A Connemara Girl

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter IX (27) | Start of Chapter

But, kind reader, no bliss is perfect, and here in this happy group was one which, when I looked and while I write, was and is an object of painful, pitiful, and ludicrous contemplation. It was a mountain Connemara girl. I found that the district of Connemara, through all Ireland, was considered as a distinct item altogether. This people are pointed out to strangers as the Americans would point you to the wildest tribes of their Indians. Here is one before us, and though faintly described, yet what is drawn is as near the truth itself as my skill and pencilling can make it. She was in this lodging house to take the charge of a sick boy who had come there for a season. She was dressed in red flannel, the costume of all the mountain peasantry of that country, and this color, they tell you, is chosen to keep away the fairies. Leaving the dress, we will look at the person. She was tall, thick-set, had broad shoulders, high cheek bones, small eyes, and near together; black coarse hair, cut square upon a low forehead, and body and limbs of huge dimensions. Two broadly-spread feet, which had never been cramped by cloth or leather, told you that they had braved every hardship incident to feet in any climate or nation. These pedestals were surmounted by two pillars, which wanted neither strength nor size; and when she moved, it was always with a grace peculiar to herself, and when she sat down, it was always upon the floor. This flannel dress was cut after the same model of all her countrywomen's, being a jacket pinned closely about her; a petticoat not so long by some twelve inches as modern custom sanctions; and beside it had undergone great changes since it left the loom, for wear and tear had fringed and frilled it, and though it legally belonged to the jacket, yet its binding was reaching up two inches below it. Thus, cap-a-pie, dress and symmetry, she made out such a figure as the tenderest heart might encounter without fear of being broken.

She had another qualification, viz. that of singing: this was always performed in Irish, and with tones and gestures which made every auditor feel to the bottom of his soul. I had often heard her, and one day had a curiosity to look into the kitchen where she was at work, to see her unperceived when singing; and imprudently laughed, not in ridicule, but because it was wholly unavoidable; she heard, and would never sing again. No apologies on my part, and no entreaties of the mistress could ever prevail.

"She dispraises me," was the answer. She would never eat, but sitting upon the floor with both elbows upon her knees, and the potato between both hands, taking the "bit" without putting the potato down, gnawing it until it all was finished; then she would take the "sup," and raise another potato to her lips, and go on.

I could never look on this strange excrescence without wonder, and asking on what commission could she have been sent into a world like this. But I should do great injustice, yes, I should sin, should I leave the picture here. I should be holding up to ridicule a being of God, who may have more favor in his eyes than the writer; and though this is not a caricature but a true picture, yet there is another side to it, and I would be guilty, like Ananias, of keeping back a part of the price, should I not show it.

Ireland, above all nations of the earth, has suffered most in her character by the ignorant and too often malicious injustice of writers, who were either awed by the opinion of others, or incapable of discrimination themselves. They have caught her fairy tales, they have gathered up her blunders, they have poetically told of her "gems of the mountains and pearls of the ocean," they have laughed at her tatters; but who has lifted these tatters, and shown to the world that under them is buried every noble principle that could elevate a people? Yes, the poor cringing laborer, touching his hat to the haughty lord, who never looked manfully in the face of him he served, has a soul burning within him capable of all that is praiseworthy, of all that is godlike. And would justice be allowed to lift her voice in his behalf, that soul would look out, and speak, "I, too, am a man." Yes, the poor Irishman has a mind that can and does think; but, like the American slave, he is told by his master, and he is told by all the world, "You do the working and I'll do the thinking."

I must return to my Connemara woman, and say she possessed the greatest kindness of heart, and felt the least attention given to her as the highest favor. She was unobtrusive, and shrunk from the least rebuke in look or word, though without the least appearance of anger. She would watch to do some little favor to the mistress or me, and to do it in the most quiet and unassuming manner. When I left, and offered her my hand, she hesitated, looked at the mistress, then at me, and from a kind of wild smile she settled into a seriousness that seemed to say, that she thought herself an outcast, unworthy the notice of any. Her every look and action indicated that she felt she was an exile from all the world, and must ever remain so. She was faithful and trustworthy to the last degree, and had she been born on any mountain but a Connemara one, she might have escaped the imputation of being the ugliest and most awkward woman in Ireland.

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.