An eloquent eyewitness

Second Reading

INSIGHTFUL A portrait of Asenath Nicholson, by Anna Maria Howitt.

A Protestant evangelical American’s compassionate accounts of the Irish Famine era

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

Trudging through the highways and byways of Ireland in 1844-45, Asenath Nicholson cut a dash. A middle-aged American woman, dressed in a polka-dot coat, rubber boots, velvet cap and a bearskin muff, she sang hymns as she walked, read from the Bible and distributed religious tracts. She was surprised that people stared at her.
Asenath Nicholson was a teacher, reformer, opponent of slavery and a social worker. Her account of her travels, ‘Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger’, is a informative and insightful study of the country on the cusp of the Great Famine. Frank O’Connor described her books as a ‘Protestant love song to a Catholic people’, while Seán O’Faoláin called her ‘the most intelligent of all observers’.
She was a native of Vermont in the US and belonged to a devout Protestant evangelical family. From childhood she inherited an empathy for Irish people. Her father told the family that ‘the Irish are a suffering people and when they come to your doors never send them empty away’.
She trained as a teacher and won a reputation for excellence. By 1831 she had moved to New York, where she and her husband ran boarding houses. They were committed to temperance and vegetarianism. Indeed, she is credited with writing the first vegan cook book.
In New York she got to know Irish emigrants. She wrote later that it was ‘in the garrets and collars of New York that I first became acquainted with the Irish peasantry, and it was there that I saw that they were a suffering people’.
Her sympathy for Irish emigrants deepened into a desire to visit their country. After the death of her husband she was free to fulfil her wish.
In May 1844, she left for a 15-month trip to the Emerald Isle. Her purpose was to bring the Bible to the Irish poor. Though a sincere Protestant evangelical she was not a proselytiser who disparaged Catholicism. She believed in tolerance and practised charity.
She welcomed co-operation between Catholic and Protestant clergy and approved of the ministry of Catholic religious among the poor. She greatly admired the work of the Catholic priest, Fr Theobald Mathew, who was known as the ‘Apostle of Temperance’. Extreme evangelists like the Rev Edward Nangle of the Achill mission distrusted her ecumenical spirit.
Her book is an impressive ethnology of Irish country life before the Famine. With a telling eye for detail she describes people, social movements, calendar customs and the everyday life of the cottier class, a class obliterated by the Famine.
She was incensed by their working conditions. She discerned that they were perched on the abyss between abject poverty and destitution. Seeing Kerry women gathering seaweed, standing chest deep in freezing water, she wrote: “Woman here is worse than the beast of burden because she is often made do what the beast never does.”
There are memorable stories in the book, such as the dance held in her honour at Urlingford Lough in Co Kilkenny, her climb of Croagh Patrick, her duet across the Kerry mountains with a herdboy, and the gathering around bonfires to celebrate Daniel O’Connell’s release from prison after he had been incarcerated because of his leadership of the repeal movement. Nicholson admired O’Connell because of his opposition to slavery.
Among the customs she describes is one that relates to Shrovetide. The Catholic Church then prohibited marriages during Lent. So Shrove Tuesday was the last day the ceremony could take place before Easter. The custom arose in Cork and Kerry of mocking bachelors and spinsters by putting them on the ‘Skellig List’ as a kind of last-chance saloon for marriage. The rationale behind the satirical setup was that Skellig hermitage, a relic of Celtic Christianity, used to celebrate Lent and Easter a week later than the Roman rite.
She wrote: “From the top of the mountain here may be seen the celebrated lighthouse, on what is called the Skellig rock, a dangerous place to approach and where the adventurer must sometimes pass a week before he finds it safe to leave. This is the place to which the people of Kerry and Cork, on Shrove-tide eve, amuse themselves by punting out the old maids and widows, putting them on cars and asses and all kinds of ludicrous vehicles, to send them to Skellig rock. The street of Cork with alive with the class of people, pursuing such as they deemed worthy a residence there, and often is the joke carried so far that some are conveyed miles out of town and set down, and left to make their way back as they can.”
Asenath returned to Ireland in late 1846 to assist in famine relief. Her second Irish book, ‘Annals of the Famine in Ireland in 1847, in 1848 and 1849’, is a compelling account of these dark days. It contains much information on her famine relief work in Mayo. Both books have been republished in recent years, edited by Maureen Murphy, who has also written Nicholson’s biography, ‘Compassionate Stranger’. All three books are a major contribution to the study of Irish women in the 19th century.