Children in the Convent

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter VII (32) | Start of Chapter

Next I visited the convent, and here found half a dozen nuns hiding from the world, and yet completely overwhelmed with it. They had a company of four hundred children, most of them who were starving in the beginning of famine, and have instructed and fed them daily. This was the first school I had visited during the famine, where the children retained that ruddiness of look and buoyancy of manner, so prevalent in the Irish peasantry. "We have tested," said a nun, "the strength of the Indian meal. These children, through last winter, were fed but once a day on stirabout and treacle, and had as much as they would take; they were from among the most feeble, but soon became strong and active as you now see." They assembled for dinner, and as had been their custom, they clasped their hands and silently stood, while one repeated these words: "We thank thee, O God, for giving us benefactors, and pray that they may be blessed with long life and a happy death." "The good Quakers," said a nun, "have kept them alive; and the clothes you see on them are sent through that channel, all but the caps, which we provide." These children were taken from filth and poverty, never knowing the use of the needle, or value of a stocking, and now could produce the finest specimens of knitting, both ornamental and useful. And looking upon these happy faces one might feel that Ireland is not wholly lost. My next visit was in the workhouse at the old town of Galway.

The distress here had been dreadful, and most of them seemed waiting in silent despair for the last finishing stroke of their misery. One cleanly-clad fisherman of whom I made inquiries, invited me to visit the fishermen's cottages, which before the famine were kept tidy, and had the "comfortable bit" at all times; "now, the fisheries are lost, we are too poor to keep up the tackle, and are all starving." I followed him to a row of neat cottages, where the discouraged housekeepers appeared as if they had swept their cottage floors, put on the last piece of turf, and had actually sat down to die. "Here we are," said one, (as she rose from her stool to salute us,) "sitting in these naked walls, without a mouthful of bread, an I don't know what the good God will do for us." This fisherman then showed me into the monks' school-rooms, who were teaching and feeding a number of boys, and showed me some new fishing nets which the kind Quakers had sent, and he hoped, if they did not all die, that the "net might sairve 'em."

The workhouse here was on the best plan of any I had seen; the master and matron had been indefatigable in placing everything in its true position, and appeared to feel that their station was a responsible one, and that the poor were a sacred trust, belonging still to the order of human beings. The food was abundant and good, and the parents and children allowed to see and converse together oftener than in other like establishments; and now, in March, 1850, the same report is current, that good order and comfort abound there, beyond any other. Everlasting peace rest on the heads of those who do not make merchandise of the poor for gain.

From Galway, Limerick was the next stopping-place, and the poorhouse in that place was so crowded, the morning so rainy, and the keepers so busy in gathering the inmates to the "stirabout," that but little that was satisfactory could be obtained.