General Remarks on the Condition of Ireland before the Famine

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter I (2) | Start of Chapter

We are gravely told that the year 1844 was one of great abundance, and that the peasantry were then a contented and happy people; but listen! the year 1844 was a year of abundance, but did the poor man share in this abundance—was he contented and happy? Why then was the whole country rocking "to and fro" with the cry of repeal? and, Why was O'Connell in prison? Were the people all singing in their chains, not feeling the galling of the fetters, till he aroused them from their "contented" sleep? Did his fiery breath fan up embers that had lost all power of life? and were there no heartburnings beneath the tatters of the degraded cabiner, that strongly prompted to make a struggle for that liberty, which God has by birthright bestowed upon all bearing his image? A struggle they would have made, had one nod from the prison grates of O'Connell given the signal. Though there was no clamor, yet the leaven was silently leavening the whole lump, and they appeared anxiously waiting for some event, which they felt must come, they knew not whence, nor cared not how.

But the year of abundance. From June 1844 to August 1845, I visited the middle and southern part, including all the sea-coast, always on foot in the most destitute regions, that I might better ascertain the condition and character of the peasants in their most uncultivated state. What I then saw of privation and suffering has been but partially sketched, because the "many things" I had to say the world was not then able to bear, neither are they now able to bear them all; but posterity will bear them, and posterity shall hear them. Please read the partial sketch of Bantry, Glengariffe, and the sea-coast of Kerry, given the years 1844-5, and enter into some floorless, dark, mud cabin, and sit down upon a stool, if haply a stool be there, and witness the "abundance" of those happy fertile days. Again and again did I partake of a scanty meal of the potato, after a day's walk of miles, because I knew a full repast would deprive the family of a part of the supply in reserve for the meal, which by multitudes was then taken but once a day.

Mark! these are not isolated cases, but everywhere in the mountainous regions, upon the sea-coast, and in the glens; from Dublin to the extreme south did I daily meet these facts. Nor was this privation of short continuance: from Christmas to harvest the poor peasant must stint his stomach to one meal a day, or his seed for the coming crop would be curtailed, and the necessary rent-payer, the pig, not be an equivalent to keep the mud cabin over the head of his master.

So much for "abundance;" now for "content." That there was an unparalleled content, where anything approached to tolerable endurance, cannot be denied, but this was their religious training; however imperfect their faith and practice may be, in patience they have, and do exemplify a pattern which amounts almost to superhuman. "We must be content with what the Almighty puts upon us," was their ready answer when their sufferings were mentioned; yet this did not shut their eyes to a sense of the sufferings which they felt were put upon them by man, and their submission seemed in most cases to proceed from the requirements of the Almighty, rather than from ignorance of their wrongs; for in most instances the parting question would be, "Don't ye think the government is too hard on us; or do ye think we shall ever git the repale, and will Ireland ever be any better," &c. That they are a happy people so long as any ray of hope remains, or when they share in common the gifts of Providence, must be allowed; yet their quick perception of justice often manifests itself, where any loop-hole is made which promises amendment to their condition, and when the flickering spark of life is kindled within them. They have committed bold and wicked acts, which revenge prompted by a sense of injustice alone would do. Justice long withheld, and oppression multiplied proportioned to uncomplaining endurance, sometimes awakes to a boldness almost unequaled by any but the savage of the wilderness; nor do they wait for the night, or seek any other concealment, than to make sure of their prey—they care not who sees them, or on what gallows they are hung, if the hated victim be out of the way.

"Hark! from yon stately ranks what laughter rings,

Mingling wild mirth with war's stern minstrelsy.

His jest—while each brave comrade round him flings,

And moves to death with military glee.

Boast, Erin! boast them tameless, frank and free,

In friendship warm, and cool in danger known,

Rough Nature's children, humorous as she.

And he, great chieftain, strike the proudest tone

Of thy bold harp, green Isle, the hero is thine own."

Seldom do they murder for money, and in no country where oppression has ruled have the oppressed plundered and robbed so little as in Ireland, yet they can plunder and rob; and these crimes are multiplying and will multiply till a new state of things places them in a different condition.