A Gay Consumptive

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter VIII (7) | Start of Chapter

As I was inquiring one day of an old woman the distance to a place, "Ask the lady to walk in, and rest her a bit," said the old man. I walked in, and found a cleanly swept cabin, a bed behind the door, and a little pile of turf and a couple of stools. The old man had his spade in his hand, and when I asked him what he had a day, "Not scarcely enough to give the sup and the bit, ma'am." This emphatically tells the story of the manner of eating among all the peasantry. They take the potatoe in the hand, bite off a bit, and take a sup of milk from the cup. "Have you children?" "Not one at home. The last that staid with me was a fine lad of twenty-two. He was ailin' a bit, and went to bed there, and slept well through the night; in the mornin' he asked for cold water. There was none, and I said, 'Wait and I will go to the spring.' 'You can't go now; it's too early,' and turned away his face, and departed. That was the last of my boy, God be praised! and now the father and I are alone, and shall soon be with him, for ye see we are old, and toil'd many a wairy day to rair our lads, and now the wide waters or the grave separate us." There was a kind of pathos in the old lady's allusions, which savored of ancient days, when, as Cambrensis says in the twelfth century, "the Irish always expressed their grief musically."

When I returned to the doctor's, I found among his beneficiaries a pale young girl of nineteen, interesting in her manners, who had come there with threatening symptoms of a decline. She possessed all the Irish vivacity, and though with a severe cough and husky voice, yet she was always in a cheerful mood; and her lively song and merry laugh told you that her heart was buoyant, though pain often held her eyes waking most of the. night. Her voice was sweet as the harp, and often when I heard it at a distance, could not pursuade myself but it was a flute. She had stored her memory with the songs of the country, and her company was always acceptable among her class on'account of this acquirement, as well as the power of mimicry, which she eminently possessed. She would screen herself from sight behind some curtain, and go through a play, performing every part, and sing with the voice of a man or a woman as the case might require. One night she had been amusing us in this way, when she appeared from behind the screen, and a marble-like paleness was over her face. I said to her, " I fear you have injured yourself." She answered not, but sat down, and sung"The Soldier's Grave" in so pathetic a manner, that I wished myself away. They were sounds I had heard in my native country, but never so touching, because the voice that made them was so young, and probably soon would be hushed in death.

Even now, while writing, I hear her sweet voice humming a tune in the chamber where she sits alone in the dark. She is of humble birth, and her mother is a widow, and she has had no assistance of education to raise her above the poorest and most ignorant peasant; yet nature has struggled, or rather genius, through many difficulties, and placed her where, even now, she appears to better advantage, than many who have been tolerably educated; but the flower is apparently drooping, and must soon fall from the stem. Yet she will laugh and sing on, even when those about her are weeping at her premature decay. Last evening a dancing-master came in with a little son, each of them having a fiddle; and the music and dancing commenced. Mary (for that is the invalid's name) was asked to dance and complied; and with much ease and grace performed her part. This no doubt she would not hesitate to do, while her feet could move, and she knew there was but a week between her and the grave. From childhood she has been taught to practice it, till it is interwoven in her very nature, and has become part and parcel of herself.

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.