Miserable Condition of the Poor

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter IX (9) | Start of Chapter

Walking a few miles, it began to rain. Turning to a miserable cabin without a window, or a chimney, the smoke issuing from the door, I found a widow preparing a basket of potatoes for her ducks. "May be ye'd take a potato, ma'am," taking a couple and peeling them with her fingers. I took them, and they made me a comfortable repast. At two o'clock I entered a second cabin; a poor widow woman was carding wool, sitting literally in the mud. These huts are always muddy, where the thatch is poor and the rain can penetrate. Five children were about her, waiting for the potatoes which had not yet been put over. They had come in from their work hungry, and the sum total was a pitiful sight. Asking her if she tilled any land, she answered, "I pay rent for five acres, but the children cannot till it. I am waitin' till they are rair'd, hoping I can then raise somethin', and if I give it up, I cannot get it again." Poor as she was, she had paid a pound an acre on this land, by going out with her children and working in the fields, at three pence and six pence a day.[3] The reader must know, that in many parts of the south and west, when it is neither seed time or harvest, many a man works for six pence, four pence, and often in the winter for three pence a day.

She begged me to wait for some potatoes, but I could not. Passing on, I found a man and his wife winnowing oats by the way side, and sitting down upon a pile of straw, told them my pedigree; and so interested did they become, that I was urged to go in and take some potatoes, which they said were already boiled. I went in, and the sight of the hovel was frightful even to me. How can man, who is made in the image of God, sit here, eat here, and sleep here? was my honest and silent inquiry. A sickly dirty child of two years old, that could neither stand nor talk, was sitting upon a dirty pillow, and two or three more in rags about the hearth. From this abode a daughter of eighteen was preparing to go to America, to get her pound and a half a month for service. In this cabin she had been born, in this had she acquired all the knowledge of domestic duties she possessed, and from this cabin she was about to be transported into that depôt for all and for everything that by "hook or by crook" can float across the waters.

A letter of introduction, reader, was wanted by the mother, and of recommendation too! What could I do? I had eaten of their potatoes, and money they would not take; "but if ye'd spake a good word for my daughter, it's all I would want, and she's as strong a gal as ye'd meet in a day's walk." The good sense of the mother at last hit upon a proper expedient; she saw her mistake, and only requested that I should write my name for the girl, and when she went to New York, she would take it and show it to me, should she find me there. I wrote a few lines, much to their gratification, which the mother and daughter read with ease. This little attention they greatly appreciated, and we parted mutually honored by exchange of favors.

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.