First hand witness of the Famine

Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Maureen O’Rourke Murphy: Compassionate Stranger: Asenath Nicholson and the Great Irish Famine, Syracuse University Press, New York, 2016

ISBN:  978-0-8156-1044-1

RRP: US$30 (also available as Etext)

Asenath Nicholson belonged to a rare breed: a religious person (denominally American Baptist but with an open-minded ecumenical sensibility), drawn to do good works in remote countries (but not what were traditionally ‘missions’ and not in Africa or China), who used her book learning (she was a very effective teacher in the US) to walk among (literally) and advocate for the poor, specifically in Ireland, before and during the Great Famine. What freed her to leave a relatively comfortable berth in Vermont and New York were the death of her (much older) husband in 1839, and the fact that her three step children were grown up.

In the US, Asenath had been active in Temperance, Grahamite Vegetarian, and most importantly, Abolitionist circles, interestingly all breeding grounds for liberalism and feminism among those who professed to be Christians. It’s easy to forget that early feminism had such conservative roots, but Asenath was no conservative.  The Abolitionists in the early 1840s became factionalised and at the point that women’s role in the movement was questioned, that she first set out for Ireland.

Another of her crusades involved resistance to Masonry. A high-minded polemicist, she engaged in attacks on Masonry in the press.   Her objections, which appeared often in the National Observer (Albany), made her the dread of the Masons, and she complained bitterly of their duplicity (running with hares and hounds in elections), their secrecy, and the commercial imperatives that she saw as driving them. Because of this crusade, she was forced out of Elizabethtown, a move (to New York) that was to liberate her for a life of service to the poor.

How did a Protestant woman got involved with the Irish? As well as teaching, and moving in Reformist circles, she, and initially her husband,  ran a  (temperance/vegetarian/caffeine-free) boarding house and school in I6th Avenue in the Ninth Ward, New York,  that employed Irish girls from Urlingford, Co Kilkenny, and  moreover, she visited impoverished  Irish households in her neighbourhood, seeking to relieve poverty, and to proselytise in a low-key way. She was a lone worker rather than one who aligned herself with Christian organisations, and that was to become her preferred modus operandi in Ireland too. She admired the writings of Margaret Fuller, and was primed both by such reading and by her own experience to appreciate the generosity of the Irish poor, a phenomenon she was to experience often during her wanderings in Ireland. It seems she felt she had a calling to assist the Irish poor and to bring the Bible to them.

Asenath landed at Dun Laoghaire (then Kingstown) on 15 June 1844, a critical moment in Irish History, before the first failure of the potato crop. She was an inveterate collector of experiences and writer about them, for the US press, mainly the New York Tribune but also for the press in Derry, Sligo, and London. Her eyewitness testimony, and her ability to write graphic accounts of both pre-Famine poverty and how the Famine greatly exacerbated it, had major impact in the US and their willingness to support famine victims. She published two books: Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger (1847) and Lights and Shades of Ireland (1850), just five years before her death in 1855. Although she was often propelled in her journeying by tourism manuals about Ireland, and for instance, climbed difficult mountainous terrain for the views (she lost her way on Croagh Patrick, on her own and without any maps, in a fog, and nearly perished), her own writing seems to have been motivated by a desire to present the Irish on a world stage as having been let down by a colonial system and endangered by reliance on a single crop, and worthy of support.  She strongly defended the Irish against charges of laziness. One wonders to what extent she was countering early  forms of derogation of the Irish, even before Social Darwinism and Malthusian currents were running.

The two maps Maureen Murphy provides of her journeying give a good sense of her stamina. Sometimes on foot, or on very uncomfortable Bianconi coaches (which she later renounced because of their extortionate cost and lack of care for her goods), she travelled throughout what was to become the 26 counties – from coast to coast. Her fondness for route marches gave her immediate access to impoverished tenants and to graphic detail for her writing, which would become important in shaping and moulding her familiarity with both the spirit of individuals she met and her respect for them. Her most heroic journey was epic in its proportions – from Roscrea to Galway (70 miles) and a much longer journey from Galway via Oranmore and Loughrea, in mud and rain, to Urlingford in Kilkenny. Google maps calculates this as 84 miles and would take close to 30 hours of continuous walking, but that does not allow for inclement weather, or for the all-important stops that served to familiarise herself with out-of-the-way people living very humble lives which she was more than prepared to share.  She had precious little money, down to her last pence by the end (but she nonetheless paid her way), and indeed the letter and money – her reason for the journey –  had not left her starting point, Urlingford. The journey was heroic by any standards.

She had a keen eye for the operation of class in Ireland, and much preferred staying (and paying generously for) accommodation and meals in peasant cottages to consorting with middle class and higher class people, including fellow Protestants. Her first visit in Dublin was to the workhouse, and subsequently, in her wanderings around the entire island, she sought out mountainy folk, jails, workhouses and poor schools. As a school ma’am herself, she was critical of unambitious education programmes (based on assumptions about class and limits to development) and paid homage to those who did not limit the horizons of their pupils, and was mightily impressed by some young scholars’ mastery of Latin and Greek. She was unfailingly impressed by the dignity and courtesy of people, and the willingness to share scanty resources. Her gift to them was to sing hymns and to tell Bible stories, and she reports in her first book a response from a Connaughtman to whom the story of the loaves and fishes spoke strongly: ‘By dad, and why didn’t we never hear the likes of that from the praist?’  Murphy comments that she always waited to be asked, and that her choices of text were unfailingly ecumenical. She liked to flatter her peasant hosts (and no doubt believed it) by telling them that they were living the Gospel by welcoming strangers such as herself. She was often bailed out of difficult circumstances  by individuals who recognised her and remembered her kindness and consideration of them.

Although  repelled by what she considered superstitious practices (like visiting holy wells), she was open to admiring the evidence, often in ruins, of early Catholic churches and the glory of the remote pre-colonial past. Her temperance views enabled the forging of strong links with Father Mathew, and she was drawn to the monks at Mount Melleray.

Her work for the Abolitionists made clear to her that the Irish poor were not unlike slaves in America, except that they had control of their bodies. Her analysis of pre-Famine conditions was astute: it focussed on the evils of unemployment and under-employment, and she was scandalised by the sight of people starving in a land of plenty, and by women spending long hours  in mid-winter in the sea harvesting kelp. The misery of the poor would get much worse during the Famine, of course.  Although she strove to keep herself at a distance from politics in order to pursue good works more freely, she was an ardent supporter of Repeal of the Union, and sympathetic to the Young Irelander’s unsuccessful rising in Ballingarry in 1848.

When the Famine really took hold, she became active in soup kitchens and other practical support methods, and more significantly, wrote plangent letters and articles describing what it was to be in the midst of starvation for the press in the USA. She attracted thereby much funding and distributed it as a sole practitioner, cutting red tape, by for instance refusing the government requirement that imported Indian meal be transferred from barrels to sacks at a cost  of half a crown per sack. She was firmly of the view that the meal kept longer and better in barrels and was less subject to damage, and she took the trouble to teach locals how to prepare it to minimise its sometimes lethal effects on soft Irish stomachs. All the time she was engaged in such good works, she lived like an ascetic herself, utterly modestly. But the Famine was to test her especially in the winter of 1847-8 in Mayo, when she was attached for a time to the household of one of the more charitable landlords, Samuel Bourne of Rossport, whose practices saved not only his own tenants but neighbouring families as well. She served at the heart of nineteenth-century relief workers.

This is careful history, but more than that a fascinating book for those with an interest in the Great Famine. I strongly recommend it.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.