stomachs were not far distant. A cheerful walk home led us through Blarney Lane, in the suburbs of Cork, where the neatness of the cottages, with a flower-pot in many a window, had an interest beyond what had been presented in any suburb of Ireland’s large towns, since the famine. We took welcome liberties to look occasionally into one, and found all invariably tidy, and what was still more creditable, the women were busy at work. This said that Cork had still a living germ within her, that might and would be resuscitated; for   [p. 246]   if woman’s hands are well employed, however unnoticed her little inventions and doings may be, they at last work out, and bring forth untold comforts, which are more valuable because diffused insensibly where most needed.

“The little foxes spoil the vines,” and little things are the foundation of all great ones, and had Ireland, as well as the whole world beside, looked better to this, better effects would have been produced. Cork may boast as many efficient men, and active useful women, probably, as any town in Ireland. It has a Father Mathew and a William Martin, to urge by precept and example the importance and benefits of sobriety and industry; it has a Society of Friends, whose religion and discipline encourage no drones, and its intelligence has broken down that caste which so much exists in many parts of the country, and rendered the people of all classes more accessible than in any other city in Ireland. Fifteen weeks’ stopping there heightened my admiration of the true hospitality and capabilities of the inhabitants; and those flowery hill-sides and rose-covered gateways and windows that hung over the Lee, will be held ever in the sweetest remembrance. “The little room,” where one week of the pleasantest was spent, deserves an acknowledgment which I am not able to give. May that cottage and its inmates long be united as happily and sweetly as their industry and beauty so richly merit.

A short excursion to Castlemartyr, fifteen miles from Cork, took me through a richly cultivated country,   [p. 247]   where fields of wheat, barley, and oats are ripening for the harvest; but five fields of blasted potatoes that we passed, said that they had not yet recovered courage and strength to look out again upon the world, as in days gone by.

The feelings of the people are so sensitive, that they are not willing to speak of the subject when the fields begin to droop, and when mention is made of the appearance of a new failure, everything favorable is brought to bear on the subject; and often one member of a family has been known to keep all knowledge from the others, that might have reached him. Castlemartyr was once a parliamentary borough; the castle has long been famous for battles and plunders, and King William’s forces, after the Battle of the Boyne, charged a body of three hundred Irish, who fled to the castle, were driven out, the fortress surrendered, with the loss of sixty men, and sixteen prisoners taken. The Irish, in 1671, got possession of the town, but were driven out, and the castle since has laid in ivy-covered ruins, being used as a wine-cellar by Lord Shannon. It is surrounded with the loftiest trees, and a lawn of emerald green runs down to a lake upon one side of it. A thousand acres of the most richly cultivated land belong to this domain; a canal, three lakes, an extensive deer park, walks and rides, a flower garden of rare beauty, and kitchen garden of great size. Near the castle stands his lordship’s house, containing a center and two wings.

The apparatus for hunting is a great curiosity.   [p. 248]   Forty-two pleasure-horses for this sport were stabled here in apartments much better than the dwellings of the laboring class, and the richly tipped harness, with their bright stirrups and saddles, were still hanging, as mementoes of former greatness, and ready for use, should the absentee find it for his benefit to return to his pleasure grounds. The famine and other embarrassments have compelled him to suspend his hunting pleasures at present; his hounds were dismissed, his horses sold, and his carriages remain in silent waiting.

The town had suffered like all others, in the famine, and the rich widow where I stopped told sad tales of what had passed; but so engrossed was she with the loss of her husband, that she could find little space for the woes of others in her heart. She took me upon a desolate sea-coast some ten miles distant and there was misery ever fresh and ever young. The strange leap from a domain in Ireland to a hut or village of the poor, is nowhere so vivid in any county as here. I was glad to leave this spot and return to Cork; but a few short excursions more must finish all. A flower-show was a treat which always brings out all that is beautiful to the eye, so far as fashion is concerned. Here lords and ladies are found, and though they would not like a vulgar stare, yet they would not disapprove of a little admiration given to style and beauty. The show was a splendid one, and gave great credit to the skill of gardeners, who are certainly not inferior in taste in Ireland to any in the kingdom. The   [p. 249]   ladies too, were the ladies of Ireland — “fair to look upon.”

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