Compassionate Stranger: Asenath Nicholson and the Great Irish Famine, by Maureen O’Rourke Murphy, Syracuse University Press, 440 pp, €39.95, ISBN: 978-0815610441
Most of us read books like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie for what they reveal about their authors. But they are also terrific “road books”, rich in their insights into mid-twentieth century America. The roughly contemporaneous Irish travelogues of Sean O’Faolain and Brendan Behan may pale by comparison, but what of Arthur Young in the 1770s or the young William Thackeray in the early 1840s? Christopher Woods’s Travellers’ Accounts as Source-materials for Irish Historians (2009) makes a strong case for such tours as “arguably the most important primary sources for Irish local history”. Historians have long recognised their importance; Constantia Maxwell, Peter Somerville-Large, and Diarmaid Ó Muirithe have based whole monographs on them and William Williams has recently constructed a metanarrative derived from a study of pre-Famine tours by Britons. Many of the better-known tours are readily available in print or second-hand; many more are now available online.
Woods has identified six or seven hundred travellers’ accounts, and his book provides a careful content analysis of over two hundred of them. A quick survey implies that most visits were relatively short and that they were confined to the summer months. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the heyday of such travel, the median stay was about forty days and the months from July to October were the most favoured. While the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (1835) and the German professional travel writer Johann Georg Kohl (1842) managed only about a month each in Ireland, Thackeray spent about five months. Some travellers tried to cover the whole island, but most tended to cling to the main roads and to rely on scheduled coach services, particularly those provided by Charles Bianconi. The roads less travelled before the Famine included those through Mayo, Clare, Roscommon, Sligo, Donegal, and Meath (if one excludes the few miles on the Dublin-Belfast road). A few remote locations, such as Derrynane (while the home of Daniel O’Connell) and Gweedore (after the publication of Facts from Gweedore in 1845), were sometimes deemed worth a detour.
Vermont-born Asenath Nicholson stayed longer than anyone else and travelled more widely than most. She deserves to be better known in the US for her support of progressive causes; in Ireland she is best remembered for her sympathetic depictions of the country and its people on the eve of and during the Great Famine, which she witnessed first-hand. She recorded her impressions in two substantial works, Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger (first published in 1847) and Annals of the Famine in Ireland (1850). Maureen Murphy, author of this splendid biography of a remarkable woman, produced new editions of Ireland’s Welcome in 2002 and Annals in 1998 for Lilliput Press. As Murphy notes, Nicholson might have been largely forgotten but for the publication of an abbreviated version of Ireland’s Welcome as The Bible in Ireland in the United States in 1926. The new title reflected its author’s religiosity but obscured her desire to acknowledge Irish hospitality.
Murphy, professor at New York’s Hofstra University, has been living with Asenath Nicholson since she was a graduate student, and it is mainly thanks to her that she is so familiar nowadays. In Compassionate Stranger she describes her subject’s early days in Vermont, her career as a schoolteacher and her activist links with campaigns in favour of temperance and vegetarianism, and against slavery and freemasonry. Her vegan boarding house on Manhattan’s William Street was a focal point for supporters of these causes. In the early 1840s she became focused on the plight of the immigrant Irish living in the nearby Five Points. What sparked her interest is unclear: issues of religion and drink, perhaps. But it led to her decision in May 1844 to travel to Ireland in order to see for herself and to spread word of the Bible there. Naturally, her decades of campaigning in the US influenced her Irish travels and her accounts of them.
Aged fifty-two when she first arrived and suffering from recurrent aches and pains, Nicholson set foot in every Irish county except Cavan between July 1844 and August 1845. Conspicuous in her loud green coat with polka dots and her bonnet, her footwear alternated between rubber boots and Indian moccasins. She also carried an enormous black bearskin hand-warmer containing tracts and bibles. No wonder people stared at her wherever she went. In Oughterard a local policeman mistook her for one of the Lady Clares (a local agrarian secret society); in Wexford the matron of the poorhouse asked her if she was seeking admission; two Kerrymen who heard her “making echoes for herself” in the mountains by singing hymns thought she was plain crazy; ; in Banagher she lodged in the same house as a group of Connacht spalpeens who were convinced that she was a man in disguise and that “she had come to do some great mischief in the country”. Outspoken and obsessive in her hostility to drink and meat, she could sometimes put her foot in it. Diarist and landlord’s wife Elizabeth Smith of Baltiboys, who met her socially in Dublin, thought her “not quite mad”.
Nicholson’s penchant for an alternative tourism that involved travelling on foot and lodging for a pittance in the cottages of the rural poor informed her views and impressions. The Freeman’s Journal criticised Ireland’s Welcome at the time for relying on evidence from “one class alone (the lowest)”. She found the plain people hospitable, generous, inquisitive, and peaceful; Frank O’Connor’s depiction of Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger as “a Protestant love song to a Catholic people” is apt. Asenath Nicholson may have been a “quare one” but her books are all the richer for that.
Brought up as a Congregationalist, she always wore her religious beliefs on her sleeve. No fan of “the Romish church”, she nevertheless quickly warmed to its adherents in Ireland. Her evangelical efforts were gentle, if sometimes gauche. The sterner proselytisers, then very active in Ireland, had no time for her, and Edward Nangle’s monthly Achill Herald suspected her of being “the emissary of some democratic and revolutionary society”. She never tried to win souls with soup, nor did she did keep count of converts; one can only assume that she made few ‑ or none.
Nicholson’s habit of travelling alone on foot in all weathers left her vulnerable to strangers, but that did not deter her. “I was,” she noted, “days and weeks in the wildest parts, much better attired than they were … Why, on some lone mountain, three and five miles from any cabin, did they not leave my bones to bleach there?” It’s a fair question. Near Roundstone a boy she met on the road pointed to where a local highwayman was buried, but Nicholson was assured that the district was safe since Father Mathew had brought temperance to the region. Be that as it may, her experiences are evidence that pre-Famine Ireland was a less violent place than it was painted.
The Famine made her warier of travelling alone, for two reasons. The first was the horror of encountering “living, walking ghosts” on the road or of stumbling upon the dead in the dark. But the second was that hunger was “driving the people to deeds which had long slept, or had which never before had been transacted”.
By the standards of her time, Nicholson’s views were progressive, democratic, and compassionate. And so she lamented that in Ireland “woman can never be woman if not born to an earthly inheritance”. But her feminism was strictly nineteenth-century: she looked forward to a time when Irishwomen progressed from being beasts of burden to moving “inside the cabin”. As a former schoolteacher, she was very interested in the quality of Irish schooling. Given her experience, her favourable impressions of both people’s eagerness for education and the quality of the schooling available to them are worth taking seriously. Note too her hostility towards the mission school in Ventry, where girls were taught only the very basics because they belonged to the lower orders, which contrasted with her praise for the girls’ school run by the Presentation sisters in nearby Dingle, where the policy was to “advance [pupils] as far as possible”.
Like many visitors to Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine, Nicholson inspected the brand-new workhouses built under the Irish poor law of 1838. On her first tour she approved of what she saw in the North Dublin Union and in Roscrea, but in Tullamore a lack of funds constrained the intake of inmates and in Bantry in early 1845 the workhouse had not yet opened for inmates because the farmers wouldn’t pay the poor rates. Her appraisal of the role of the workhouses during the Famine was very different: those in charge of them, she reckoned, would have “a sad account to render at the last”.
Charles Bianconi and his coaches are another standard feature of pre-Famine travellers’ accounts, and Nicholson’s is no exception. But her impressions were far from favourable, and she had a particular gripe against Bianconi’s drivers and agents, whom she found rude and eager to overcharge. Nicholson loved to sing, and to listen to music too. In Conamara she came across a sean nós singer “with tones and gestures that made every auditor feel to the bottom on his soul”; near Clifden she heard a piper on a wooden leg whose “proofs of dexterity put all to silence”; in the mountains of Kerry a shepherd boy struck up a song “so clear and shrill that I gladly exchanged my morning psalmody for morning notes like these”. On the busy flyboat to Kilkenny she encountered an elderly blind fiddler who played “a melancholy air of pure Irish”.
Nicholson also offers a useful corrective to the cliché that the pre-Famine Irish were bone lazy, a persistent theme in travel accounts from Edward Wakefield (1812) through Tocqueville (1835) to Thackeray (1843) ‑ and reminiscent of some stereotypes of less developed economies today. At the Killarney races Thackeray, no slouch but a bit less judgmental than the others, described “men, who are accustomed to lie about … doing so now with all their might … The sight of so much laziness did one good to look on.” But the Irish poor were not work-shy, according to Nicholson. Their problem was the lack of work; when work was available they were not found wanting, and she more than once recorded her pain at seeing women and children engaged in heavy physical labour.
Her second visit began in early December 1846 and lasted until the autumn of 1848. She started off in Dublin, doling out poor relief. With contacts in New York and Quaker friends in Dublin providing her with food to distribute, she developed her own system of making the most of the resources at her command. This involved a combination of walking the streets of the inner city distributing slices of bread from a large basket, and supplying cooked food daily to certain families in the Liberties. In July 1847 she travelled to Belfast and then to Donegal. From west Donegal she made her way to Mayo, where she spent much of the following twelve months. She went there not merely to observe but to help.
By the time she arrived in Mayo the public works and the soup kitchens had been abandoned and relief focused on the workhouse. Nicholson observed the operation of the poor law in 1847-48 at first hand and contrasted its harshness and corruption with the empathy and compassion of those engaged in voluntary relief.
Mayo’s landlords were in no position to offer adequate relief. Nicholson appreciated the efforts of those few who provided employment but lamented that “the few resident landlords are nothing and worse than nothing, … paupers in the full sense of the word”. Yet her fury directed at those responsible for the clearances she observed at first hand was biblical: on the day of reckoning “the blaze of these ruins [shall] scorch and scathe you; yea, burn you up, if you do not now make haste to repent”.
The Great Famine in the West affected Nicholson deeply. In Newport, where she first encountered “misery without a mask”, her immediate reaction was to want to escape, but she stayed on in Mayo, doing what little she could to help, for several months. In an emotional letter published in Howitt’s Journal, a short-lived London weekly run by a Quaker friend, she referred to how famine had transformed the poor:
Hunger and idleness have left them a prey to every immorality; and if they soon do not practice every vice attendant upon such a state of things, it will be because they have not the power … Human nature is coming forth in every deformity that she can put, while in the flesh; and should I stay in Ireland six month longer, I shall not be astonished at seeing any deeds of wickedness performed, even by those who one year ago might apparently have been as free from guilt as any among us.
As this passage implies, one of the most disturbing aspects of the famine is what it made ordinary people do to one another. Yet Nicholson’s faith in human nature somehow survived her stay in Mayo. Her Annals of the Famine remains more a paean to the decency of people she met than a chronicle of antisocial behaviour; if famine brings out the worst in people, it also brings out the best. As Murphy points out elsewhere, the leitmotif of Annals of the Famine is “the generosity of the poor to one another”.
In late 1848 Nicholson left Ireland for London, where Lights and Shades of Ireland was published in 1850. The first two sections of that work are dated and derivative, but the third, which contains Nicholson’s invaluable first-hand account of the Famine, was published separately as Annals of the Famine in New York in 1851 and, as mentioned earlier, republished in Ireland in 1998. Nicholson returned to New York in 1852. Widowed and unwell, she moved to Jersey City in 1854, presumably to be with friends, and died there of typhoid fever in May 1855. Some of her old abolitionist comrades accompanied her to her burial place in Brooklyn, where plans are afoot to mark her grave with a memorial stone. A multimedia musical inspired by her work, The Hunger, premiered in St Louis in December 2014. One hopes that Nicholson ‑ who loved music ‑ would have approved.
Cormac Ó Gráda is professor emeritus, School of Economics, University College Dublin. His latest book is Eating People is Wrong: Essays on the History and Future of Famine (Princeton, 2015).