Manner of Burying the Starving

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter V (5) | Start of Chapter

In the morning, when the sun was rising, we ascended a hill, among the desolate cabins, where once was the song of health, and where far off in the west, the sea stretched wide, and the variegated clouds gilded with the morning sun, were dipping apparently in its waters.

This, said a daughter of the family, was once a pretty and a grand spot; here, two years ago, these desolate fields were cultivated, and content and cheerfulness were in every cabin. Now, from morning to night they wander in search of a turnip, or go to the sea for sea-weed to boil, and often have we found a corpse at the door, that the brother you see “might put a board on ’em.”

We have often seen an ass passing our window carrying a corpse, wound about with some old remnant of a blanket or sheet; and thus, flung across its back, a father or mother, wife or husband, was carried to the grave.

Sometimes, when the corpse was a little child, or it might be more than one, they were put into a couple of baskets, and thus balanced upon the sides of the ass, this melancholy hearse proceeded on without a friend to follow it, but the one who was guiding the beast.

These burials tell more of the paralysing effects of famine than anything else can do; for the Irish in all ages, have been celebrated for their attention to the interment of their dead, sparing no expense.

When I stood in the burying-ground in that parish, I saw the brown silken hair of a young girl, waving gently through a little cleft of stones, that lay loosely upon her young breast. They had not room to put her beneath the surface, but slightly, and a little green grass was pulled and spread over, and then covered with stones. I never shall forget it.

“The blast of the desert comes,

Her loose hair flew on the wind.”

In some parts the soil was manured with the slain. When the famine first commenced, efforts were made to procure coffins; but the distress became so great to the living, that every penny that could be procured must be given for food; and the famished relatives, at last, were grateful if some hand stronger than theirs would dig the pit, and put down the uncoffined body.

One Sabbath, when I was in Erris, the day was so stormy that the church service was suspended. A barefooted woman, who one year before had called to sell milk and kept a fine dairy, came into the house where I was, and calling me by name, said: “Will ye give me something to buy a coffin to put on my husband; he died yesterday on me, and it would be a pity to put him in the ground without a board, and he is so swelled, ma’am, not a ha’porth of his legs or belly but is ready to burst, and but a fivepence-halfpenny could I gather, and the little boys are ashamed to go out and ask the charity for him.”

This is an illustration not only of the state into which famine has thrown the country, but the apathy of feeling which the most tender-hearted people on the globe manifested. A woman compelled to go out in a most perilous storm, upon a wild sea-coast, unprotected by clothes, and without a morsel of food for twenty-four hours, to procure a coffin for her husband, who had died by starvation!