A Poor Old Woman

The first object I beheld at the foot of a hill when I had gained the road, was an old woman with a sack of potatoes on her back, suspended by a rope across her forehead. The whiteness of her hair, the deep wrinkles of her face, the sadness of her countenance, and the feebleness with which she tottered when the burden inclined to slide from her back, so affected me, that never had the miseries of Ireland stood before me in so broad an outline as now.

"You are old, madam, to be carrying such a heavy burden up a hill like this."

"Ould and wairy, ma'am, be sure; and it's many a long day the good God has been puttin' this on me. I must keep a little cabin over my head to shelter a sick gal, who has this six years been on my hands, and God Almighty don't bring her yet."

"And have you any more children?"

"I have three abroad, I don't know where. They forget their ould mother, and never write to me. I raired six of them after the father died. Two are married in Ireland, but they keep away; I s'pose they are afeared the sick one would want something if they should come. I kept 'em all to school, till, like the birds, as soon as they could fly, they left the nest."

"And do you have any bread?"

"Not a hap'orth, ma'am, but potatoes; sometimes the girl, when she bleeds at the lungs, says she can't swallow 'em; and when I get a hap'orth, it's a sup of milk, a candle, and a bit of turf, and not a farthin' can I spare for her. Sometimes she says, 'If I could smell a little tay, how it would revive me,' but I can't, no, I can't git her a drop. I never have begged, ma'am, in all the long days of distress I have ever had."

"Well, madam, your days on earth are well nigh finished, and you are nearly home."

"Yes, I am near my home, but it's the heart, ma'am, it's the heart, after all; the prayers don't do without the heart. But the mighty God have mercy on a poor cratur like me, it's all I can say."

She stopped to adjust her pack, and I saw her no more. The reality of this picture of patient suffering needed no aid of the imagination to make it as perfect a one as I had seen. But in every place I go, woman is made a beast of burden; and where this is allowed, and men are not paid for their toil, no legislation can elevate a people.

Ireland’s Welome to the Stranger is one of the best accounts of Irish social conditions, customs, quirks and habits that you could wish for. The author, Mrs Asenath Nicholson, was an American widow who travelled extensively in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine and meticulously observed the Irish peasantry at work and play, as well as noting their living conditions and diet. The book is also available from Kindle.