Relief Officers

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter IX (4) | Start of Chapter

A little for the Relief Officers at parting. To those who have been intrusted with money for the poor, and have been bountifully paid for the care of the loan put in your hands, if you have done by the starving poor, as you would that they should do unto you in like circumstances—if you have given the same quality and quantity of bread, that you should be willing to receive and eat—if you have never sent a starving one empty away, when you had it by you, because ease would be disturbed—if dinners and toasts have not drained any money that belonged to the poor, then "well done, good and faithful servant;" and if you have may you be forgiven, and never be left "to feel the hunger." My lot was to be once in a house where a sumptuous feast was held among this class of laborers, and that was in the midst of desolation and death. They "tarried," to speak modestly, "a little too long at the wine" that night, and drank toasts, which, if they honored the Queen, did little credit to men in their station, and in their responsible work. But I have seen and handled the "black bread" for months, and have told the story. I have seen many sent from the relief, on days of giving it out, without a mouthful, and have not a doubt but many died in consequence of this, when they should and might have been fed. Time will not allow of dwelling on these cases; but one which was vividly impressed, and particularly marked at the time, may serve as a specimen. Going out one cold day in a bleak waste on the coast, I met a pitiful old man in hunger and tatters, with a child on his back, almost entirely naked, and to appearance in the last stages of starvation; whether his naked legs had been scratched, or whether the cold had affected them I knew not, but the blood was in small streams in different places, and the sight was a horrid one. The old man was interrogated, why he took such an object into sight, upon the street, when he answered that he lived seven miles off, and was afraid the child would die in the cabin, with two little children he had left starving, and he had come to get the bit of meal, as it was the day he heard that the relief was giving out. The officer told him he had not time to enter his name on the book, and he was sent away in that condition; a penny or two was given him, for which he expressed the greatest gratitude; this was on Wednesday or Thursday. The case was mentioned to the officer, and he entreated not to send such objects away, especially when the distance was so great.

The next Saturday, on my way from the house where the relieving-officer was stationed, we saw an old man creeping slowly in a bending posture upon the road, and the boy was asked to stop the car. The same old man looked up and recognized me. I did not know him, but his overwhelming thanks for the little that was given him that day, called to mind the circumstance; and, inquiring where the child was, he said the three were left in the cabin, and had not taken a "sup nor a bit" since yesterday morning, and he was afraid some of them would be dead upon the hearth when he returned. The relieving-officer had told him to come on Saturday, and his name should be on the book, he had waited without scarcely eating a mouthful till then, and was so weak he could not carry the child, and had crept the seven miles to get the meal, and was sent away with a promise to wait till the next Tuesday, and come and have his name on the books. This poor man had not a penny nor a mouthful of food, and he said tremulously, "I must go home and die on the hairth with the hungry ones." The mother had starved to death. He was given money to purchase seven pounds of meal; he clasped his old emaciated hands, first fell upon his knees, looked up to heaven and thanked the good God, then me, when the boy was so struck with his glaring eyes, and painful looks, that he turned aside and said, "let us get away." The old man kept on his knees, walking on them, pausing and looking up to heaven; and thinking myself that seven pounds would not keep four scarcely in existence till Tuesday, we stopped till he came upon his knees to the car; he was given money enough to purchase as much more; when, for a few moments, I feared that he would die on the path. His age, exhaustion by hunger, and the feelings of a father, together with the sudden change, from despair to hope, all were so powerful, that with his hands clasped, clinching the pennies, and standing upon his knees, he fell upon his face, and for some time remained there; he was finally restored to his knees, and the last glimpse we had of this picture of living death, he was behind us on the path, descending a hill upon his knees. What his destiny was, I never knew; but the relieving-officer expressed no feelings of compunction when told of it some time after, nor did he know whether he had applied again. If he died, what then? was the answer. This solitary case is only a specimen of, to say the least, hundreds, who might have been saved, had these stewards applied the funds where most needed.

Those who were obliged to walk miles, and lie out over night upon the highway-side, were sent back to come again, while those who lived nearest, had the most strength, and could clamor the loudest for their rights, were soonest supplied. This relieving officer was an Irishman, and though among some of these there was great compassion and long continued, yet as a whole the English were much more so; and had they, without being advised or influenced in the least by the Irish landlords and Irish relieving-officers, taken their own course, much better management of funds and better management for the suffering would have followed. The English were unused to such sights as Ireland in her best times presents, besides they never had oppressed these poor ones, while the rich, powerful Irish, like our slaveholders in the United States, had long held them writhing in their grasp, some of them beside had been too lavish, their means for sporting and pleasure were lessening, and why not take their share of what they wanted, while it was in their hands? The English officers, entirely unacquainted even with the location of distressed districts, till, for the first time, their eyes were saluted with these frightful sights, would certainly be led to apply means, when and where more experienced ones should direct.

The Irish landlords too, had another strong temptation. They had many comfortable farmers, who till the famine, had not only paid them good rent, but had turned the worst soil into beautiful fields. They must either abide on the land and pay less rent, or none at all, till the famine ceased, or they must emigrate. Now a few hundred pounds would keep these tenants on their feet, and pay the landlord. And if these landlords had not before been influenced by the grace of God to do justice, it cannot be expected in this peculiar crisis they should suddenly be transformed to act so against their own worldly good. Who would trust a dog with his dinner if the dog be hungry? These are not random strokes made to finish a book, nor to gratify a splenetic sourness—particular prejudices have not been the spring of motion in this work; but being flung into all and every position, how could I but see all and everything that fell in my way? In the worst districts my tarry was generally the longest, and in some cases I literally carried out the precept, "Into whatever house ye enter there abide and thence depart," where the most information could be gained, and the family who invited me were able to supply all needful things, and had urged the visit, however protracted it might be; and in the face and eyes of all sincerity on their part, they had been taken at their word, and though the blarney grew thinner and weaker, yet I had long since accustomed my palate to bread without butter or honey, and potatoes without gravy or salt.

Ireland possesses an ingredient in her composition, beyond all other nations—an elasticity of such strength, that however weighty the depressing power may be, she returns to her level with greater velocity than any people whatever, when the force is removed. Then arise to her help; let every Protestant and Dissenter put on the whole armor; let them together cast tithes and regium donums "to the moles and to the bats," and stand out in the whole panoply of the gospel; then indeed will they appear "terrible as an army with banners;" let their worldly respectability be laid aside for the "honor that comes from God;" let them do as Christ did, "condescend to men of low estate." Who can tell, if the professed church of Christ of all denominations should do her first work there, but that a loophole would be made, through which government might look beyond the dark cloud that has covered her reign over that island, and joyfully say, "Live, for I have found a ransom!" For though government now holds the church in her hands, could she do so if the church was moved by an Almighty power? God now suffers, but does he propel? Is not the machinery of the church there one of the "sought-out inventions," which never emanated from the uprightness of God? See to it, see to it, and then talk with success of the idolatries of popery.