Mrs. Hewitson

The mother of Miss Hewitson was to meet me in her own carriage, and conduct me to her house in Rossgarrow. Derry had not suffered so much as many other towns, and a stranger passing through would not notice any particular change from its condition in past years. But this little relief was only to make what followed appear the more painful. Mrs. Hewitson met me with her son, and we took tea at a delightful little mansion on the sloping side of one of Ireland's green lawns, looking down upon a beautiful lake. "And is there," I asked, "on this pretty spot, misery to be found?"—"Come and see," was the answer of my kind friend. It was twilight when we stepped into the carriage, and few painful objects met us till we reached her dwelling.

Her paternal cottage was nestled in a pretty wood, its roof thatched, and its windows shaded by the creeping vine in front. On one end, a window gave one of the most beautiful peeps upon a lake that can be imagined; and the back contained a garden which was one of the most pleasant retreats I had met, for the gooseberry was just ripe. Here had this discreet, this "virtuous woman," lived, and by precept and example trained a family of sons and daughters, which will, which do arise and call her blessed. Her husband had been an officer, and was then receiving a small pension, and during the first season of the famine had been employed by government as an overseer of the Board of Works. His heart had sickened at the scenes which came under his eye, some sketches of which have been before the public.

The morning lighted up a pretty cottage, well ordered, and the breakfast-table presented a treat unseen before by me in Ireland. Instead of the bread, butter, tea, and egg, which are the height of the best Irish breakfast, there was a respectable corn-cake, made as it should be, suitable accompaniments of all kinds, with the best of cream for me; and were it not that the hungry had then commenced their daily usages of assembling in crowds about the house for food, that breakfast would have been a pleasant one. When I ascertained that her husband had been in America, and from him she had been told of the virtues of corn-cake, and that her skill had been exercised till she had brought it to perfection—I valued it if possible still more. Had the Irish mothers throughout Ireland managed as did this woman, their task in the famine would have been much lighter—the poor, many more of them, would have been saved, and multitudes who have gone down might have retained their standing. Had the higher classes known how to have changed the meal into the many palatable shapes contrived by this economical housekeeper, when the wheaten loaf was so high, immense money might have been saved to all parties. It was brought in such disrepute by bad cooking, that many would be ashamed to be found eating it, and one man who was begging most earnestly for food, when offered some of this prepared in Irish style, turned away in contempt, saying, "No, thank God, I've never been brought to ate the yeller indian."

This industrious woman, like Solomon's prudent wife, had not only risen "while it was yet dark," to prepare meat for her household, but she had been in her meal-room at four in the morning, weighing out meal for the poor, the Society of Friends in Dublin having furnished her with grants. This I found was her daily practice, while the poor through the day made the habitation a nucleus not of the most pleasant kind. The lower window-frame in the kitchen was of board instead of glass, this all having been broken by the pressure of faces continually there.

Who could eat, who could work, who could read, or who could play in such circumstances as these? Certainly it sometimes seemed that the sunshine was changed, that the rain gave a stranger pattering, and truly, that the wind did moan most dolefully. The dogs ceased their barking, there were scarcely any cocks to be heard crowing in the morning, and the gladsome mirth of children everywhere ceased. O! ye, whose nerves are disturbed at the glee of the loud-laughing boy, come to this land of darkness and death, and for leagues you may travel, and in house or cabin, by the wayside, on the hill-top, or upon the meadow, you shall not see a smile, you shall not see the sprightly foot running in ecstacy after the rolling hoop, leaping the ditch or tossing the ball. The young laughing full faces, and brilliant eyes, and buoyant limbs, had become walking-skeletons of death! When I saw one approaching, with his emaciated fingers locked together before him, his body in a bending position, as all generally crawled along, if I had neither bread nor money to give, I turned from the path; for, instead of the "God save ye kindly," or "Ye look wary, lady," which had ever been the salutation to me on the mountains, I knew it would be the imploring look or the vacant sepulchral stare, which, when once fastened upon you, leaves its impress for ever. The kind Hewitsons seemed not only to anticipate my wants, but to enter into my feelings as a stranger whose heart was tortured with unparalleled scenes of suffering, and they did all to make my stay pleasant, and if possible to draw away my mind a little from the painful objects around me. They conducted me from place to place, and showed me much of the beautiful scenery with which Donegal abounds, as well as all Ireland. Lakes bountifully dot this part of Donegal.

Rathmelton, Milford, Letterkenny, Dunfanaghy, all lie in this region, as well as a romantic spot on the sea-shore, called M'Sweeny's Gun, so called on account of the report that the sea makes when it rushes with tremendous force under the rock which overhangs it, and through which a round hole has been made, and as the waves dash, shooting through, high into the air, a loud report, like that of a gun, is heard; but as natural curiosities are not the object of this sketch, they cannot be dwelt upon: curiosities of a most unnatural and fearful kind have fallen to my share. As fond as I had always been of looking upon the grandeur of the sea-coast in Ireland, which has no rival probably, taken as a whole; now the interest was so deadened, by the absence of the kindly children, who were always ready to point out every spot of interest, and give its name, that a transient look sufficed.

At Letterkenny, the Roman Catholic Bishop invited us to his house, and treated us with much courtesy; showed us his robes and badges of honor, given him at Rome; and though he knew that we were Protestants, yet he appeared not to suspect but that we should be as deeply interested as though we were under his jurisdiction. Many favorable opportunities presented, to become acquainted with the effects of the famine upon the Romish priests. Some were indefatigable, and died in their labors; while others looked more passively on. They had two drawbacks which the Protestants in general had not.—First, a great proportion of them are quite poor; and second, they, in the first season of the famine, were not intrusted with grants, as the Protestants were. These difficulties operated strongly upon the minds of the benevolent class among them. One Protestant clergyman informed me, that so much confidence had he in the integrity of the Catholic priest in his parish, that when he had a large grant sent to him, he offered as much of it to the priest as he could distribute, knowing, he added, that it would be done with the greatest promptitude and fidelity. No ministers of religion in the world know as much of their people as do the Catholics, not one of their flock is forgotten, scarcely by name, however poor or degraded; and consequently when the famine came, they had not to search out the poor, they knew the identical cabin in which every starving one was lying, and as far as knowledge was concerned were in a condition to act most effectually.

Read "Annals of the Famine in Ireland" at your leisure

Annals of the Famine in Ireland

Read Annals of the Famine in Ireland at your leisure and help support this free Irish library.

This book still has the power to shock and sadden even though the events described are ever-receding further into the past. When you read, for example, of the poor widowed mother who was caught trying to salvage a few potatoes from her landlord's field, and what the magistrate discovered in the pot in her cabin, you cannot help but be apalled and distressed.

The text of this new edition has professionally been reset and an index added to the paperback.


Library Ireland Facebook