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

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It requires the Irish language to provide suitable words for a suitable description of the spirit which is manifested in some parts to proselyte, by bribery, the   [p. 301]   obstinate Romans to the church which has been her instrument of oppression for centuries. The English language is too meager to delineate it in the true light. Rice, Indian meal, and black bread would, if they had tongues, tell sad and ludicrous tales. The artless children too, who had not become adepts in deceit, would and did sometimes by chance tell the story, in short and pithy style. It was a practice by some of the zealous of this class, to open a school or schools, and invite those children who were in deep want to attend, and instruction, clothes, and food should be given, on the simple terms of reading the scriptures and attending the church. The church catechism must be rehearsed as a substitute for the Romish, and though in substance a passage or two looked as if the hoof of the so-called “beast,” might have been over it and left a modest track, yet by its adherents it was thought to be the pure coin. The children flocked by scores and even hundreds: they were dying with hunger, and by going to these places they could “keep the life in ’em,” and that was what they most needed; they could go on the principle, “if thou hast faith, have it to thyself before God,” and when the hunger was appeased, and the “blessed potato should come, they could say mass at home again.” When such children were interrogated, the answer would be, “We are going back to our own chapel or our own religion, when the stirabout times are over;” or when the “bread’s done,” or the “potatoes come again.” “But you are saying these prayers and learning this catechism.” “We shan’t say   [p. 302]   the prayers when we go back — we’ll say our own then,” &c. Now the more experienced father or mother would not have said this to a stranger, and such might have passed for a true convert, while receiving the “stirabout.” The priests were very quiet while this kind of bantering was in progress; they knew its beginning, and by this “concordance” could well trace the end; they held these favored ones of their flock by a cord while the stomach was filling, as the traveler does his steed that he is watering, and turns it away when its thirst is assuaged, caring little at what fountain he drinks, if the water be wholesome. “We had as lief they would be in that school as any,” said a priest, “while they are so young; we can counteract all the bad or wrong impressions their lessons may have had on their minds.”

The priests of Ireland have had their wits well sharpened by the constant check held over them by penal laws, and a government church, and they have not been guilty of great proselyting, finding as much work as would keep them upon the alert, continually to keep their own hold, and the flock safe already in possession. The Episcopalians and Dissenters, on the other hand, knowing that they were the minority, and, that the power they held was not precisely “just and equal,” feared that some new king or minister, or some sudden government squall, might blow down their uncertain bamboo fabric, had to double their cries of priestcraft and popery, persecutions and murders, to keep their citadels of self-defense well secured, with   [p. 303]   the stirring watchword of “popery” ever stimulating the soldiery to ready action, in case of insurrection. Thus, as they first preached Christ through bullets, bombshells, and fire, so they still hold him up as the “God of battles,” to all who would not receive him through the breath of their mouths.

The soldiery stationed in Ireland are a living proof of this principle, and especially so, as this army is required to show its warlike power in defense of the missionaries stationed there, being called out to display their banners when any new converts are to be added to the Protestant ranks from the Romish church. An instance of this was related by a coast-guard officer, stationed in the town of Dingle. Some five or six years ago, a half-dozen or more of the Romans had concluded to unite with the Protestant mission establishment there, and the Sabbath that the union was to take place in the church, the soldiery were called out to march under arms, to protect this little band from the fearful persecutions that awaited them on their way thither. The coast-guard officer was summoned to be in readiness cap à pie for battle, if battle should be necessary; he remonstrated — he was a Methodist by profession, and though his occupation was something warlike, yet he did not see any need of carnal weapons in building up a spiritual church; but he was under government pay, and must do government work. He accordingly obeyed, and, to use his own words substantially, “We marched in battle array, with gun and bayonet, over a handful of peasantry — a spectacle to   [p. 304]   angels, of our trust in a crucified Christ, and the ridicule and gratification of priests and their flocks, who had discernment sufficient to see that with all the boasted pretensions of a purer faith and better object of worship, both were not enough to shield our heads against a handful of turf which might have been thrown by some ragged urchin, with the shout of “turncoat” or “souper,” as this was the bribe which the Romanist said was used to turn the poor to the church; and though this was before the potato famine, yet the virtues of soup were well known then in cases of hungry stomachs, and the Dingle Mission had one in boiling order for all who came to their prayers.” The coast-guard continues, “We went safely to the church, and the next Mission paper, to my surprise and mortification, told a pitying world that so great were the persecutions in Dingle, that the believing converts could not go to the house of God to profess their faith in Him, without calling out the soldiery to protect them.”

This circumstance is quite in keeping with much of what is called persecution there; and though it cannot and should not be denied, but that in some cases, there has been great opposition and much severity manifested by papists, toward those who have left their church, yet a spirit of retaliation will never deaden the life of that persecuting spirit, nor bring any to see the benefit of a religion which bears the same impress which is stamped on theirs. These two contending powers have had so much to do to keep, one his own foot-hold, and the other his flock, that little time has been left for preaching   [p. 305]   Christ, or carrying out his gospel; and I pray to be forgiven, if wrong, in saying, that in no place whatever, where Christianity is preached, have the sad effects of a nominal one been more fatal. The letter without the spirit has shown emphatically what it can do. It can make men proud, covetous, vainly puffed-up, and it can make them oppressive too; it can make them feel, and it can make them act as did the Puritan, in the early settlement of the New England colonies. “The earth,” he said, “was the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof, and what is the Lord’s belongs to the saints also, therefore they (Puritans) had a right to drive out the savages and take their lands;” accordingly they did. The same spirit is literally carried out there in the tithe gathering; these “saints” have a claim on what belongs to God, and consequently the law covenant belonging to the Jewish priest, under Moses, is handed over to them, and whatever barbarian, Scythian, Jebusite or Perizzite dwells in the land, must to them pay tribute. The magistrates who collect this tribute sometimes do it in the face of spades and pitchforks, and stockings full of stones, which the brave women hurl; but having the “inner man” well strengthened, by both law and government gospel, they generally escape with the booty. These ludicrous and shameful scenes have measurably abated since the tithes are gathered in a form not quite so tangible, by merging them in or behind the landlord’s tax, who puts this ministerial “tenth” into an advanced rent on the tenant; but “murder will out,” and the blow is   [p. 306]   felt as severely, and by many traced as clearly, as when the hand was more tangible. In the summer of 1848, in the city of Cork, one man belonging to the Society of Friends had a good set of chairs taken, which the owner affirmed was but a repetition of the same proceedings, the Church collectors having a peculiar fancy for his chairs; they had taken many sets in yearly succession. Now while all this is in progress in that country, talk not so loudly of popish heresy being the root of all the evil there. First, make the gospel tree, which was planted eighteen hundred years ago, on the Mount of Olives, bear a little fruit, pluck a few fresh boughs from its neglected branches, and kindly present them to these popish seared consciences, and see and mark well the result. If the book called the Bible had been kept entirely out of sight, and its principles been fully exemplified in deed as well as in word, there can scarcely be a doubt, but the prejudice which now exists against it would never have been known; and had the priests thundered their anathemas either from the confession box or the altar, louder and longer against reading or believing it, many of them would have defied all bulls of excommunication, as well as all purgatorial burnings, and have made their acquaintance with its pages. When any of these extortions are practiced, the ready response is, “This comes from the blessed book they’re tachin’ and prachin’.” It is the substance that is wanting, not the shadow. If popery have concealed Christ behind the Virgin, with her long retinue of sainted fathers and maids of honor, in the   [p. 307]   persons of St. Bridgets, whose microscopic eyes can see him any clearer through mitred bishops and surpliced gownsmen, fattened on the gatherings of the harvests of the poor, and scanty savings of the widow and fatherless. If the incense from a Roman censer obscure the clear light of the Sun of Righteousness, think not to blow it away by the breath of alcohol, their smoke will only mingle together, and make the cloud still thicker. Some paste more adhesive than “stirabout” and some stimulus more abiding than “soup,” will be required to keep the scrutinizing Paddy rooted and grounded in a new faith, whose fresh lessons are only, “Be patient, love, while I beat you, in true genteel and ‘royal style.’” The Celt can quickly discern clean hands; and though his own may be filthy, yet he will content himself with the “holy water” of his own church to cleanse them, while he sees his neighbor’s of the Protestant faith a little too smutty.

While speaking thus of proselytism, and the errors of the church, the soup-shops should not be cast into entire contempt; for though they may, and undoubtedly have been, used for bribery there, yet they have been used for better purposes, and by the Protestant church too. The missionary stations in Dingle and Achill, so far as they adhered to their professed object in the beginning, which was partly to provide a retreat from persecution, and give labor as far as it was practicable to those who wished to renounce popery, did well. But have they acted entirely in accordance with these principles? Let the fruits be the judges. That   [p. 308]   there are real God-fearing Christians in those churches must be believed, but this is not the question. Were most of them made so by going there, or had they not been taught of the Holy Spirit before entering them? The heaven-taught Christian in Ireland in many places is driven to great straits to find a fold where the flock are fed with the true bread, prepared by those who have really come out of the world, and they necessarily unite with any, where they can find a home. The Roman Catholic who turns to God with full purpose of heart, and has been really born of the Spirit, is indeed a spiritual Christian; he drinks deeply at the Fountain-head, and often exceeds those who had been in the path with the Scriptures in their hands for years. One Presbyterian clergyman observed, “we must take large strides to keep up with them.”

I am not expecting, neither asking one pound of money, one good dinner, nor one blessing, for these unsavory statements, but they are the common sense observation of four years’ practical experience among that strangely situated people, who have been the gazing-stock of the world for so many ages; and though the remark of a Roman Catholic barrister, in the county of Mayo, to his priest, was somewhat severe, yet it might be well for the clergy of all denominations to look at it, and inquire whether they have not given cause for the people to feel, that the benefits which have flowed from their ministrations are not on the whole a poor equivalent for the money which has been   [p. 309]   paid to them, and for the honor which has been bestowed upon their reverences.

This barrister observed that his occupation had led him to an acquaintance with the doings of the clergy of every denomination in Ireland; and he had settled on the firm belief, that if every one of all classes, Priests, Protestants, and Dissenters, were put into a ship and driven out to sea, and the ship scuttled, it would be better for Ireland than it then was. “Leave every man,” he added, “to take care of his own soul, without being led hither and thither, by men who worked either for money or party, or for both, and they would be in a better condition than they were at present.” The confounded priest uttered not one syllable in reply. It is somewhat amusing to a listener, who belongs to no one of them, to be present on any annual celebration of these clergymen, and hear the reformations going on under their management.

The Established Church astonishes you with confirmations and the increase of communicants, and if the speaker be a missionary, why a few thousand pounds would bring half of popish Ireland into his net — could he build more cottages and dig more drains, mountain and bog for many a mile would be blossoming like the rose, and crooked things be made straight among the benighted Catholics, and Ireland in the Lord’s time be a habitation for the righteous to dwell in. The number of converts from popery astonishes the credulous hearers, and the self — denials and persecutions of the missionaries are second to none but Peter’s or Paul’s.

  [p. 310]  

Next come the Presbyterians. They are a numerous, well-disciplined band, understanding precisely the tactics of their creed, and give you to understand that they are the true light that might lighten every man that cometh into Ireland. They have lengthened their cords and strengthened their stakes; and while many yet desire the “leeks and garlics” growing in a government hot-house, yet some have nobly testified against making a hodge-podge church of Christ and Mammon. They are not idlers, and their Sabbath-schools train their children in the true faith of Presbyterianism, as faithfully as does the Romish priest in his. They, like the Established Church, feel that the mammoth incubus that is weighing the godly of Ireland down, is the Romish Church, and though they acknowledge that a state church is not precisely the best thing, yet that is not the mountain, but yet would gladly have it removed, if by rooting up these tares the wheat should not be rooted up also; for if government should let go its hold, and say, “Stand on your own foundation, or stand not at all,” they might be shaken in the fearful crash. The regium donum still lingers there, and if tithes should slip, why not draw after them this “royal gift?” Many are good preachers and eloquent platform speakers; some have advanced into the free air of anti-slavery principles, and an isolated one, here and there, may not approve of the practice of war; but few comparatively have abandoned the use of the good creature, in moderation, and doubtless they are fated to see more and suffer more, and dig deeper into   [p. 311]   their own hearts before they will believe, but that “wisdom will die with them.”

The Methodists have a standing in numbers among the ranks of Bible-Christians, and their zeal has provoked many. They pray on, and they sing on, through thick and through thin; they tell you that Methodism is the only salvo, and can never praise God enough that they stepped into her ranks. John Wesley echoes and re-echoes with loud amens, wherever there is a chapel to eulogize his name. They too abhor the “beast,” and have blunted, if not plucked, some of his horns; but not being quite so orthodox in the eyes of their more Calvinistic brethren, they go more on their “own hook,” working in their own way, than the two first named. Though it is to be feared they are drinking in and conforming more to the world than formerly, yet they keep well in their own ranks, and let the world rock to and fro, their motto is onward; they are not so prone to seek shelter from a storm in time of trouble; and to run over to the enemy till the danger is over, as some who are more in search of popularity, more timid and less self-denying. They are so undoubting in the truth of what they profess, that they spend less time in securing props to keep up their fabric; and consequently, they have more space for preaching Christ. Those Catholics who are not afraid of entering into any chapel but their own, are fond of listening to the enthusiastic manner of preaching which they find there, and are often seen standing about the doors of a chapel, with great reverence; occasionally some   [p. 312]   are drawn in by the gospel, and remain faithful to Christ.

The Independents are a worthy class, and have unostentatiously made a good impression on the minds of the humbler portion of the inhabitants. Their Bible readers have in general been men of untiring faithfulness, and by kindness have gained access to the hearts of the peasantry, who listen to the reading of the Scriptures, without that opposition which must follow where a harsh course and abuse to the priests are manifested. One of their readers remarked, that for more than twenty years he had visited the cabins, read the Scriptures, and held up Christ to them as the sinner’s friend, and in no one case had he been rejected. Some of them speak and read Irish, which always gains access to the heart. The Independents in respect to government aid, reject all regium donums, and they stand on a firmer rock than an earthly royal treasure. They have funds gratuitously supplied by their own church, and their missionaries and Bible readers are mostly supported by them. Their pastors are men in general of plain common-sense, knowing how to adapt themselves and their preaching to the masses; and had they more of a proselyting spirit, would certainly make more noise, more money, and add more stony-ground hearers to their number.

The Baptists, humble in number as they are, should not be left out; they make their way slowly and softly, and show much patience in laboring in the destitute parts. Their flocks are increasing, and like the station   [p. 313]   at Ballina, many of their number are from the Romish church. These, when they put on Christ by a new baptism, as they call immersion, the burial with him into his death, arise and walk in newness of life, and in general remain steadfast in their profession. It is a fact, which should be more noticed among all these denominations, that where Christ is the most faithfully preached, error falls silenced, without that struggle of argument to maintain its hold, as when some object of contempt is held up to ridicule, or to shun; all the enemy’s forces are then rallied to the rescue, and often the conqueror in argument is the force most weakened in the best part.

The Plymouth brethren, or Bible-Christians as they may call themselves, have a numerous body in Dublin, and worship Christ in a manner distinct from either which have been named. Acknowledging no head but Christ, they have no ministers to support, and like the Apostles’ churches, have all things in common so far as this — as when one member suffers, all suffer with it; and accordingly none are left in want. They were very active in the famine, working efficiently, feeding and clothing many; and the Sabbath-school in which Christ and only Christ was taught, was numerously attended by the poor, who were fed and clothed, not as a bribe, but as an act of Christian charity, due to the poor. “Come, and we will tell you of Christ,” was the invitation, and not come and join us, and we will feed you.

The Unitarians in Ireland are not numerous, but generally wealthy, intelligent, and benevolent. They   [p. 314]   did much in the famine to ameliorate the state of suffering, and to their honor they were many of them teetotalers. Their doctrine to the Catholic is more incomprehensible than any of the “heresies” which they meet; for beside rejecting the Mother, they say they reject the Son likewise, and have neither Intercessor nor Savior; and if they were disposed to proselyte, the Catholic chapels would not be the “shops” in which to set up their “stirabout boilers.” The Roman Catholics are peculiarly distinct in one noble practice, from all other professed Christians we meet. They will not in the least gape after, nor succumb to any man’s religion, because he is great and honorable, though they will crouch and call him “yer honor” in matters of this world; but where their religious faith is concerned, they call no man master. The Unitarians, therefore, collect into their ranks such as, being whole, need no physician, and the lamentation or confession seldom goes up of being “miserable sinners” and going “astray like lost sheep.” They are certainly a people in their influence over others, especially the lower classes, less to be dreaded than those who “hold the truth in unrighteousness.” The heresy of needing no atonement by an infinite God, is more shunned than sought after, by all such as have been led to believe that man is in a lost state; for, if he is lost, and finds himself so, he seeks to be found; but if no one is in the way sufficient to lead him, how is he bettered by the inquiry? On the other side, those who hold the truth in unrighteousness, in other words, who bear no fruit,   [p. 315]   have not the power of it, and when the letter only is understood, he who professes Christ and knows him not in a fellowship of his sufferings, and a resurrection of life, is a more dangerous lure to the inquirer; for, in the first case, if there is no Savior all powerful, there is nothing to embrace; but if there is one in word and not in deed, he is more to be dreaded than none at all, a false God is worse than none.

There is a society of Moravians, and it would be superfluous to say anything of them, they are so well known for their simplicity, sobriety, retirement, and good order, that they walk more unseen than any denomination whatever. They never say, “Come and see my zeal for the Lord.” The Roman Catholics look upon them somewhat as they do upon the Society of Friends — a second “blessed people,” wondering what the religion must be.

The Society of Friends in Ireland, stand out as they do in other places, distinct. They meddle but little in the politics of the world around them; whatever government they may be under, they sit quietly and let the world rock on. A Yearly Meeting of that denomination is more interesting in Ireland than elsewhere, on one account, because they are entirely free from vain boasting and whining tales of persecution, or the great growth of their denomination, the downfall of error before their preaching, &c. You have solemn silence, or you have something uttered unvarnished with rhetorical flourishes or borrowed extracts from House of Commons or House of Lords. Their extracts are borrowed from   [p. 316]   the Holy Scriptures, their prayers are addressed to the Majesty of Heaven, and not to men, they speak as if in his presence, and sit as if in his presence, and if you are not particularly edified, you are solemnized, your heart if not melted is softened, and you go away feeling, that for an hour or more you have been shut from a noisy, empty, gabbling world, from a party church which has not stimulated you to kill any priest, or pull down any chapel or convent. You feel to inquire, am I right? Is all well within? Have I the Spirit of Christ? if not, I am none of his. I have never heard that any Roman Catholic has ever turned to that Society in Ireland; but if they had proselyting agents in the field they would have their share, or if they had even that outward show in their meeting-houses, which takes away all reserve from the stranger, and gives him to feel that the place is for all, many would be induced to go in, that now stay away.

When stopping in Cork, great surprise was expressed, even by some dissenters, that I should take such liberties as to go to a place of worship where none were wished to attend but their own; and the Catholics supposed that none could be allowed to enter, but such as have on the ‘particular dress.’ The caution of these people in the time of famine, to avoid the appearance of proselyting, was carried to an extent almost unparalleled. It was said that a ministering Friend from England, who had been in the habit of attending or holding a meeting in the west part of Ireland when he visited them, declined doing so, in the year 1847, when in the   [p. 317]   same place, lest it should be construed as a desire to make converts by the liberality which his Society were showing.

The Catholics in Ireland are the Catholics everywhere in some respects; in others they may have some shades of difference. Having always been placed under restrictions, they could not always appear free; and yet when these restrictions have been removed they have not taken undue advantage, as their enemies supposed they would. The removal of the penal laws did not make them insolent, but thankful that they again had the prospect of being ranked among the human family as human beings. That cord of fear by which they have been so long held is loosening, and they take liberties, that at times cause the priest to say that they are quite beyond his control, and he is often put down at the altar — that most sacred place, when he lays restrictions which are not congenial. Their superstitions too are fast vanishing; fairies and banshees have not the hold on the imagination as in former days; the holy wells, and bushes covered with rags and strings which had been dipped in the waters, to wash the believing diseased one, are now disappearing. This practice is not confined to the Catholics, either in Ireland or England, being practiced in the latter place to some extent now; but there is still a most fearful practice in the west part of Ireland, which a priest related in my hearing, and comforted our horror by saying, that he had caned the man most faithfully that morning, and it would never be repeated. The   [p. 318]   practice has been in use for ages, and is called the “Test of the Skull.” It is this, — when a person is suspected of crime he is placed kneeling, and made to swear over the Bible that he is innocent, and then laying his hand on the skull, he invokes heaven that the sins of the person that owned that skull in life, with those of the seventh generations before and after him, might be visited on his head if he were guilty, and if this swearing was false, the skull was to haunt him incessantly day and night, to the end of his life. This horrid practice is so loudly spoken against, that it is performed with the greatest secrecy when it is done. It has extorted many a confession that nothing else would do, and is found a very useful experiment in incorrigible cases. The skull used is always the skull of the father, if the father be dead, which makes it mere terrific, to the suspected one.

Superstitions of these kinds are prevalent more upon the sea-coasts and in the mountains, where the inhabitants are secluded from much intercourse; and sitting in their dark cabins, or climbing the crags upon the lofty mountains or cliffs hanging over the sea, they hear the constant roar of old ocean, or the hollow groaning of the wind, as it winds through the defiles and caves; and having no intelligent intercourse and no books, they conjure up all that imagination is capable of doing, and when it is conjured up and brought a few times before the mind, it is reality which is difficult to efface. Their fairy superstitions are not frightful, and go to show a very poetic turn, of which the mind of the Celt is quite   [p. 319]   capable. Fairies are always pretty, “light on the fut,” and light on the wing, are pleasant and playful, particularly fond of children and babies, and often exchange them when the mother is gone or asleep, and many times she never knows the difference; frequently she has been heard to complain that a sicklier child has been put in her child’s place, and sometimes blue eyes have been exchanged for gray. They never like to displease one of these gentry, lest she should be disposed to kill or injure the child. I found these ideas still lingering among the mountains, where some of them would not be willing to leave off red petticoats, because they kept the fairies from doing any little mischief which otherwise they might do. The “Angel’s Whisper,” too, has a foundation in real truth. It has long been supposed that a sleeping infant hears some pleasant thing whispered in its ear by the ministering angel that is always hovering near; and it is noticeable that the superstitions of the peasantry are more poetical than frightful, and they generally turn all supernatural appearances to a favorable account. But the famine changed their poetical romance into such fearful realities that no time was left to bestow on imagination.

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