Irish Housekeeping

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter II (2) | Start of Chapter

From June 1844 to December 1840, though I could say with the disciples returning from Emmaus, that "my heart burned within me," yet with them I must add, my "eyes were holden," that I had not yet seen the ultimate object, nor had the slightest curiosity been awakened as to the result of the researches which had been made, who would understand or misunderstand, who would approve or condemn. Ireland's pride and Ireland's humility, her wealth and her poverty, her beauty and deformity, had all been tested in a degree, and the causes of her poverty stood out in such bold relief, that no special revelation, either human or divine, was requisite to give a solution.

"Will not God be avenged on such a nation as this?" was the constant question urging me, and the echo is still sounding as the mighty wave is now rolling over the proud ones who have "held the poor in derision," and the only answer is, "What will ye do in the end thereof?" What avails the multiplicity of prayers while the poor are oppressed? The surplice, the gown, or the robe will not hide the stain; the "leprosy lies deep within." "For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still."

Too long have ye "dwelt in your ceiled houses," while the poor, who have "reaped down your fields for naught," have been sitting in their floorless, smoky cabins, on the scanty patch where they have been allowed to crouch, till your authority should bid them depart, to eat their potato on some bog or ditch elsewhere. And more fearful than all, now that the root on which you have fed them for centuries is taken away; famished and naked you drive them into the pitiless storm. Ye withhold from them labor, and then call them "idle;" ye give them work without any just equivalent, and then cry out when the scanty food is blasted, " Improvidence, Improvidence!"—that had these "idlers" put by anything for a "rainy day," they might have had money to have bought bread! That idleness and improvidence, (which are generally companions,) are two great evils of Ireland, must be acknowledged. The rich are idle from a silly pride and long habits of indulgence; and the poor, because no man "hires them."

"Would you have us work," said a shopkeeper's wife, "when we can get scores of girls, glad to do it, for 10s. a quarter?" Here is one of the sources of evil: the "ways of the household," which are specially allotted to the "prudent wife," are made over to the uninterested servant; because this poor servant was "glad" to work for a little more than nothing. The keys of the house are peculiarly the care of the mistress, and with these well pocketed she prevents all inroads into her larder, and the servant may eat her potato at option, for in but few families is she allowed bread and butter or tea. This keeping everything locked, we are told, is to keep servants from theft—the surest method of making them thieves. Their late hours of rising and of meals, necessarily unhinge all that is good in housekeeping; and where all is left to servants, economy must come in by-the-by. The middle class, such as shopkeepers, good farmers, and tradesmen of all kinds, live on a few articles of diet, and the mistress seldom taxes her ingenuity to apply the useful proverb, "To make one thing meet another." Bread, butter, tea, and an egg, are the ultimatum of a breakfast, at nine, and often ten in the morning; then a yawning about, or perhaps a little fancy knitting, till lunch, which is a piece of cold meat and bread, and in the higher classes wine; a dinner from four to six, and tea often brought on before leaving the table, or in an hour after. The dinner is, among farmers and tradesmen, mostly pork, put upon a platter with cabbage, and potatoes served in two ways: first, brought on in the jackets, as they are boiled; next dish, which is the dessert in most houses, the potatoes are browned upon a griddle, which gives them a good flavor. Bread is seldom or never taken with potatoes, and a pudding is rarely seen, except on special occasions. Pies are often made; but these are the chief commodities, and always ended by "hot whisky punch." This accompaniment is so necessary, that in genteel families a handsome copper kettle is kept for the special purpose, which is put upon a frame in the center of a table.

The "lower order" only, are teetotalers, because, as the reason is often given, "it was necessary for them, they were so ignorant and vulgar." Now what, must it be expected, could the daughters of such a family be? Why, the exact copy of the mother; the servant must do for her what would be for her own health, and what is actually her duty to perform. She is sent to school, and goes the routine of a genteel education. She can work Berlin wool, perhaps read French, and possibly German, play the piano, and write a commonplace letter, in angular writing, made on purpose for the ladies; but with all this her mind is not cultivated, her heart is not disciplined. She looks pretty, walks genteelly, and talks sometimes quite enchantingly; but with all these appurtenances, the inquiry must and does arise—"What are you good for?" The little, common, necessary daily duties which belong to woman, are unheeded; and when any exigencies fall upon her, she has no alternative. A mind always accustomed to the same routine, and that a frivolous one, cannot, when unexpected adversity comes, plunge into new difficult duties and perform them efficiently. If she have always had a dressmaker to fit her apparel and a waiting-maid to put it on, how can she, should her husband become a bankrupt, be qualified to make and repair the garments for herself and children, which probably she must do, or her children be in a very untidy state.

Now, as trifling as these things appear to many, yet Ireland has suffered, and is still doomed to suffer deeply, on these accounts. Many of these genteel ones are reduced to the last extremity, the mistresses not being able to give even the 10s. per quarter to a servant. She knows not how economically to prepare the scanty food which her husband may provide; and multitudes of this class are either in the walls of the union, or hovering about its precincts.

When the famine had actually come, and all the country was aghast, when supplies from all parts were poured in,—what was done with these supplies? Why, the best that these inefficient housekeepers could do. The rice and Indian meal, both of which are excellent articles of food, were cooked in such a manner that, in most cases, they were actually unhealthy, and in all cases unpalatable. So unused were they to the use of that common article, rice, that they steeped it the night before, then poured the water off, without rubbing, and for three and four hours they boiled, stirred, and simmered this, till it became a watery jelly, disgusting to the eye and unsavory to the taste, for they never salted it; besides unwholesome for the stomachs of those who had always used a dry potato for food. The poor complained that it made them sick; they were accused of being ungrateful, and sometimes told they should not have any more; and the difficulty, if possible, was increased, by giving it out uncooked,—for the starving ones in the towns had no fuel and they could not keep up a fire to stew it for hours, and many of them ate it raw, which was certainly better, when they had good teeth, than cooked in this unsavory way.