Letter to a London Friend

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter V (12) | Start of Chapter

A letter is here inserted, which will show faintly the manner of distributing donations, and the habits of the people.

"Belmullet, October 30th, 1847.

"My Dear Sir:—Please prepare yourself. I am about applying some of those "offensive points" in my character, which I so eminently possess; and which may require not only your true charity, but untiring patience, to plod through. I have been riding and walking through desolate Erris, and in worse than despair, if possible, have sat down, asking, What am I to do? What can I do?

"Every effort of the friends of Ireland is baffled by the demoralizing effects that feeding a starving peasantry without labor has produced. And now the sound again is echoing and re-echoing, that on the 1st of November, the boilers upon mountain and in glen would be foaming and splashing with Indian meal; while the various idlers shall have nothing to do but fight their way over necks of old women and starved children, missiles of policemen, elbows and fists of aspirants, to secure the lucky hodge-podge into can and noggin, pot and bucket; and trail over ditch and through bog, from a quarter of a mile to five, as his hap may be; then to sit down in his mud-built cabin, sup and gulp down the boon, lie down upon his straw till the hour of nine or ten will again summon him to the next warlike encounter.

"Indeed, sir, your friend who was last here said he could think of nothing better, than to take up a turf cabin with its inmates and appurtenances, and set it down in England. I can outdo him in invention. I would take some half-dozen of your George Thompsons—if so many truly independent members you have—and would transport them through the waste lands of Erris, and seat them snugly around a boiler under full play. They should sit unobserved, and see the whole working of the machinery. The array of rags—each equipped with his canteen to hold his precious gift, should approach; the ghastly features, staring eyes, bony fingers, slender legs; in fact, ghosts and hobgoblins, hags and imps, should draw near, the fighting and tearing, tumbling and scratching should commence and go on, till the boiler was emptied, and these fac similes of fighting dogs, tigers, and wolves, had well cleared the premises. I then would invite them to a seat in Samuel Stock's, Samuel Bourne's, and James O'Donnell's parlors. Then let them patiently watch from ten to twelve, from twelve to two, and perchance from two till four, and witness the intensity of action in making out lines, and diagrams, and figures, to show in plain black and white to government that Pat Flannagan, Samuel Murphy, Biddy Aigin, and Molly Sullivan, had each his and her pound of meal made into a stirabout, on the 3d of November, Anno Domini 1847. And let it be understood that these Pat Flannagans, Aigins, and Murphys had only to spend the day in the terrific contests before described, to earn this pound of meal, and then betake themselves to mountains and dens, turf hovels, and mud hovels, to crawl in, and then and there 'sup up' this life-giving, life-inspiring stimulus. They should further be told that these Stocks, Bournes, O'Donnels, &c. had the privilege of handing over these nightly made out documents to officers, paid from six to ten, from ten to twenty shillings per day, that they might have the promise of a six months' nightly campaign, should papers be found to be true and legible, as aforetime.

"This is but a short preface to the story; my heart sickens at looking over the utter wasting of all that was once cheerful, interesting, and kind in these peasantry. Hunger and idleness have left them a prey to every immorality; and if they do not soon practice every vice attendant on such a state of things, it will be because they have not the power. Many are now maniacs, some desperate, and some idiots. Human nature is coming forth in every deformity that she can put on, while in the flesh; and should I stay in Ireland six months longer, I shall not be astonished at seeing any deeds of wickedness performed, even by those who one year ago might apparently have been as free from guilt as any among us. I have not been able yet, with all my republican training, to lose the old-school principle of man's total lost state. I have never yet seen him without the restraints of custom or religion anything but a demon in embryo, if not in full maturity; doing not only what he can, but sighing and longing to do more. The floodgates in Ireland are certainly set open, and the torrent has already made fearful ravages.

"From Clare and Tipperary what do we hear? One post after another runs to tell that not only deeds of darkness are done, but deeds of daylight desperation, sufficient to startle the firmest. What Moses shall stand up to plead with God? What Phineas shall rush in to stay the plague? Where are your men of moral, yes, of spiritual might? You have them; then bring them out! I look across that narrow channel. I see the graves of martyrs. I see the graves of men whose daring minds stood forth in all the majesty of greatness, to speak for truth and justice; and though they may long since have taken flight, where are their mantles? Where is your George Thompson? He who shook the United States from Maine to Georgia, in pleading long and loud for the down-trodden black man? Can he not, will he not lift his voice for poor Ireland? She who stands shivering, sinking on the Isthmus, between two worlds, apparently not fit for either. Will he not reach forth a kindly hand, and try to snatch this once interesting and lovely, though now forlorn and forsaken creature, from her fearful position? Must she, shall she die? Will proud England lose so bright a gem as Ireland might have been in her crown? Will she lose her; when the distaff, and the spade, the plow and the fishing net, might again make her mountains and her valleys rejoice!—When the song of the husbandman and the laugh of the milkmaid, might make her green isle the home of thousands, who are now sinking and dying in wasting despair.

"Do you say she is intriguing—she is indolent and treacherous? Try her once more; put instruments of working warfare into her hands; hold up the soul-stirring stimulus of remuneration to her; give her no time for meditating plunder and bloodshed; give her no inducement to be reckless of a life that exists only to suffer. Feed her not in idleness, nor taunt her with her nakedness and poverty, till her wasted, palsied limbs have been washed and clothed—till her empty stomach has been filled, and filled too with food of her own earning, when she shall have strength to do it. Give her a little spot on the loved isle she can call her own, where she can 'sit under her own vine and fig-tree, and none to make her afraid,' and force her not to flee to a distant clime to purchase that bread that would be sweeter on her own native soil. Do you say you cannot feed and pay four millions of these your subjects? Then call on your transatlantic sister to give you food for them. The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; and though she has a right to say she will not send Ireland food to keep them strong in idleness, she has no right to say she will not send them food to give them strength for labor. She has not a heart to say it; foul as her hands may be with slavery, yet she will feed the hungry with a cheerful hand. If she has not done her duty there is room for repentance, yes, effectual repentance. Her fields, the past season, have been waving with rich corn, and her storehouses are filling with the golden harvest. You have given her gold in profusion, for the produce of her soil. The blast of the potatoe has been to her the blossoming and ripening of her pastures—her waving fields of pulse and corn. The husbandman has been stimulated to plow up fresh lands, so that he might fill his granaries abundantly with the rich harvest, because free trade has opened your ports, and you will demand more of his corn; and why should he not send over a few sheaves, as a thank-offering to God, for all this bounty? America will do it if required; but an inquiry has come across the ocean: Is it right to feed a country to encourage idleness—will not the evil be much greater than the good? Answer, you who are statesmen—you who are Christians; answer, you who can. Look at the peasantry of Ireland three years ago, and look at them now! Even their enemies must acknowledge that they are a tractable race, to have developed so much intrigue and cunning under the training of the last two years. Shall I scold, shall I preach, shall I entreat any more? What is woman's legislating amid the din of so many wise magicians, soothsayers, and astrologers, as have set up for Ireland the last two years. Prophets and priests have so far failed; but certainly there must be a true chord to strike somewhere; for what is now wrong, when traced to its source, may disclose the hidden cause of the evil, and put the willing investigator into a position to work an amendment.

"You, sir, who know Erris, tell, if you can, how the landlords can support the poor by taxation, to give them food, when the few resident landlords are nothing, and worse than nothing, for they are paupers in the full sense of the word. What can Samuel Bourne, James O'Donnell, and such like men do in their present position? If they have done wrong, and do it no more, the torrent is so strong that they cannot withstand it. I must, and will plead, though I plead in vain, that something may be done to give them work. I have just received a letter from the curate of Bingham's Town, saying that he could set all his poor parish, both the women and children, to work, and find a market for their knitting and cloth, if he could command a few pounds to purchase the materials. He is young and indefatigable, kind-hearted and poor, and no proselyte. Mrs. Stock has done well in her industrial department. The Hon. William Butler has purchased cloth of her, for a coat to wear himself, which the poor women spun, and gave a good price for it.

"I pray you, sir, if this malignant letter do not terrify you, write and say what must be done.

"A. Nicholson."