Kind Judge

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter II (5) | Start of Chapter

A man had died from hunger, and his widow had gone into the plowed field of her landlord to try to pick a few potatoes in the ridges which might be remaining since the harvest; she found a few—the landlord saw her—sent a magistrate to the cabin, who found three children in a state of starvation, and nothing in the cabin but the pot, which was over the fire.

He demanded of her to show him the potatoes—she hesitated; he inquired what she had in the pot—she was silent; he looked in, and saw a dog, with the handful of potatoes she had gathered from the field.

The sight of the wretched cabin, and still more, the despairing looks of the poor silent mother and the famished children, crouched in fear in a dark corner, so touched the heart of the magistrate, that he took the pot from the fire, bade the woman to follow him, and they went to the court-room together.

He presented the pot, containing the dog and the handful of potatoes, to the astonished judge.

He called the woman—interrogated her kindly. She told him they sat in their desolate cabin two entire days, without eating, before she killed the half-famished dog; that she did not think she was stealing, to glean after the harvest was gathered.

The judge gave her three pounds from his own purse; told her when she had used that to come again to him.

This was a compassionate judge,—and would to God Ireland could boast of many such.

I heard that story, heart-rending as it was, and soon found that it was but a prelude to facts of daily, yes, hourly occurrence, still more appalling.

The work of death now commenced; the volcano, over which I felt that Ireland was walking, had burst, though its appearance was wholly different from anything I had ever conceived; a famine was always in Ireland, in a certain degree; and so common were beggars, and so many were always but just struggling for life, that not until thousands were reduced to the like condition of the woman last mentioned, did those, who had never begged, make their wants known.

They picked over and picked out their blackened potatoes, and even ate the decayed ones, till many were made sick, before the real state of the country was known; and when it fell, it fell like an avalanche, sweeping at once the entire land.

No parish need be anxious for neighboring ones—each had enough under his own eye, and at his own door, to drain all resources, and keep alive his sympathy.

It was some months before the rich really believed that the poor were not making false pretenses; for at such a distance had they ever kept themselves from the “lower order,” who were all “dirty and lazy,” that many of them had never realized that four millions of people were subsisting entirely on the potato, and that another million ate them six days out of seven, entirely; they did not realize that these “lazy ones” had worked six or eight months in the year for eightpence and tenpence, but more for sixpence, and even threepence in the southern parts, and the other four months been “idle” because “no man had hired them;” they did not realize that the disgusting rags with which these “lazy” ones disgraced their very gates, and shocked all decency, were the rags which they had contributed to provide; and such were often heard to say that this judgment was what they might expect, as a reward of their “religion and idleness.”

But the wave rolled on; the slain were multiplied; the dead by the way-side, and the more revolting sights of families found in the darkest corner of a cabin, in one putrid mass, where, in many cases, the cabin was tumbled down upon them to give them a burial, was somewhat convincing, even to those who had doubted much from the beginning.

There were some peculiarities in this famine which history has not recorded in any other.

It may be scrupled whether any were heard to say that they did not deserve it—that they had not been such sinners above all others, that they must suffer so much—and so little plundering was never known in any famine as this; scarcely ever was a bread shop disturbed, though the poor creatures have been found dead under its window, in sight of it; the old proverb that “hunger will break through a stone wall,” was never exemplified during the famine; some carts, laden with meal, have been pillaged, and some boats have been robbed, but these were not common occurrences; occasionally, in the cities, would a man throw a stone at a street lamp, or do some other trifling mischief, always in presence of a policeman, that he might be put in jail, where the law must feed him.

This was certainly an alternative for a starving man not so much to be censured as admired.

Let it be stated that these men had applied for work in vain.

I will descend to particulars; and state what my eyes have seen and my ears have heard, and be answerable for whatever statements are thus made.