Old Head

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter VII (23) | Start of Chapter

April 17th.—With a sister of Peter Kelly, I went to "Old Head," and was first introduced into one of the dreadful pauper schools, where ninety children received a piece of black bread once a-day. It was a sad sight, most of them were in a state of rags, barefooted, and squatted on the floor, waiting for a few ounces of bread, with but here and there a fragment of a book. The clean schoolmaster, on a cold day, was clad in a white vest and linen pantaloons, making the last effort to appear respectable, laboring for the remuneration of a penny a week from each family, if by chance the family could furnish it. These ninety all belonged to Mrs. Garvey's tenantry, and there were others looking on who had come in likewise, not belonging to her lands, who wishfully stood by, without receiving one morsel. I looked till my satiated eyes turned away at a pitiful sight like this. Neither the neat cottage, the old sea, nor my favorite Croagh Patrick, could give satisfaction in a wilderness of woe like this. When will these dreadful scenes find an end?

Naught but desolation and death reigned; and the voice of nature, which was always so pleasant on the sea-coast, now, united with the whistling of the wind, seemed only to be howling in sad response to the moans and entreaties of the starving around me. The "holy well," where the inimitable drawing of the blind girl was taken, is near this place. In years gone by this well was a frequented spot, where invalids went to be healed. It is now surrounded by stone, covered with earth, and a path about gives the trodden impress of many a knee, where the postulant goes round seven times, repeating a "Paternoster" at every revolution, and drops a stone, which tells that the duty is performed. A hole is shown in a stone, where the holy St. Patrick knelt till he wore the stone away. A poor peasant girl, in the simplicity of her heart, explained all the ceremonies of the devotees and virtues of the well, regretting that the priests had forbidden the practice now. A company soon entered the church-yard and set down a white coffin, waiting till the widow of the deceased should bring a spade to open the grave; and while the dirt was being taken away she sat down, leaning upon the coffin, setting up the Irish wail in the most pathetic manner; she, by snatches, rehearsed his good qualities, then burst into a gush of tears, then commenced in Irish, as the meager English has no words to express the height of grief, madness, or joy. The ground was opened but a few inches when the coffin of another was touched. The grave-yards are everywhere filled so near the surface that dogs have access, and some parts of the body are often exposed.

A debate was now in progress respecting good works and the importance of being baptized into the true church. Mrs. G., who professed to be a papist, disputed the ground with them, till the contest became so sharp that I retired, for their darkness was painful; it seemed like the valley and shadow of death, temporally and spiritually.