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Asenath Nicholson and the Great Famine

Par Maureen Murphy : Professeur - Hofstra University
Publié par Clifford Armion le 02/03/2015

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Parts of this article were presented at the Agrégation/Research conference at the University of Caen, 23rd January, 2015. An earlier version appeared in Maryann Gialanella Valiulis and Mary O’Dowd (eds), ((Women and Irish history: essays in honour of Margaret MacCurtain)) (Dublin, 1997), pp. 109-124.
Had you been travelling in Ireland in 1844-1845, you might well have seen – or heard about – an extraordinary American woman who was walking through the countryside singing hymns, reading the Bible and distributing religious tracts drawn from the depths of her large, black, bearskin muff. She wore Indian rubber boots, a polka coat, a bonnet and – when they weren’t missing – silver-rimmed spectacles. A number of doctors offered to remove the large wart on her face. She recorded, with some indignation, that people stared at her. She was Asenath Hatch Nicholson: teacher, reformer, abolitionist, writer and traveller and she had come to Ireland to investigate the condition of the Irish poor. Her account of her travels, Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger (1847), is one of the most valuable records we have of Ireland on the eve of the Famine. She left Ireland in the fall of 1845, just before the first sighting of the potato blight was reported. She returned in 1846, determined to do what she could do to relieve the suffering.

The story of this remarkable woman begins in Chelsea, a village in the White River valley of eastern Vermont, where she was born on February 24, 1792, to pioneering settlers Michael (c. 1747-1803) and Martha (c. 1748-1837) Hatch [1]. Her name was prophetic. It appears in the Book of Genesis as the name of the daughter of the Egyptian high priest of On who was given by the pharaoh as a wife to Joseph. She shared Joseph’s life while he managed the food supply so that the Egyptians did not starve when the Famine came. Asenath Hatch would face a Famine in her own time and devise her own plan to manage her resources to provide relief to the Irish poor.

Vermont was a center of social reform in her youth. As early as 1789, the Republic of Vermont forbade the sale of slaves. In 1828, the Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison became editor of the Journal of the Times in Bennington. Closer to home, her parents provided examples of charity and tolerance. Nicholson’s mother Martha Hatch “remembered the poor, and entertained strangers; hated oppression, scorned a mean act and dealt justly by all.” Her father Michael Hatch “hung no Quakers, nor put any men in a corner of the church because they had a colored skin” [2]. Her father also had a special feeling for the Irish. “Remember, my children,” he told his family, “that the Irish are a suffering people and when they come to your doors never send them empty away” [3].

Trained as a teacher, Asenath Hatch taught first in Chelsea, perhaps in her own District #2 schoolhouse, where she was remembered “as a famous teacher” by Thomas Hale in his address celebrating Chelsea’s centennial in 1884 [4]. Like many of her generation, Asenath Hatch left rural Vermont for the city; in 1831, she turns up in the New York Directory listed as the schoolteacher wife of merchant Norman Nicholson.Both Nicholsons followed the regime of Sylvester Graham, the New England temperance reformer turned diet crusader whom Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the poet of bran and pumpkins.” Graham warned against the enormous dinners fashionable at the time with their courses of meats, fried foods and hot breads and instead advocated strict vegetarianism. While diet was his obsession, he also concerned himself with other matters of health: sanitary food preparation, regular bathing, exercise in the fresh air, sensible dress and sexual hygiene [5].

Grahamite boarding houses opened to house and feed the faithful. The movement reached its climax in the late 1830s, a decade when the Nicholsons’ Grahamite boarding houses operated at 79 Cedar Street (1833-1834) and at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway (1834). Between 1835 and 1841, Asenath Nicholson was listed as the proprietor of boarding houses at 118 Williams Street and at 21 Beekman Street. While the New York Directory does not identify the Nicholsons’ establishments as Graham boarding houses per se, they were certainly run along Grahamite principles [6].

Nicholson’s first book, Nature’s Own Book (1835), outlined the Spartan regime of her household. She believed, for example, that Adam and Eve had a physical as well as a spiritual fall from grace in the Garden of Eden and that vegetarianism was the means of physical atonement [7]. Her book warned against the evils of tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tea – which she believed caused the delirium tremens – and hot chocolate.

Nicholson’s boarding houses were situated near the old Five Points, a section considered the worst slum in the city. Located on the site of the present New York City Court House, the Five Points was an area rife with crime, disease, gang warfare and vice. Poor Irish immigrants began settling in the Five Points in the 1830s; by the time the Civil War began, Famine immigrants were the overwhelming majority of residents of the eighty-six acres that made up the Sixth Ward.

While running her boarding houses, Nicholson joined the reformers who tried to work among the poor of the Five Points. In the late 1830s the Central and Spring Street Presbyterians sent missionaries into the district, and in 1840, the Congregationalists founded the Broadway Tabernacle on Broadway near Worth Street; however, the Irish regarded Protestant missionaries as proselytizers and their institutional efforts were unsuccessful [8].

Nicholson, however, chose to work alone as she later would in Ireland. Recalling those years, she said: “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” [9]. Her work with those Irish informed her sense of mission. When the circumstances of her life changed – she was listed as a widow in the 1842 New York City Directory – she left aboard the Brooklyn in May, 1844, for a fifteen-month trip to Ireland. It was a courageous adventure for an arthritic widow of fifty-two.

James Mahony, “Skibbereen”, Illustrated London News, Feb. 20, 1847

Nicholson spent six months “investigating” conditions in rural Ireland before she began her self-appointed mission to bring the Bible to the Irish poor [10]. She filled two bags with Bibles supplied by the Hibernian Bible Society, attached the bags to a stout cord twisted under her polka coat and set off in her Indian rubber boots to distribute Bibles to those who could read and to read herself to those who could not. Her mission was not as straightforward as it appeared. In fact, she moved in a kind of vacuum between the Irish poor – predominantly Catholic – and the Protestant Anglo-Irish gentry and the Protestant missionaries who were actively proselytizing in the countryside. Her position was not enviable: the Catholics were suspicious of any Bible-reading strangers while the missionaries suspected her broad tolerance and her democratic ideas.

She was shown the door at the Ventry Mission in Dingle and, while not mentioned by name, she was the subject of a hostile account in Rev. Nangle’s anti-Catholic paper, The Achill Missionary Herald and Western Witness. A Monthly Journal Exhibiting the Principles and Progress of Christ’s Kingdom of the Anti-Christ commonly called the Papacy; together with a Practical Exposure of the Civil, Social and Political Delinquencies Practiced by the Pope’s Emissaries in Attempting to Establish his Wicked Usurpation throughout the World Generally and Especially in this Kingdom:

During the last month this settlement was visited by a female who is travelling through the country. (We traced her from Dingle to this place.) She lodges with the peasantry and alleges that her object is to become acquainted with the Irish character; she states that she has come from America for this purpose. She produced a paper purporting to be addressed by a correspondent in America to a respectable person in Birmingham; but in answer to a communication addressed by the writer to that individual, he stated that he has no acquaintance with her either personally or by letter. This stranger is evidently a person of some talent and education; and although the singular course which she pursues is utterly at variance with the modesty and retiredness to which the Bible gives prominent place in its delineation of a virtuous female, she professes to have no ordinary regard for that Holy Book. It appears to us that the principal object of this woman’s mission is to create a spirit of discontent among the lower orders, and to dispose them to regard their superiors as so many unfeeling oppressors. There is nothing in her conduct or conversation to justify the supposition of insanity and we strongly suspect she is emissary of some democratic and revolutionary society [11].

Nicholson’s curiosity and outspokenness were probably a trial to people she met; however, one can be certain that her only revolutionary idea was her egalitarianism. For Nicholson, it was tolerance and charity that counted, and she records with approval the evangelists working among the poor without regard to their willingness to convert, the instances of cooperation between Catholic and Protestant clergy, and the work of Catholic religious among the poor.

Reaction to Nicholson was – above all – curiosity. She often complained of people staring at her, but she was an unusual sight. They wondered why she had travelled so far and usually attributed her presence among them to one of two traditional notions: to the saint’s visit or to the penitential pilgrim. “It was difficult,” she said, “to make them believe I was not some holy St Brigid going on penance” [12].

Both ideas, favorite themes in medieval literature, were part of the folklore of the Irish countryside. The saint’s visit, a parable of hospitality, is a popular religious legend while the pilgrimage to holy sites like Croagh Patrick and to Lough Derg continues down to our own times. (Nicholson did, herself, climb Croagh Patrick. Scrambling down the Reek, she was convinced that her difficult descent was a judgment on her frivolous trip to the top to view the scenery.)

Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger, Nicholson’s account of her 1844-1845 travels, is valuable to the social historian, for it offers a panorama of Irish country life on the eve of the Famine: people, social movements, calendar customs and the ordinary life of the cottier class, the class that was scattered by the Famine diaspora. There are unforgettable vignettes: a description of a dance held in her honor near Urlingford, her duet across a Kerry mountain with a herd boy, a gathering around bonfires to celebrate Daniel O’Connell’s release from prison, but there is always the leitmotif of unemployment.

Nicholson believed that Ireland needed work more than Repeal. As the fires blazed, a country woman said to her: “It’s many a long day that we have been looking for that same to do somethin’ for us, but not a hap’orth of good has come to a cratur of us yet. We’re aiting the pratee today, and not a divil of us has got off the rag since he begun his discoorse” [13].

When she went into a cabin in County Cork and saw two old women and their daughters spinning and carding, she remarked: “This was an unusual sight for seldom had I seen, in Ireland, a whole family employed among the peasantry. Ages of poverty have taken everything out of their hearts preparing and eating the potato – and sit listlessly upon a stool, lie upon the straw, or saunter upon the street, because no one hires them” [14].

Even when there was employment, Nicholson was concerned with the working conditions – particularly those involving women and children. Watching Kerry women gather seaweed standing chest-deep in freezing water, she raged, “Woman here is worse than a beast of burden because she is often made to do what the beast never does” [15].

Nicholson was among the first to bring the conditions of women’s work to readers’ attention; later in the century, engravings and photographs would document her observations. Margaret MacCurtain’s essay “The Real Molly Macree” contrasts the reality of women’s work lives that Nicholson described with the colleen iconography of Victorian Ireland, an imagery that at once sentimentalized and exploited women [16].

Nicholson’s concern for the Irish was informed by her genuine charity and her efforts to help those among whom she travelled. When she returned to Ireland, it was not as a Bible reader, but as a relief worker. She was unique in that she was the only woman who travelled to the afflicted areas of the west and who left us an account of her work among the poor. Hers is the lone voice that speaks to women’s work and lives. Many of her views about famine relief programs, employment and proselytism have been validated by the work of later historians and social workers.

She opens her Famine account in Dublin on December 7, 1846, with the promise of help for the poor from friends in America and from England. As she described the character of the Irish poor in Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger, she described their suffering in Annals of the Famine (1851). Her return to Ireland was informed by her sense that she was on a Divinely-appointed mission. She paraphrased Luke 22:42, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me, never the less, not my will but Yours be done.”

Her previous experience in Ireland gave her a unique understanding of the poor as they coped with the catastrophe of the Famine. Again, she brought her single-mindedness and her sense of mission that involved bearing witness to the suffering and explaining not only how the Irish suffered but why they suffered. She challenged absentee landlords and the land system, the government and the Churches’ stewardship of resources entrusted to them for those starving; she rebuked them for their attitudes toward the poor. No hurler on the ditch, her own personal Famine relief effort was marked equally by practical and sensible practices and by a spirit of Christian charity.

In Kingstown, she went to work immediately dispensing food from the house where she lodged [17]. Her first image of the famine was one of special horror: the story of a woman cooking a half-starved dog with potatoes she had gleaned from a harvested field [18]. She despaired that she could do so little: “I would not say that I actually murmured but the question did arise, ‘Why was I brought to see a famine and be the humble instrument of saving some few alive, and then see these few die, because I had no more to give them?’”[19]

Providentially, a parcel arrived from New York with money for her work and the promise of more help. The letter was not only a means of providing practical relief, it was a sign: “I adored that watchful Hand that had so strangely led and upheld me in Ireland and now, above all and over all, when my heart was sinking in the deepest despondency, when no way of escape appeared, this heavenly boon was sent!”[20]

Nicholson moved into Dublin in the new year. On January 23, 1847, the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends established a soup kitchen in Charles Street, Upper Ormonde Quay [21]. Between January and July, when the Temporary Relief Act was passed and the soup kitchen was closed, the Quakers sold soup, an average of 1000 quarts each day, for a penny a quart. They also sold soup tickets that could be distributed to the poor.

The Central Relief Committee was alone in providing relief to the poor. The government had decided to abandon its public works relief scheme in favour of direct distribution of food to the poor, but there was a gap between programs in the spring of 1847. Mary Daly has observed that this break “during one of the most difficult periods of all – one marked by extremely high death rates – was one of the most serious inadequacies in the whole government relief program” [22].

The Quaker narrators (male) tell us very little about women’s work. While Jonathan Pim’s letter of July 2, 1847, to Jacob Harvey in New York mentions that it was “generally ladies” who were distributing cooked rice to the sick and to the children, it is Nicholson who described the Quaker women at work in their soup shop. “Quaker matrons and their daughters with their white sleeves drawn over their tidy-clad arms – their white aprons and caps, all moving in that quiet harmony so peculiar to that people” [23].

The official Quaker Famine report, Transactions of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, refers to ladies forming associations in towns for making, collecting and distributing clothes and its Appendix 15 suggest something of the enormous work of the Sub-Committee for Clothing but it lists only the names of the men of the Central Relief Committee who were the Sub-Committee officers [24]. Nicholson left vignettes of women in Belmullet and Ballina working to provide clothes for the poor.

Although Nicholson admired the Quaker women working together in their soup shop, she went her own way establishing her own modus operandi in the spring of 1847. There is a letter from Nicholson to the Central Relief Committee written from 45 Hardwicke Street in July 1847; however, she described herself lodging in a house overlooking the Liffey during the early months of 1847. Walking through Dublin each morning with a large basket, she distributed slices of bread along the route from her home to her own soup kitchen on Cook Street, which was also called Coffin Street because there were sixteen coffin makers or undertakers in Cook Street in 1847 [25]. Thom’s lists ten tenement houses and nine vacant houses on Cook Street in 1847 [26]. As was her custom, Nicholson located herself in a place selected for its poverty.

Officially, the Quakers ran their soup shop on a purchase system; Nicholson gave her food gratis; however, a system of triage obtained. She decided that ten pounds divided among one hundred helped no one, so she committed herself to a limited number of families in the Liberties for whom she cooked daily. During the six months that the Quakers ran their Charles Street soup shop, Nicholson cared for her own small group of Dublin poor.

The English Quaker William Bennett wrote about meeting Nicholson during the first week of April 1847, at the home of his “earliest friend in Ireland.” While Bennett does not mention him by name, his friend was probably Richard Davis Webb, the Dublin Quaker who would have shared Nicholson’s commitments to abolitionism and to temperance. In the spring of 1847, Nicholson was correcting the proofs for Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger; Webb was her printer. Bennett’s description of Nicholson shows that he was familiar with her text. He recounted her mission and then told about his impression of Nicholson struggling with meagre resources – heroic and hopeful:

I found her with limited and precarious means, still persevering from morning to night in visiting the most desolate abodes of the poor, and making food – especially of Indian meal – for those who did not know how to do it properly, with her own hands. She was under much painful discouragement, but a better hope still held her up. Having considerable quantity of arrow-root with me, at my own disposal, I left some of it with her, and five pounds for general purposes [27].

Like the Quakers, Nicholson relied on the help of English and American supporters to help her relief efforts. Nicholson suggested that she was the agent for a New York relief fund. What relief fund remains a mystery. Even straightforward organizations like the American Quakers’ Relief Committee present difficulties. Jacob Harvey, who emigrated from Limerick, was the driving force in American aid, working regularly with the Central Relief Committee; however, he was disowned in 1829 by the New York Quakers, both the Orthodox and the Hicksites, for marrying out [28].

New Yorkers met to found the General Irish Relief Committee at the Mulberry Street House. It was not a Quaker meeting house, but the African Free School at 2 Mulberry Street. Quakers would have been involved with the school; however, locating a meeting at the School meant that it was not an official Quaker enterprise. Nicholson is not mentioned in the 1848 report of the General Irish Relief Committee of the City of New York, nor is she mentioned in the Transactions.

Nevertheless Nicholson did receive aid from supporters in New York. The records of the New York Quakers Meeting for Suffering held on May 22, 1847, indicate that a committee collected the sum of $4013 to purchase food for the Irish and that food was aboard the US Frigate Macedonian which arrived at Haulbownline on July 16, 1847 [29]. In the shipment consigned to the Quakers were fifty barrels of Indian corn meal for Maria Edgeworth. Boston children sent one hundred and fifty pounds of flour and rice to her for her poor [30]. Along with the food for Maria Edgeworth were five barrels of Indian meal, flour and biscuit for Asenath Nicholson.

There is no record that the two remarkable ladies ever met; however, they shared similar views about the Irish poor: their criticism of absenteeism, their concern that poverty not take away the dignity of the poor and, more than anything, the need for employment. Edgeworth wrote to the Central Relief Committee about her district in County Longford, petitioning the Committee’s Clothing Committee for shoes for her tenants working in drainage projects [31].

Nicholson was told that she would have to pay the costs to have her food in the barrels on the Macedonian shifted to sacks purchased from the government. (While the British government underwrote the expense of transporting relief supplies, they required that stores be shifted from barrels to sacks.) Nicholson criticized the practice on two grounds: that the meal stored in sacks became damp and moldy, and that the sacks cost money that could be spent for food.

In her usual way, Nicholson simply refused to comply. When her sacks were delivered through the Central Relief Committee, she did not pay the charges. Her letter to the Committee, dated July 7, 1847, from 45 Hardwicke Street, began with an apology for troubling them but went on to say firmly:

Your clerk told me when I received your order that I must pay for the sacks but if they are returned in good order, this money would be refunded. When this was refused, he denied the engagement saying I should pay freight if not pay for the sacks. This I am willing to do if it is just, but the donors in New York sent me notice that all they sent me was freight free and sent in barrels and I quite prefer them because sacks will not keep the meal so well as much that I had was seriously injured [32].

The Central Committee responded that she did not have to pay for the sacks.

Before the five barrels of food on the Macedonian arrived in Cork, Nicholson left for Belfast. Her last Dublin donation was a “few barrels” sent under the auspices of the Central Relief Committee to Nicholson from the children of a pauper school in New York [33]. Nicholson brought the meal to an appropriate destination, “a school in the poorest convent in Dublin [that] was in a state of the greatest suffering” [34]. It is likely that the school was the Presentation school at George’s Hill, founded for the children of the Dublin poor in 1789. Its location near the Four Courts puts it in the vicinity of Nicholson’s Cook Street soup kitchen.

Nicholson would have had an entrée to the Presentation nuns through her friendship with the Irish temperance crusader, Father Theobald Mathew, who was related to the foundress of the order, Mother Nano Nangle. During her first stay in Cork, Father Mathew took Nicholson to the golden jubilee of Mother Clare Callaghan at the South Presentation Convent [35].

South Presentation Convent
(Courtesy of the author)

Nicholson noticed the kinds of distances that separated the nuns from the world: the grating which set the nuns apart from where she stood in the chapel, the nuns sitting with Father Mathew and Nicholson but not sharing the breakfast they had prepared for their guests and unwrinkled face of the old jubilarian which had been untouched by life: “not a furrow had old Time made in her plump, placid face” [36].

When she returned to work for Famine relief, she recognized that while the nuns lived cloistered lives, they were nonetheless very much involved with the world. Catríona Clear characterizes Irish women’s religious life between the 1770s and 1840 as Irish congregations with a broad mandate to work among the poor that included schools which fed and clothed their own children [37]. Nicholson shared their vocation; she had answered her own call to help the suffering.

En route from the west to Dublin, she stopped at the Presentation convent school in Tuam where she found, for the first time in her Famine travels, a school where the 400 children has normal affect and appearance. When she returned to Cork in 1848, she visited the Presentations again and recorded the work that the “indefatigable” nuns did to feed about 1300 children [38]. She may have found religious life as incomprehensible as Catholic theology, but she responded to the good works of religious women.

With the last of her Dublin stores distributed and the Central Relief Committee closing their soup shop when the government set up soup kitchens under the Temporary Relief Act, Nicholson left Dublin by steamer on July 6, 1847, for Belfast. She was going to see the Belfast Ladies Association for the Relief of Irish Destitution, founded in January of 1847. She contrasted their work with their Dublin counterparts:

Here was a work going on which was paramount to all I had seen. Women were at work; and no one could justly say that they were dilatory or inefficient. Never in Ireland, since the famine, was such a happy condition of all parties, operating so harmoniously together, as was here manifested. Not in the least like the women of Dublin, who sheltered themselves behind their old societies – most of them excusing themselves from personal labor, feeling that a few visits to the abodes of the poor were too shocking for female delicacy to sustain; and, though occasionally one might be prevailed upon to go out, yet but a few days could I ever persuade any to accompany me. Yet much was given in Dublin; for it was a city celebrated for its benevolence, and deservedly so, as far as giving goes. But giving and doing are antipodes in her who has never been trained to domestic duties [39].

Nicholson found an organization of about 150 ladies of all denominations working in different aspects of Famine relief. She was especially impressed with their Ladies Industrial School and with their involvement with the Connacht Industrial School [40].

Nicholson’s analysis of the group’s success turned on their energy and on their spirit of cooperation for there was “none of that desire for who should be greatest” [41]. Nicholson observed just the characteristic that contemporary feminist historians identify with the success of women’s organization that put cooperation before competition.

Nicholson’s trip north, which took her to the coast of Antrim and to Donegal as well as to Belfast, was the prelude to an extended journey to the west of Ireland. She returned to Dublin briefly to collect some money and a box of clothing and to arrange that a grant that she expected go to Mrs Hewittson, a Donegal friend who could make the best use of funds [42]. Then she set out by coach for Tuam and from there by open car to Newport, Country Mayo, a place she had visited in 1845. Finding western Mayo “misery without mask,” she stayed until April, 1848.

While she knew Mayo from Westport to Achill, she was unfamiliar with the area of greatest destitution: from Ballina west to the Erris peninsula. She followed the route of the Quakers William Forster, James Tuke, William Bennett and Richard Webb. She mentions Forster’s extensive tour from November 30, 1846 to April 14, 1847, which sounded the Famine alarm and mobilized the Quakers. It was also the opportunity to locate people in the afflicted areas who could be counted on to minister to those in need. Nicholson would have had Bennett’s advice for her travels. She wrote with praise for his scheme that distributed seeds for green crops in the west and noted its success on Arranmore. Distrustful of institutions, even one as praiseworthy as the Central Relief Committee, she noted with approval that Bennett acted as an individual, not as a member of a society [43].

Richard Webb would probably have been the most helpful to Nicholson as she planned her own visit to Mayo. She does not mention Webb’s tour in Annals, but he visited Mayo and Galway in May 1847, stopping in the places and meeting many of the people that Nicholson mentioned or described in Annals. When Webb returned to Erris in February 1848, it is likely that they met in Ballina. Webb wrote to the Central Relief Committee from Ballina on February 18, 1848 [44]. Nicholson recorded that she was in Ballina in February and left for Castlebar on February 28, 1848 [45].


The gravestone of Samuel Bourne, a decent Co Mayo landlord and friend of Nicholson’s, who not only took care of his own tenants but welcomed other evicted tenants
(Courtesy of the author)

In Newport, Nicholson set about bearing witness to the suffering. Her Annals differs from the compassionate accounts of her Quaker male contemporaries in that she combines documentary with other forms of discourse, including parables, dramatic scenes and dialogues written in the cadences of the Old Testament. While the men focused on the logistical problems of famine relief, Nicholson looks to the human face of suffering. On November 28, 1847, she described a scene that anticipated Synge’s “Riders to the Sea.” A fisherman’s widow journeyed twenty miles to “prove” her husband who had been washed ashore and buried without a coffin. She bought a white coffin and took it to the spot where he was buried. With her own hands, she dug him from his grave and “proved” him by the leather button she had sewn on his clothes [46].

In recording such scenes, Nicholson made it clear that she believed that the Famine was not a Divine judgment, but the failure of man to use God’s gifts responsibly. Nicholson considered herself as “acting entirely as a passive instrument; moving because moved upon,” but there was nothing passive about her indictment of the government and the Established Church for failing in their stewardship of their relief resources and in their attitude toward the poor for whom there were responsible. She distinguished between hired relief officials whom she dismissed as bureaucratic, hierarchical and self-serving, and local volunteer relief workers whom she lauded as compassionate, egalitarian and selfless.

Scrupulous herself about her own expenses, she reported that she allowed herself twenty-three pence a day for food: a diet of cocoa and bread, and that she dispensed with her seven pence worth of cocoa, milk and sugar when she was running short of stores for her poor. She continued to ask herself whether she was doing enough to economize, so she was critical of official relief officers who lived well while those they were charged to care for went hungry.

She attacked government relief officers for putting record keeping before the hungry and described the dying poor turned away and told to return another day to be first entered on the roster and then fed. She described two orphans aged seven and five who were sent from Newport by relief officials to the poorhouse at Castlebar. They walked ten miles through the rain and arrived late at night. The little girl was accepted but the boy was turned away and walked the ten miles back to the door of Nicholson’s friend Mrs Arthur, the widowed postmistress of Newport [47]. Nicholson intervened and brought the boy to a school where he was fed and clothed for the winter.

workhouseFamine workhouse near Callan, Co. Kilkenny
(courtesy of the author)

It has often been charged that the government allowed food to be exported while Ireland starved. Nicholson looked at the matter of diverted food sources from another angle: she charged that grain used for distilling alcohol could have fed the Irish poor. Elizabeth Malcolm says very little about alcohol and the Famine in Ireland Sober, Ireland Free except to note that duty on spirits increased and that in 1847, with grain prices sky high, the consumption of legal spirits fell only about twenty-five percent, from approximately 8,000,000 gallons to about 6,000,000 gallons [48]. The 60,000,000 pounds of grain or 30,000 tons of grain to distil 6,000,000 gallons of eighty proof spirits could have provided more than 300,000,000 servings of grain-based cereals.

Even with consumption reduced, Father Mathew complained to the assistant secretary to the Treasury, Charles Edward Trevelyan, that make-shift drink shops were erected at some relief work sites and presumably condoned by officials. In at least one case, a publican member of a local relief committee recommended men work for only on condition that they spent part of their wages on drink [49].

Concerned as she was about stewardship, Nicholson was far more interested in the attitude of the relief worked toward the poor. Over and over she contrasted the lack of charity on the part of officials with the compassion of the volunteer workers.

This lack of charity on the part of officials appears to have been based, in part, on their opinion that the Irish brought their troubles on themselves. Christopher Morash has observed in his study of the literature of the Famine that contemporary accounts often cited Malthus in trying to explain the Famine. Morash also argues that Malthusian doctrine informs the fictional representation of nineteenth-century Ireland in Anthony Trollope’s Castle Richmond and in William Carleton’s The Black Prophet [50].

Critical as she was about government relief officers, Nicholson was quick to praise the generosity of coast guards and their families stationed in the west of Ireland toward their poor neighbors. Many guardsmen were recruited by the Quakers. The Coast Guard Inspector General Sir James Dombrain, who shared their view of the poor Irish, supported their work. Having experienced the 1839 Famine, Sir James prevailed on the relief officer at Westport to issue free meal and he directed the captain of the government steamship Rhadamanthus to take 100 tons of meal to the Killeries where, on June 22, 1846, the cutter Eliza was met by a boatload of starving men begging for food.

Sir Randolph Routh, who had the responsibility for distributing the Indian corn, complained about Sir James to Trevelyan [51]. Seamus Heaney based his poem “For the Commander of the Eliza” on the episode; his closing lines articulate the Malthusian bias of the speaker:

Sir James, I understand, urged free relief
For famine victims in the Westport sector
And earned tart reprimand from good Whitehall.
Let natives prosper by their own exertions;
Who could not swim might go ahead and sink [52].

As far as Nicholson was concerned, the problem was not that the Irish avoided exertion, but that they had no employment. On October 31, 1847, she wrote to an English friend from Belmullet: “Every effort of the friends of Ireland is battled by the demoralizing efforts that feeding a starving peasantry without labor produces,” and went on to observe that the condition of the resident landlords in the West had an adverse effect on local relief efforts: “You sir, who know Erris, tell, if you can, how the landlord can support the poor by taxation, to give them food, when the few resident landlords are nothing and worse than nothing, for they are paupers in the full sense of the word” [53].

Nicholson anticipated Mary Daly’s argument one hundred and fifty years later that relief work – subject as it was to the variables of local lobbying efforts, administrative skills to propose projects and to apply for funds – meant that the number and power of local resident landlords accounted for the great differences in expenditure on public works. The amount spent between April 1846 and January 1847 in Erris was 4.00-4.99 pounds per family while in North Clare the amount was ten pounds per family [54].

Nicholson made her own case for local employment and, as always, she took a special interest in work for women and in work women were doing:

I must and will plead, though I plead in vain, that something must be done to give them work. I have just received a letter from the curate of Bingham’s Town saying that he could set all his poor parish, both the women and the children, to work, and find a market for their knitting and cloth, if he could command a few pounds to purchase the materials. He is young and indefatigable, kind-hearted and poor and no proselyte. Mrs Stock has done well in her industrial department. The Hon. William Butler has purchased cloth of her, for a coat to wear himself, which the poor women spin, and gave a good price for it [55].

While Nicholson’s witness to suffering and challenges to the authorities on behalf of the Irish poor are, in themselves, of interest, it is her own active efforts to offer aid and comfort that command our attention. She distributed her supplies of food and clothes. She visited the distressed and brought their stories to the world. She helped the relief workers she admired and left a record of their names and service. The Quakers left us some account of relief workers, but it is Nicholson who tells us about remarkable women like Mrs Stock who ran a soup kitchen from the Belmullet rectory and who organized a women’s clothing industry, the charitable Mrs Arthur of Newport and Mrs Garvey who forgave her suffering tenants their rent.

Above all, she was moved by the generosity and kindness of the suffering Irish to one another and to strangers. The hospitality of the Irish countryside was a theme of Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger; in Annals, it was the generosity of the Irish to one another. Irish oral tradition down to our time describes the charitable woman who gives her last measure of meal to a beggar at her door and is rewarded with an inexhaustible supply of food.

Always, she read the Bible. Nicholson read the Bible to the Irish to save them from the superstitions of Rome so she was – in principle – supportive of the efforts of Protestant missionaries; however, she wanted conversions to be the result of reason, not coercion. It is not surprising, therefore, that she condemned proselytizers: “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, obstinate Roman Catholics to the Church which had been her instrument of oppression for centuries” [56].

She predicted accurately that proselytizers’ gains would be short-lived and quoted children who told her they would be going back to their own chapel when the stirabout time was over. What was more common in Nicholson’s experience was cooperation among many of the clergy of different denomination who worked together to help the poor [57].


Illustrated London News, 1848

She left Ireland in the fall of 1848 when she felt that her work there was over. There is the suggestion that she was planning to return to America; however, she left Dublin for England where she wrote the first edition of The Annals of the Famine, called Lights and Shades, in London in 1850. She reported on the Crystal Palace Exhibition and joined the American pacifist Elihu Burritt’s delegation to the International Peace Conference in Frankfurt and travelled on the continent before she returned to America in 1852.

One might argue that Asenath Nicholson was a woman ahead of her time, a Shavian new woman. She was certainly a kindred spirit: vegetarian, teetotaller, outdoor exercise enthusiast. What’s more, she was a forerunner of Shaw’s heroine St Joan. Certainly, she is not the androgynous teenager with a mission but she was another androgynous critter: the middle-aged widow with a mission.

Critical of the superstitions of Rome, she certainly would not have heard saints’ voices, but her books speak of her sense that she was on some Divinely-appointed mission. She too challenged the system, marshalled resources to accomplish her ends, and, if she did not demonstrate her subversiveness by cross-dressing – though her appearance was, in its way, extraordinary – her straightforward questions, impromptu sermons, impassioned letters and candid books marked her, by some like the Rev. Nangle of the Achill Mission, as a dangerous fomenter of discontent among the lower orders.

Asenath Nicholson was not, of course, imprisoned, tried and burned at the stake. Had she been brought to trial, she would have read the Bible to her fellow prisoners, defended herself with the same spirited clarity as Joan, but like her fellow New Englander, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, she would have found a way to escape the flame. No doubt she would have talked her way out of it. She certainly would have had the last word.

No, she was not burned at the stake. Instead, she shared the fate of other worthy women: she was ignored. Her name appears on one or two lists; she is praised in an article in the Cork Examiner in August 1848, and the decent William Bennett praises her work for Famine relief in his Narrative of a Recent Journey of Six Weeks in Ireland (1847), but, in the end, she speaks for herself in a book that was only reprinted a century and a half later, in 1998 [58].

During her first stay in Ireland, while travelling the road from Oranmore to Loughrea, Nicholson rested to ease her blistered feet and thought of her prudent friends who had cautioned her against her reckless adventure. Did she wish to be in her own parlor in New York? She did not: “Should I sleep the sleep of death, with my head pillowed against this wall, no matter. Let the passer-by inscribe my epitaph upon this stone, fanatic, what then? It shall only be a memento that one in a foreign land loved and pitied Ireland, and did what she could to seek out its condition” [59].


[1] For a more detailed account of her parents’ life, see Maureen Murphy, Compassionate Stranger: Asenath Nicholson and the Great Irish Famine (Syracuse, 2015), pp. 2-9.

[2] Asenath Nicholson, Ireland’s welcome to the stranger, or, excursions through Ireland in 1844 and 1845, for the purposes of investigating the condition of the poor (London, 1847), p. 2.

[3] Nicholson, Welcome, p. iii.

[4] Centennial Committee, Centennial Celebration of the Settlement of Chelsea, Vermont. September 4, 1884 (Keene, 1884), p. 78. Michael Hatch is listed as living in District #2 in 1807 when Asenath was fifteen years old. Chelsea Historical Society, Chelsea, Vermont, 1784-1984 (Barre, 1984), p. 280. In Chelsea’s early years, teachers came from the district itself with women generally hired for the summer terms at a wage of $1.00 per week. Chelsea, Chelsea, p. 48.

[5] Richard H. Shryock, “Sylvester Graham and the Popular Health Movement, 1830-1870”, Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 18 (1931-1932), p. 174.

[6] A letter from William S. Tyler, tutor at Amherst College in 1833, suggests that Graham boarding houses had a broader social purpose than health reform: “The boarders in this establishment are not only Grahamites but Garrisonites – not only reformers in diet, but radicals in politics. Such a knot of Abolitionists I never before fell in with. Slavery, colonization, constitute the unvarying monotonous theme of their conversation except that give place to an occasional comment on their peculiar style of living.” Thomas Leduc, “Grahamites and Garrisonians” New York State History, 20 (1939), p. 190.

[7] Asenath Nicholson, Nature’s Own Book (New York, 1835), p. 6.

[8] Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York (Garden City, 1928), p. 16.

[9] Nicholson, Welcome, p. iii.

[10] Nicholson received a grant of twelve testaments for distribution in the South and West of Ireland in 1845; in 1846, she received a grant for one Bible and fourteen testaments. “Grants to individuals”, Hibernian Bible Society annual report (1842-1849) (Dublin, 1849).

[11] Nicholson, Welcome, pp. 437-438. Nicholson saw Nangle’s article when she visited the Tract Depository on Sackville Street. She published Nangle’s attack in Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger with the note that the “respectable person in Birmingham” was the English Quaker philanthropist Joseph Sturge. Sturge had seen the letter of introduction after Nicholson visited Achill. Later, Sturge entrusted Nicholson with funds for Famine relief (Nicholson, Welcome, p. 437). Nicholson would have been recommended to Sturge as a fellow abolitionist; later, both would be involved with the American peace activist Elihu Burritt.
Nangle was always controversial. Nicholson had read the Halls’ indictment of Nangle for his lack of charity toward the people among whom he worked. Like Nicholson, they were predisposed to the Achill Colony. “We consider every conscientious accession to the Protestant faith as a contribution in aid of the well-being of the state.” Samuel and Anna Hall, Ireland, its scenery and its characters, III (London, n.d.), p. 398.
The local attitude toward Nangle is reflected in songs like “An Púca,” a parody of an aisling which describes Nangle, who lived in the Judas colony west in Slievemore and who fought with Pluto and destroyed hell.

[12] Nicholson, Welcome, p. 424.

[13] Nicholson, Welcome, p. 113. In a letter to Dorothy Wellesly that included his short poem “Parnell” (“Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:/Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone”), W.B. Yeats wrote that the poem was based on an actual saying of Parnell’s. Dorothy Wellesly (ed.), Letters on poetry from W.B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesly (New York, 1940), p. 136.
There is a possibility that Yeats knew Nicholson’s Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger. He wrote about evangelical Protestantism saying, “one of its missionaries who travelled Ireland has written her life, has described meeting in peasant cottages where everybody engaged in religious discussion, has said that she was everywhere opposed and slandered by the powerful and wealthy because she was on the side of the poor. I can turn from the pages of her book with sympathy.” Dramatis Personae (London, 1936), p. 12.

[14] Nicholson, Welcome, p. 257.

[15] Nicholson, Welcome, p. 321-322.

[16] Margaret MacCurtain, “The Real Molly Macree”, in Adele M. Dalsimer (ed.), Visualizing Ireland: National Identity and the Pictorial Tradition (Boston, 1993), pp. 9-21.

[17] Nicholson did not identify the house where she stayed in Kingstown, but she described her bedroom overlooking the burying ground. Asenath Nicholson, Annals of the Famine in Irelalnd in 1847, 1848, and 1849 (New York, 1851), p. 40. There was an ancient graveyard at Carrickbrennan in Monkstown, but there was no other burial ground until Deans Grande was established in 1863. Peter Pearson, Dun Laoghaire. Kingstown (Dublin, 1991), p. 71.

[18] Helen Hatton mentions a number of accounts of dogs devouring the dead and dying, including Nicholson’s story of an Achill girld attached by starving dogs. Helen Hatton, The Largest Amount of Good: Quaker Relief in Ireland, 1654-1921 (Montreal, 1993), p. 136. The horror of a dog cooked for dinner appears in North Longford oral tradition where it is said that St Patrick cursed the region with barrenness because a pagan chief of Sliabh Chairbre insulted the Saint by serving him a dog for his dinner.

[19] Nicholson, Annals, p. 40.

[20] Nicholson, Annals, p. 41.

[21] Society of Friends, Transactions of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends during the Famine in Ireland in 1846 and 1847 (Dublin, 1852), pp. 53-54.

[22] Mary Daly, The Famine in Ireland (Dundalk, 1986), p. 66.

[23] Nicholson, Annals, p. 43.

[24] Friends, Transactions, pp. 376-384. Maria Luddy has noted that there is almost nothing published on Irish Quaker women. “An Agenda for women’s history, 1800-1900”, Irish Historical Studies, xxviii (1992), p. 24, n. 9.

[25] The Dublin Almanac and General Register of Ireland in Year of Our Lord 1847 (Dublin, 1847) lists two women undertakers: Anne Kenny and Mary Reed, and one coffin maker, Elizabeth Connolly, at numbers 2, 22 and 44 Cook Street.

[26] The ten tenements were at 21, 33, 35, 36, 47, 52, 54, 55, 60, and 68, and the nine vacant houses at 43, 45, 48, 49, 55, 56, 62, 67, and 69. Thom’s Directory (Dublin, 1847), p. 672.

[27] William Bennett, A Narrative of a recent tour of six weeks in Ireland in connection with the subject of supplying small seed to some of the remoter districts : with current observations on the depressed circumstances of the people and the means presented for the permanent improvement of their social condition (London, 1847), p. 96.

[28] William Wade Hinshaw, Encyclopedia of Quaker Genealogy, III (Richmond, 1940), p. 152.

[29] James DeKay, Chronicles of the frigate Macedonian, 1809-1922 (New York, 1994), p. 237. An engraving of the Macedonian laden with Famine relief supplies and riding at anchor in Cork Harbour appeared in the Illustrated London News on August 7, 1847.

[30] Augustus Hare, The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth, 2 (London, 1894), p. 238.

[31] Hare, Edgeworth, p. 323.

[32] Nicholson to Central Relief Committee, 7 July, 1847 (PRO, Central Relief Committee, Society of Friends).

[33] Nicholson does not identify this school. A donation of $1.54 in pennies from the boys of Ward School #3 in New York’s Tenth Ward is listed in The report of the general Irish relief committee (New York, 1849), p. 47. The Tenth Ward, now the Lower East Side, was a squalid area of tenements crowded with new immigrants.

[34] Nicholson, Annals, p. 69.

[35] Fr Augustine, O.F.M. Cap., Footprints of Father Theobald Mathew, O.F.M. Cap. Apostle of Temperance (Dublin, 1847), p. 380.

[36] Nicholson, Welcome, p. 236.

[37] Catríona Clear estimated that 81% of all Irish convents in 1840 were dedicated to working with the poor. Nuns in nineteenth-century Ireland (Dublin, 1847), p. 101.

[38] Nicholson, Annals, p. 244.

[39] Nicholson, Annals, p. 72.

[40] Funds to the Connacht Industrial School meant that there was an income of 5000 and later 7500 pounds where there had been nothing. Friends, Transactions, p. 438.

[41] Nicholson, Annals, p. 70.

[42] The Journal of the Society of Friends Relief Committee in the Dublin Quaker Archives records that the Central Relief Committee also gave Susan Hewetson of Rossgarrow, Donegal, funds for local relief ; a check was drawn for her on January 13, 1847.

[43] Nicholson had her relief supplies routed through the Central Relief Committee; however, she had trouble getting one of her shipments and Richard Webb had to intervene on her behalf. After that, she apparently did not work through the Committee. Nicholson, Annals, pp. 69-72.

[44] Friends, Transactions, p. 208.

[45] Nicholson, Annals, p. 200.

[46] Richard Webb wrote of the Ballina workhouse that “a large proportion of the sufferers only applied for admission in the hope that they should be provided with a coffin when dead, which was more than could be expected if they died outside the workhouse walls.” “Extracts from the Letters of Richard D. Webb,” in Friends, Transactions, p. 198.

[47] Professor Diana Ben-Merre has pointed out the similarity between Nicholson’s boy who was turned away from the workhouse and the character of Jo in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853).

[48] Elizabeth Malcolm, Ireland Sober, Ireland Free: Drink and temperance in nineteenth-century Ireland (Syracuse, 1986), p. 144.

[49] Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger, 1845-1849 (New York, 1962), p. 145.

[50] Christopher Morash, Writing the Irish Famine (Oxford, 1995).

[51] Woodham-Smith, Hunger, p. 85.

[52] Seamus Heaney, “For the Commander of the Eliza” in Collected Poems (New York, 1980), p. 25.

[53] Nicholson, Annals, p. 156.

[54] Daly, Famine, p. 84.

[55] Nicholson, Annals, p. 156.

[56] Nicholson, Annals, p. 300-301.

[57] Nicholson’s conclusions in 1848 were the same as those reached by Desmond Bowen in Souperism: myth or reality? A study of Catholics and Protestants during the Great Famine (Cork, 1970). Bowen concluded that incidents of souperism were isolated rather than general and that the myth of souperism had obscured the heroic work of most of the clergy who worked among the poor during the Famine.

[58] Asenath Nicholson, Annals of the Famine in Ireland, ed. Maureen Murphy (Dublin, 1998).

[59] Nicholson, Welcome, p. 174.

Cette ressource est issue d'une communication donnée lors d'une journée d'étude sur le programme de l'agrégation, organisée à l'Université de Caen le 23 janvier 2015. Organisation : Penny Starfield, avec la collaboration de Christophe Gillissen, Armelle Parey, Mickael Popelard et Andrew Ives.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Maureen Murphy, "Asenath Nicholson and the Great Famine", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2015. Consulté le 14/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-britannique/irlande-et-ecosse/asenath-nicholson-and-the-great-famine