Cook-street Labors in Dublin

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter II (11) | Start of Chapter

Cook street, a place devoted almost entirely to making coffins, and well known by the name of Coffin street, was the field of my winter's labor. This was chosen for its extreme poverty, being the seat of misery refined; and here no lady of "delicate foot" would like to venture; and beside, I saw that a little thrown over a wide surface was throwing all away, and no benefit that was lasting would ensue. Ten pounds divided among a hundred, would not keep one from starvation many days; but applied to twenty, economically, might save those twenty till more efficient means might be taken. So much a day was allowed to each family, according to their number,—always cooking it myself, in their cabins, till they could and did do it prudently themselves. The turf was provided and the rent paid weekly, which must be done, or, in many cases, turning upon the street was the consequence: for it is no more than justice to observe, that there are some kind slaveholders in the United States, and there are some kind landlords in Ireland; but in too many cases both are synonymous terms, so far as power may be equal.

One of these miserable families was that of a widow. I found her creeping upon the street, one cold night, when snow was upon the ground. Her pitiful posture, bent over, leaning upon two sticks, with a little boy and girl behind her crying with the cold, induced me to inquire, and I found that she was actually lame, her legs much swollen, and her story proved to be a true one. She had been turned from the hospital as a hopeless case, and a poor, sick, starving friend had taken her in, and she had crawled out with a few boxes of matches to see if she could sell them, for she told me she could not yet bring herself to beg; she could work, and was willing to, could she get knitting or sewing. I inquired her number. "I will not deny it again," she replied; "I did so to a lady, soon after I came out of the hospital, for I was ashamed to be found in such a dreadful place, by a lady; but I have been so punished for that lie, that I will not do it again." Giving her a few pence, and meaning to take her by surprise if I found her at all, an indirect promise was made to call at some future day. At ten the next morning my way was made into that fearful street, and still more fearful alley which led to the cheerless abode I entered.

The reader may be informed that in the wealthy, beautiful city of Dublin, which can boast some of the finest architecture on earth, there are in retired streets and dark alleys, some of the most forbidding, most uncomfortable abodes that can be found in the wildest bogs of that wretched country. Finding my way through darkness and filth, a sight opened upon me, which, speaking moderately, was startling. When I had recovered a little, I saw on my right hand the miserable woman before-named, sitting in a dark corner on a little damp straw, which poorly defended her from the wet and muddy ground-floor she was occupying. The two ragged, hungry children were at her feet; on the other side of the empty grate (for there was not a spark of fire) sat the kind woman who had taken her in, on the same foundation of straw and mud, with her back against the wall. She was without a dress—she had pawned her last to pay her rent; her husband likewise had pawned his coat for the same purpose. He was lying upon the straw, with a fragment of a cotton shawl about him, for he had no shirt. They were all silent, and for a while I was mute. The woman first mentioned broke the pause, by saying, "This, I believe, is the kind lady I met last night: you have found the way to our dark place, and I am sorry we cannot ask you to sit down." There was not even a stool in the room. The young woman had been sick for weeks, and was now only able to sit up a little; but having neither food, fuel, or covering, nothing but death stared them in the face; and the most affecting part of the whole to me was the simple statement of the widow, who said, in the most resigned manner, "We have been talking, Mary and I, this morning, and counting off our days; we could not expect any relief, for I could not go out again, and she could not, and the farthest that the good God will give us on earth cannot be more than fourteen days. The children, may be," she added, "God would let her take with her, for they must soon starve if left." This had been a cool calculation made from the appearance of the present condition, and without the least murmuring they were bringing their minds to their circumstances. "You are willing to live longer," I said. "If the good God wills it," was the answer; "but we cannot see how."

They did live. Daily did I go and cook their food, or see it cooked, and daily did they improve; and in a few weeks many an apronful of shavings and blocks were brought to me from the coffin-shops, by the young woman who was sitting almost naked on the straw. They both were good expert knitters and good seamstresses; and my garments, which were approaching to a sisterhood with many of the going-down genteel ones, were soon put in tidy repair by this young woman. Often, late in the evening, would I hear a soft footstep on the stairs, followed by a gentle tap, and the unassuming Mary would enter with her bountiful supply of fire-kindling; and when she was told that less would do very well, and she should keep more for herself, she replied, "I can do with little, and you would not like to go to the shop for any." She watched my wardrobe, kept everything in the best repair, and studied my comfort first, before she seemed to know that she needed any. I had saved her life, she said, and that was more than all she could do for me; and the day that I sailed from Dublin for England, as I was hurrying along the street, some one caught me by my dress, and turning about, Mary stood before me, whom I had not seen for months, having been absent in the mountains. She had a basket on her arm, was comfortably clad, said she was selling fruit and vegetables and doing well; the other was still with her, in ill health, but not suffering for food. "Farewell, Mary, we shall meet no more on earth; may God fit us both for a better world!" "Shall I never see you again?—God be praised that he sent you to us!"

The man whom I found on the highway at Kingstown, having heard that I was going from Ireland, walked seven Irish miles that day, to see and thank me, and leave his blessing. I was out, and regretted much, for his sake as well as mine, that he was disappointed. These testimonials were more grateful to me than would have been a donation of plate from the government. They were God's testimonials—the offerings of the poor; and that heart is not to be envied that does not know their blessing.

Another feeble dying woman I found upon the street, one rainy day, who had reached a state of half-idiocy, and for two years was fed and partly clothed, whether I was in Dublin or not; and though she had a tolerable supply of food, her mind never rallied; yet she always knew and acknowledged, even to a weakness, her benefactress. She never has yet been made in the least to rely on herself; what she is bidden to do is done like a child, and then she is satisfied.

These few cases are given as specimens, not wishing to be tedious with such narrations, only to show the character of the famine, and its effects in general on the sufferers, with whom I was conversant. The distribution of the bread in the street was continued, not even Sabbaths excepted; my basket was often taken near the chapel door, and left in some house till I came out. So pressing at last was the crowd, that I dare not go into a shop to take out my purse to buy the most trifling article, and a bread-shop above all was avoided. There was no fear of violence, but the dreadful importuning, falling upon their knees, clasping their emaciated hands, and their glaring eyes fixed upon me, were quite too much. Sometimes I endeavored to steal into a shop in the evening unperceived, but never succeeded.

Hunger, in its incipient stages, never sleeps, never neglects its watch, but continues sharpening the inventive faculties, till, like the drunkard's thirst, intrigue and dissimulation give startling proof of the varied materials which compose the entire man. From the first look that was presented me by the starving man in Kingstown, a common desire for food never returned, so that through the winter, but little was necessary for my wants. Twopence halfpenny worth of cocoa for a week, threepence halfpenny for milk, threepence for sugar, and fourteenpence for bread; making in all twenty-three pence, was the most ever used; but in a few weeks, necessity compelled a reducing the expense, from which not the least inconvenience was felt. My practice was to pay the mistress for lodgings weekly, in advance, that she might feel no uneasiness; and after doing this one Monday morning, my purse promptly told me that Saturday night would leave my poor pensioners, one in particular, without a shelter, if the usual quantity of food were taken. Something must be done: money was exhausted, and from no human source could I that week look for more. In a paper I had a pound of Indian meal—the cocoa, milk and sugar were stopped, and the meal made into gruel, twenty-three pence was reduced to fourteen; and when the meal was expended, a penny roll was taken into my muff as the day's excursion commenced, and eaten when and where opportunity best presented, and inclination most strongly prompted. The widow's rent was paid, no inconvenience felt, and before the next demand was made, an unexpected call for a few books which I had published in Scotland, put me in possession of a little more, so that the "cruise of oil" never failed. The pensioners were fed in the mean time from their own industry, for the women had been provided with knitting, which though poorly paid, yet kept them from actual hunger. Another expedient I never omitted when available.

The people of Dublin, among the comfortable classes, whatever hospitality they might manifest toward guests and visitors, had never troubled themselves by looking into the real home wants of the suffering poor. Enough they thought that societies of all kinds abounded, and a poor-house besides, were claims upon their purses to a full equivalent for all their consciences required, and to visit them was quite unlady-like, if not dangerous. To many of these I had access as a matter of curiosity, to hear from me the tales of starvation, which they were now to have dealt out unsparingly; and so kind were the most of them that the interview generally ended by an invitation to eat, which was never refused when needed, and the meal thus saved was always given to the hungry. These people would not have given a shilling in money, but many and many a meal of gruel was provided from these hap-hazard lunches, through that sad winter; and, more than this, a kind woman who is now in her grave, and with whom I had once lodged, gave me an invitation, which was to continue during my labors in Dublin, of coming to dine with her every Sabbath; and then a bountiful, well-cooked dinner of vegetables and a pudding were always provided. These kind Sabbath dinners were all I tasted that winter; two meals a day for the other six, made me quite satisfied. Something better was now in reserve.