Domestic Turmoil

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter III (9) | Start of Chapter

When we were about leaving the settlement, we heard a most fearful noise in a distant cabin, and as we approached, it became more terrific. We hesitated, fearing that the work of death was going on. We ventured at last, and saw a mother in a most violent paroxysm of rage, standing over a girl of eleven years old, with a stick in her hand, threatening that she would kill her, and that instantly, if she did not ask forgiveness; the girl screaming in apparent fright, pleading not to be killed, but refusing to confess. We entreated the mother to desist for a moment, and to allow us to speak. Pale and trembling with rage, she answered, "I will break every bone in her lazy body, ladies; I will kill her now." We entreated that she would allow us to speak to the child, and finally succeeded, the mother meanwhile taking an infant in her lap of eight weeks old, and giving a spontaneous history of her family, interlarding it with principles that would do honor to the most cultivated woman. "I have eleven children, ladies; six younger than the scrawl that has so provoked me, and she hasn't done a hap'orth for me to-day. She has been on the street since six o'clock. Laziness! laziness! ladies! Shouldn't she be bate? and when I got her in, and gave her a slap, she gave me impudence, and went into that room, and fastened the door on me, and she wouldn't ask my forgiveness, ladies; and she wouldn't ask God's pardon. I wish I could bate her, and not get into a passion." "You must tell her priest," said one of the young ladies. "And that I will; he'll hear of this." "But she's been petted at school, and it won't do to pet such scrawls; and before she will be idle and filthy, I'll kill her. She'd better be dead than lazy and dirty. I sent to Dublin and got a piece of calico, and made them all dacent. I saved a piece to mend 'em with, and you see here's a rent in this child's arm (holding up the arm of a little girl), and that lazy girl won't put on the piece; and she can sew well. I can't have my children ragged. I can't have 'em dirty. It's a sin, ladies. Their father toils, poor man, till dark night, to keep their clothes dacent, and keep 'em in school." Here a shrivelled old woman entered, saying, "And what's all this? This girl is as fine a slip as ye'll find in all Wicklow,—a fine scholar." "You see, ladies," remarked the mother, "how she's petted; that's the trouble. They must be bate."

We then insisted that the child should hear us, telling the old woman that she had been very wicked, and that her mother ought to punish her. "Ah! poor woman, and she's kilt with so many of 'em,—the craturs; and she strives to make 'em dacent, and so does the father; and she'll be a better girl—and won't ye?" Among us all, by exhortations and entreaties, we succeeded in getting a promise from the offender that she would try to do better; that she would go immediately, and mend her sister's elbow; and she voluntarily thanked us kindly for our good advice. The mother also thanked us, and said, "What will I do to keep down my temper? When I see this child in the street in bad company, all goin' to the bad, larnin' nothin' but what the divil tells her, ladies, shouldn't I be mad?"

It was raining, and we could not go out: all was hushed save the pattering of the rain upon the doorsteps, and we sat down in silence, each apparently inclined to meditate on the scene before us. The stillness seemed like the great calm that followed the voice of the Saviour, when the surging wave of the maddened ocean shrank away, and blended together into a placid molten sea. The paleness of the mother was exchanged for that wholesome ruddiness so prevalent among the cleanly Irish peasantry, contrasting finely with the clean cap that was becomingly adjusted upon her high forehead. The unconscious infant, in a clean pink frock, was sleeping on the lap of the mother, which was covered with a tidy apron. The refractory girl had ceased her sobbing, and showed a face and features of talent and interest. A little girl of six years old was standing at our left, with face, hands, and feet clean, her hair well combed, her frock and apron whole and cleanly. A tidy girl of about fourteen was nicely adjusting the dinner dishes upon a white cupboard with the greatest care and stillness. The room into which the young rebel had fastened herself was clean, and for a cabin nicely furnished, as could be seen through the open door. The room in which we were sitting contained a bed in the corner, in a kind of enclosure, with a clean covering, and at a little distance were two barrels, with a pile of straw between them, on which a couple of fat pigs were extended asleep.

The silence was broken by my asking the woman, "Is your daughter industrious?" alluding to the one at work. "God be praised," said the mother, "she never gives me trouble; she's always as you see her—none but the girl who has been so petted." Fearing "the clouds might return after the rain," we gave her the most friendly cautions and wishes, and kindly admonished the penitent girl, who followed us to the door, adding her thanks for our kindness; and we left this fisherman's cabin, hoping that none had been made worse by our visit.

"What good sentiments," remarked one of my companions, "have we heard expressed from that mad woman! how clean her cabin! how nice her children! and what a mother would she have been had she been educated!" We all looked upon the poor woman with feelings of the deepest pity. She possessed every ingredient of mind to have fitted her for the best of mothers, with the highest sense of what her daughter should be, and her own responsibility to make her so; yet as she had never been cultivated herself, and had not the least restraint upon her temper, we had reason to fear that the wayward girl might yet fall a victim to the mother's rage. We had visited the schools in Arklow, and thought of again calling to find the teacher of this child, but did not. In these schools, which are supported by private individuals, Protestants and Papists are taught the Scriptures daily; and though they appeared not quite as cleanly as Lady Wicklow's, yet they merited more praise than censure.

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.