Sacks, and Government Arrangements for Distribution of Meal

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter III (3) | Start of Chapter

What became of all the tens of thousands of sacks, or in other words, who paid for them? For one, I must answer, that when mine were delivered through the "Central Committee," a promise was made, that the money paid for them should be refunded when the sacks were returned. This was immediately done; but the money was withheld with no other explanation, but that I must sell meal enough to pay for them. This meal was the property of the poor, and a property most sacred, because life was suspended on it, and the meal was sent in the best manner to preserve it, and taking it out injured it most seriously, and sometimes fatally, and the article taken from their hungry mouths to pay for sacks, was, besides robbing them of their own, deducting so much from life. I could not, I dare not, and I did not comply.

This circumstance is important, not only because it involves a great principle, but as furnishing a solution, as far as it goes, why the poor were so little benefited by the bounties sent them from abroad. The hungry, it should be borne in mind, for whom these donations were sent, had no control of what was virtually their own exclusively, but must be content to receive it by proxy, in great or small parcels, in a good or bad state, at the dispenser's option; consequently, they did not always have what belonged to them, and if the meal and rice paid for the sacks, as mine were required to do, a great deduction must be made from the original amount. I once heard a woman observe, whose husband had large donations intrusted to him, that they had £200 worth of sacks, which must be paid for out of the meal, as they could not do it. These two facts are the only tangible ones on this subject, which came under my cognizance. I name them, not to expose faults which should be concealed, nor to find fault for the gratification of doing so; but reading in a book often quoted for its veracity, that "on the side of the oppressor there was power, but they had no comforter," conscience compels me to throw into the scale every particle of truth which belongs to the poor, who have been so much accused of ingratitude toward their benefactors. They never were ungrateful to their real benefactors; but second-handed ones, like me, who had power intrusted, did not all of them act wisely, nor for the best good of the poor at all times. Some of this was ignorance; some who did not know how to prepare the food sent it to them in the most economical way; and others, who had never felt hunger, took care to guard their own stomachs in good time against its attacks, which necessarily required much free feeding and drinking to keep up health and strength for the arduous work; consequently all this caused delay, and twenty-four, forty-eight, and often more hours, were the starving obliged to wait till their time should come to be served.

My labors were constant, but not complex, having arranged that eight in the morning must be the time for giving the donations, and that a delay till nine on the part of the beneficiaries, would debar them the twenty-four hours' supply. They had all been lectured and duly trained previously, that if any appeared dirty, or brought a fresh beneficiary without my knowledge, they should forfeit their own donations. The requirement of eight o'clock attendance was necessary, because my visits in Cook street were requisite through the day, and I was obliged to rise at four in the morning to copy manuscript and correct proof sheets till seven; then my penny roll was taken, and all put in due readiness for the distribution. The rooms below me were occupied as offices, which were opened at nine, and the appearance of bare feet, tatters, and sacks of meal, would not be at all in unison with the refinement of gentlemen; and above all it was done so early, that the train of beggars, which would have been drawn at any other hour, was avoided. Thus, every hour was time occupied, without the least self-denial. The greatest suffering was, during the few hours devoted to sleep, when I was occasionally awakened by hearing some moan of distress under my window. My lodging-places in Ireland had been sometimes of quite a peculiar kind; and here, in the beautiful city of Dublin, in a tall house overlooking the Liffey, was my proud heritage—my bed was a short sofa, or apology for one, placed in the middle of barrels of meal, spread upon blankets on the floor, and one crazy old chair, which served to make out my lodging at night, and provide a seat while copying manuscripts; an old deal table, with a New York Tribune for a table-cloth, made up the furniture of that happy room. But this bliss was limited, every day the quantity of meal lessened, and my purse grew lighter. The poor looked on, and said, "Praise God, we shall all be destrawed;" but God was better to them than their fears—they did not die.

Mine was more than a happy lot. Never before in all my privations in Ireland, had I tested the value of being early trained under the discipline of a rational mother, who fitted me, when a child, for the exigencies of life; who not only by precept taught me, that in going through the journey of this world I should meet with rough roads and stormy weather, and not always have a covered carriage; that sometimes I should have a hot supper, sometimes a cold one—sometimes a welcome greeting, and sometimes a repulsive one; but she had instructed me too, by precept and example, that my hands were to be employed in all that was useful, and that idleness was both disgraceful and sinful. This practical knowledge was never more extensively useful to me than now; knowing how to prepare the Indian meal and rice so that it was palatable, and no waste. Yet with these appliances, the meal at last failed. No skill in cooking would make it last like the widow's barrel; and though I had learned not to distrust, yet it cannot be said that I felt the same animation in giving out the last day's mess as the first. I had a little money left, and the weather was getting warmer: a portion, at least, of what had been wanted for fuel, could be reserved for food. I hoped that on the ocean there might be something destined for me; though not the least intimation was given to these poor ones, but they were urged to apply to some of the Relief Associations.

One unfortunate man was the only one that died who had received any aid from me; and his life was forgetfully left to go gradually out, when it might have been saved. A curate called and found him recruiting from the last stage of starvation in which I first found him, and kindly gave him a little money and food, promising that he would provide for him in future, and relieve me, as so many were on my hands. The curate forgot him. Three weeks after I called to see him;—a girl of two years was dying on a litter of straw in the corner, nestled by the emaciated father, who was too weak to know the suffering of his child; and in two days they were both dead. He had been "forgotten by his neighbors," his wife was in the hospital; he sat waiting, as was common, in patient hope, till death relieved him.

Cases of death were not so common in Dublin as in many cities; the Society of Friends did much to stay the plague, and their work was carried on by different means; their laborers, in most cases, were volunteers, who asked no reward but that of doing good. How many of the poor bless the name of William Forster, and Joseph Crosfield, from England, for their labors of love; who, on the 28th of December, 1846, reached Dublin, made their object known to that Committee, whose views and operations harmonized, and thence they proceeded on their mission of love and mercy. Their graphic report is before the world, as well as others of that denomination of Christians, James Luke, Marcus Goodbody, William Dillwyn Sims, and William Todhunter. These men, moved by high and lofty feelings, spent no time in idle commenting on the Protestant or Papist faith—the Radical, Whig, or Tory politics; but looked at things as they were, and faithfully recorded what they saw. Not only did they record, but they relieved. They talked and wrote, but acted more; and such a lasting impression have their labors left, that the next summer, as I followed in their wake through the country, the name of the "blessed William Forster" was on the lips of the poor cabiners, and it was from their testimony that his name and good deeds first reached me. William Bennett, too, passed six weeks in Ireland, and a clear and concise account was recorded by himself, of the state of the famine; though his own beneficence, which was not scanty, has not been definitely known, because he acted as an individual; therefore he was not responsible to any society.

As the pestilence followed the famine, the entire country seemed to be sinking into the vortex, and a knowledge of Ireland was gaining by all classes of people, both in and out of the country. An innovation was made, promising good results, into the long-established habits and condition of that people, which nothing before had done. Poverty was divested of every mask; and from the mud cabin to the estated gentleman's abode, all strangers who wished, without the usual circuitous ceremony, could gain access. The landlord, who had long sported at his ease, was beginning to pay a penalty of which he had never dreamed; the tree, which was planted centuries ago, was now beginning to yield an exuberant crop; the starved tenants are driven into the "Union," or turned defenseless into the storm, and, in either case, the rents were left unpaid. The landlord growls, but growls in vain: the "lazy dogs," who are not in the poor-house, drawing enormous rates from his extensive farms, are at his doors, begging bread, or lying dead under his windows, waiting for "the board to be put on 'em," as they called a coffin. Coffins were now becoming scarce, and in the mountainous regions and islands, two rough boards, with the corpse, in the rags which were about it when the breath departed, placed between these, and a straw rope wound about, was the coveted boon which clung to them to the last.