During her first visit to Ireland while walking the road from Oranmore to Loughrea, Aesnath Nicholson, a lone witness to the growing desperation of the poor as successive years of the Great Famine took its frightening toll, stopped to rest her blistered feet. She leant against a wall and thought about the advice her friends had given her in America. They told her the trip was reckless and she would damage her health. Yet even at that moment she asked herself: Would she rather be back in her parlour in New York?
‘No,’ she thought. ‘I would not.’
She wrote later ‘Should I sleep the sleep of death, with my head pillowed against this wall, no matter. Let the passerby inscribe my epitaph upon this stone. It shall only be a memento that one in a foreign land lived and pitied Ireland, and did what she could to seek out its condition.’*
Born on a farm in Vermont, New England, in 1792, Aesnath Nicholson was reared in a puritan household. The name Aesnath is taken from the Book of Genesis. From an early age she became a school teacher, and practiced a simple lifestyle, with regular exercise and occasional fasting. She also believed in temperance, the Bible and vegetarianism. She founded a series of schools where the ability to read the Bible, and to write about one’s life and reflections were essential to her belief in personal salvation. She married Norman Nicholson, a widower with three children. They opened a boarding house on the edge of New York’s notorious Five Points, and, for the first time, Asenath came in contact with the ‘huddled masses’ of Irish emigrants. ‘It was in the garrets and cellars of New York that I first became acquainted with the Irish peasantry, and it was there I saw that they were a suffering people.’
The boarding house thrived, the marriage did not. But now Nicholson became more concerned about the mental and physical state of the Irish emigrants who were arriving in increasing numbers. She decided to go to Ireland to learn more about the reasons for this suffering. Her plan was to walk through the country, distribute Bibles to the poor, and read the Bible to those who could not read. She believed this would be a source of comfort.
A man-made disaster
Innocently, and alone, at the age of 52, she arrived in Ireland in May 1844. Dressed in a polka coat, bonnet and India rubber boots, and carrying an enormous black bearskin muff, from which she produced tracts from the Bible and Bibles themselves, she must have been an extraordinary sight. She boldly set forth, and for two years walked the length and breadth of the country.
From the beginning her mission was difficult. Catholic people regarded Bible readers as proselyters, while the Protestant missionaries rejected Nicholson’s democratic ideas.
But she quickly grasped the urgency of the growing disaster. She hits out at those in authority for failing to do more. Her targets include the British government, relief officials, and absentee landlords. She extends her criticisms to those who were seen to be helping, including clergymen (especially the well fed ones ), a ladies relief committee in Dublin, whom she believed to be self-serving, unlike the hard working ladies of Belfast. Even the Quakers were chastised for distributing corn in ‘expensive sacks’.
She set to bear witness to the suffering, visiting the poor and encouraging the relief workers. She not only recorded their names, but described some of the selfless people who died probably from famine fever caught while working among the poor. Rev Patrick Pounden, the rector of Westport, and his wife; and Rev Francis Kinkaid, the Church of Ireland curate of Ballina, who died on January 28 1847. She invited both Catholics and Protestants to contribute to a plaque to commemorate them on the church wall.
Nicholson did not see the visitation of the Great Famine as a punishment from God, as many government officials did; but judged it a ‘man-made disaster’. She denied the old lie that the Irish poor were lazy. They simply lacked work.
She gives an interesting description of a hedge school she visited in Oughterard, Co Galway. The schoolmaster, happy to show off the results of his teaching, quizzed the students individually in Latin. He got a young boy to conjugate a Latin verb, and bowed in a flamboyant way to his visitor as she left.**
Nicholson, however, was not impressed. She had seen the reality of the emigrant’s lot in the slums of New York. Ignorance and lack of English kept many idle and unemployed.
Closer to Galway she visited a national school. There she was particularly impressed by the standard of reading and grammar, and ‘the mastery of basic arithmetic’, a knowledge, she remarked, that was ‘ beyond the years of children in other countries.’
Confident that this standard could be found elsewhere in Ireland, Nicholson wished continued success to the national school system ‘for the more I see of them, the more do I expect that great good will be the result.’
Next week: Feeding children in the Great Famine.
NOTES: * Nicholson wrote two accounts of her visits to Ireland: Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger, an excursion through Ireland in 1844 and 1845 (originally published 1847 ), and Annals of the Famine in Ireland in 1847, 1848 and 1849 (1851 ), now reprinted by The Lilliput Press, edited by Maureen Murphy.
**Hedge schools declined with the introduction of the national school system in the 1830s.
(Sources for this week’s Diary include Asenath Nicholson and School children in Ireland, by Maureen Murphy, published in Women and the Great Hunger, Quinnipiac University, USA. On sale €25 ).