Doings of the Women in Belfast

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter III (7) | Start of Chapter

The Belfast Ladies' Association embraced an object which lives and tells, and will continue to do so, when they who formed it shall be no more on earth. It was on January 1st, 1847, that the first meeting was held in the Commercial Buildings, by ladies of all religious denominations; and they there resolved to form a Society, for the purpose of raising a fund to be appropriated to afflicted localities, without any regard to religious distinctions. Visiting soon commenced, under the titles of Corresponding Committee, Industrial Committee, Clothing Committee, and Collecting Committee. Without inserting the names of these indefatigable ladies, it may be recorded that more than one hundred and fifty were associated in this work; the highways and hedges were faithfully visited, the poor sought out, their condition cared for, and the children of the most degraded class were taken and placed in a school, which continues to flourish on an extensive scale. This school has the benefit of being taught the elementary branches of an education, and the most useful needlework and knitting; and the squalid looks of the children were soon exchanged for health, and that indifference to appearance which the hungry, neglected poor soon wear, was, like magic almost, transformed into a becoming tidiness and self-respect.

Though many had never before known anything of sewing or knitting, yet they soon produced specimens praiseworthy to teacher and scholar, and by this industry earned a little each week which they could call their own. Other schools of the kind multiplied in almost every part of Ireland, especially in Connaught, where the exertions of Dr. Edgar, who explored this province, have been a great blessing in this respect. Many a poor child by these schools has been made to look up with a hope which was entirely new—a hope that in after days she might wear a shawl and a bonnet, write a good letter, make a dress, &c. The happy effects of industry on the minds of the children were striking. That passive indifference to all but how a morsel of bread should be obtained, was exchanged for a becoming manner and animated countenance, lighted up by the happy consciousness that industry was a stepping-stone which would justly and honorably give them a place among the comfortable and respectable of the earth. And again, to quote Dr. Edgar, every look seemed to say, "They have had in their work a full reward." And he adds, "Thus an independent, self-supporting, and useful generation may be raised, who will be less at the mercy of changing seasons; and who, when the day of trouble comes, will have some resources on which to draw."

My greatest object in writing this sketch of the famine being to show its effects on all classes, rather than to detail scenes of death by starvation, a few sketches only of this kind in passing along will be given, for the purpose of illustrating the principle of mind as it developes itself in the varied changes through which it is called to pass. These Industrial Schools, which I afterward visited when passing through Connaught in 1847 and 1848, were subjects of the deepest interest; for to me they told the whole story of Ireland's wrongs and Ireland's remedy. They told me, that when usurpation robbed them of the means of industry, for their own good, that oppression, confined this industry to the personal benefits of the oppressor, and thus deadened every natural excitement to labor, which promised nothing but a bare subsistence among the children of men who looked down with contempt upon them, because, by this "hewing of wood and drawing of water," they had been kept in degraded, unrequited servitude; but now that an industry, founded on righteous principles, was springing up—an industry that not only rewarded but elevated—the convenient term, "lazy Irish," was hiding its slanderous head.

The Belfast Association felt this more and more, as they received returns from Connaught of the happy effects of these schools, and their hearts were more and more encouraged in pursuing these labors of love. They met often, they planned, they talked together of the best means to accomplish the most good; and one great beauty of these meetings was, no one said to her sister, "Stand by, for I am holier than thou." Different parties who had never mingled, now felt one common interest. She who had much brought in of her abundance, and she who had little brought in her mite. While these benevolent women were teaching the practice of industry to the poor, they found the benefit react upon themselves, for they too must be industrious. This new, this arduous, long-neglected work, required not only their skill but their energies, to put and keep the vast machinery in motion. Money was not all that was requisite in the work. The abodes of the most wretched must be visited; and, though before the famine they had scarcely dreamed of the suffering that was in their city, and could not believe that their intelligent, industrious town was in much real want, when they found that many uncomplaining children of distress had been struggling for life long before the famine, they doubled if possible their energies, and cheerfully showed by individual exertion, that if they had previously overlooked this pleasing duty, they would repair as far as possible all that had been neglected before on their part. The men, too, showed themselves efficient co-workers; they contributed, many of them bountifully, and some visited too. They erected a bath-house for the benefit of laborers and the poor of all classes, to which was attached a laundress, that the poor in the most economical way could be provided with materials for this important handmaid to health and respectability—cleanliness.

I loved to linger in Belfast. All seemed to be life, and life to some purpose. All hearts seemed to be awakened to one and the same object, to do good most efficiently; and one peculiar trait was here perceivable—none of that desire for who should be greatest seemed prevalent. A mutual confidence prevailed. One would tell me enthusiastically, that she did not know how the association could manage without Maria Webb; her judgment was always the turning point in all difficulties. Maria Webb would expatiate on the efficiency of Mary Ireland, as a visitor and manager; a third would regret that the indefatigable Miss M'Cracken, she feared, would soon leave us, as her age had passed the line of three-score years and ten; another expatiated on the faithful Miss ——, who was a Roman Catholic, but whose labors of love had been untiring; and she was quite sorry that difference in religious profession had so long kept so many useful members at a distance, &c. This to a stranger, could probably be viewed with a sober, impartial eye, that those moving in the machinery could not; and to me it looked like a heavenly influence distilling unperceived into the hearts of all, like the dew, which falls alike on the garden flower or mountain weed.