A Country Dance

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter V (11) | Start of Chapter

The next morning Anne again called to invite me to her house, and to say she had been sent by a few in the parish, to invite me to attend a field dance which was to be on the next day, and the Sabbath. In surprise I was about to answer, when Anne said, "I knew you would not, and told them so, but they begged I would say that they had no other day, as all were at work, and sure God wouldn't be hard upon 'em, when they had no other time, and could do nothing else for the stranger." I thanked them heartily for their kind feelings, and declined. Judge my confusion, when about sunset on Sabbath evening, just after returning from Johnstown, where I had attended church, the cabin door opened, and a crowd of all ages walked in, decently attired for the day, and without the usual welcomes or any apology, the hero who first introduced me seated himself at my side, took out his flute, wet his fingers, saying, "This is for you, Mrs. N., and what will you have?" A company were arranged for the dance, and so confounded was I that my only answer was, "I cannot tell." He struck up an Irish air, and the dance began. I had nothing to say, taken by surprise as I was; my only strength was to sit still.

This dance finished, the eldest son of my hostess advanced, made a low bow, and invited me to lead the next dance. I looked on his glossy black slippers, his blue stockings snugly fitted up to the knee, his corduroys above them, his blue coat and brass buttons, and had no reason to hope that, at my age of nearly half a century, I could ever expect another like offer. However I was not urged to accept it. Improper as it might appear, it was done as a civility, which, as a guest in his mother's house and a stranger, he thought, and all thought (as I was afterwards told) he owed me. The cabin was too small to contain the three score and ten who had assembled, and with one simultaneous movement, without speaking, all rushed out, bearing me along, and placed me upon a cart before the door, the player at my right hand. And then a dance began, which, to say nothing of the day, was to me of no ordinary kind. Not a laugh—not a loud word was heard; no affected airs, which the young are prone to assume; but as soberly as though they were in a funeral procession, they danced for an hour, wholly for my amusement, and for my welcome. Then each approached, gave me the hand, bade me God speed, leaped over the style, and in stillness walked away. It was a true and hearty Irish welcome, in which the aged, as well as the young, participated. A matron of sixty, of the Protestant faith, was holding by the hand a grandchild of seven years, and standing by the cart where I stood; and she asked when they had retired, if I did not enjoy it? "What are these wonderful people?" was my reply. I had never seen the like.

I visited the dwelling of Anne, and found her with many little comforts not common to her class. "Why do you not wear a bonnet?" I inquired. "I came back," she replied, "from New York to live in a cabin, and I must not put myself above others who associate with me." John was industrious and thrifty, and proud of a visit from the mistress of the girl who had come from the other side of the waters. Twice, while in the parish, a cleanly-dressed woman called to see me, but did not invite me to her cabin, because, she said, she would be ashamed to do so, though she really wished me to go. I was told of it, and the third time she called, I asked her if I might accompany her home. She was delighted, and said, "I was in dread to ask ye, but was ashamed." Her cabin was perfect neatness. At night, under pretence of getting a bucket of water at a distant spring, she walked an Irish mile to buy a penny roll of coarse bread for me—a loaf of bread she had not seen in her cabin that summer. Slipping it into my hand, she said, "Don't let William know it, or I must tell where I got the penny." I called at the humblest place I had ever seen one morning, and found a poor widow and her daughter eating their potatoes. I went out, and soon reached a running stream so deep that I could not cross without wading. While I hesitated what to do, the widow called after me, "Stop, lady, and I'll carry ye on my back; ye'll be destroyed." She had pulled off her shoes and stockings in her hut, and ran after me, and though small in stature, yet she assured me she was "strong, and sure on the fut," and could carry me safely. I positively refused such a compliment from grey hairs, and with great difficulty turned her back, and went myself in another direction.

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.