Cabin Courtesy

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter XIX (8) | Start of Chapter

For hours the scenery, though continually varying, lost none of its interest, and I had walked five miles of Irish measure of such painful enjoyment, before the clamors of hunger told me that I had taken no bread since seven on the preceding morning, and here no bread could be found. Not a cabin had greeted my eye, save a little clump of mud wall or rough stone huts, where bread would have been as strange a guest as a plum pudding in the kraal of a Hottentot. Excitement, which had thus far been a kind vehicle, now gave way, and weariness, pain, and hunger, demanded their rights. Seeing a little girl dip her bucket in a clear mountain stream, I saluted her. "And ye look wairy, lady, wouldn't ye walk in and rest ye a little by the fire?" Gladly I followed into the lowly but clean cabin, and was offered the only seat in the room, and that was made of braided straw in the shape of a cushion. They tried in every possible way to comfort me, offering to bathe my feet. Telling them a piece of bread was what I wanted to buy, the girl, the only one that could speak English in the family, told me I could not get any for some miles. "But wouldn't ye stop and have a potatoe? they will boil in a little bit." I cheerfully consented, and that cabin will ever be associated with the deepest and kindliest recollections. Two girls, a son of twenty, and the father and mother, made up this family. While the potatoes were boiling, I read the Testament, the girl interpreting to the mother, who in tears of gratitude was expressing her admiration both at the reading, and at the goodness of God, who had suffered a saint going on pilgrimage, as she thought, to enter her humble cabin. "She's crying, ma'am, because she can't do as much for her soul as you." Here, as in many parts of the country, it was difficult to make them believe that I was not some holy St. Bridget, going on penance.

The old man was in bed, had been a cripple for years with the rheumatism; he had listened to the reading, for he would occasionally clasp his hands, and respond in Irish. He crawled out, and drew on his frightful rags, knelt down and said his prayers, and by a smile, nod of the head, and hearty grasp of the hand, gave me a kindly welcome to his cabin. The potatoes were boiled, and poured into a basket; a board was then put upon the top of the pot for a table, and the potatoes poured upon it, and the family drew around, giving me a commodious place. We had comfortably adjusted ourselves, when the delighted old man took an egg from a hen who was sitting near, and reaching it to me, made signs that I must have it boiled. His countenance changed into regret when I declined, and I was sorry that my appetite should then refuse so cheerfully an offered boon. But toasting some potatoes on the coals, and eating them without any condiment, for they had not even salt, I made a good and palatable breakfast. I gave some books to the children who came in, and offered the woman a little money for her hospitality; she thrust it back, giving a frown of half anger and half grief, and the daughter said, "She gave ye the potatoes in the name of God, and d'ye think we'd take money for it?" I put it in the old man's hand, who told the daughter, "I will take it for God's sake, but not for the potatoe." Here I found another proof of the custom among all the peasantry, to refuse money for hospitality shown to a stranger; and I gave books, which were never refused, when presented as tokens of good will.

I arose to depart with quite different feelings than those at the house where I slept, for though in the most abject poverty, they seemed cultivated, and full of the "milk of human kindness." Though their feet had never trodden upon a parlor carpet, nor the delicacies of a sumptuous table ever crossed their lips, and though I might have been the only female with both bonnet and shoes that ever sat down in their cabin, yet their manners savored more of genuine politeness than did many of the inmates of lordly houses in cities, boasting of the greatest refinement. When the poor old man extended his trembling hand, and the daughter, who was speaker for them all, pressed me to call on my return, I felt like parting with friends, and said, "I dread to go alone." The daughter interpreted to the mother, who said, "She won't go alone, God will go with her." The expression coming at such a time, and from such a person, was a word in season, and as valuable to me as though it had been dropped from the lips of a divine.

I went out with blessing upon blessing on my head, and a dreadful day it was. My lameness became so intolerable, that at short intervals I was obliged to sit down; and when this did not refresh me, I lay down upon a bank of earth overgrown with grass, with my basket under my head, feeling that I could go no further. Again rising and reaching a spring of fresh water, I washed my face, but this did not ease my pained feet. Again I lay down upon the wall, with my parasol over my face, when I heard footsteps, and a female voice saying, "She's a stranger, and wearied out; maybe she's sick." "Rouse her," said the man. I lifted my head, and saw a man and woman with a little boy, standing beside me. They too had travelled many a long and weary mile, and found this little orphan boy, who had lost father and mother, and was travelling to a distant country where he was born, hoping to find a home. "God help all travellers," said the woman, "I knew you was a foreigner by your dress and by your tongue." They bestowed much pity, and left me; again I made an effort; a girl came out of a cabin. "O, ye're kilt, ye can't reach the town, ye'd better stop, it's a long and wairy road." The next I met were two young women. Inquiring the distance, one said, "There is no place you can stop but in some poor cabin. I could give you a clane bed, and fresh egg, but no mate, for it's Lent, ma'am, and we aint allowed to ate it. Ye're lost, ye're destroyed, and ye can't get to town; it's a long mile to it now, ma'am."

"She might stop till her feet should be hailed," said the other, "the cratur."

Thanking them from my inmost heart, I thought it best to proceed.

Ireland’s Welome to the Stranger is one of the best accounts of Irish social conditions, customs, quirks and habits that you could wish for. The author, Mrs Asenath Nicholson, was an American widow who travelled extensively in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine and meticulously observed the Irish peasantry at work and play, as well as noting their living conditions and diet. The book is also available from Kindle.