No Refuge from the Staring

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter XVI (11) | Start of Chapter

Ascending a rock overlooking the road, I had a view of things if not unutterable, yet quite inconceivable. Beneath me were a group darkening the street and air, of all ages, from "the man of grey hairs" to the nursling at the mother's breast. Not an individual, man, woman, or child, had on a whole garment, and many of them, like "Joseph's coat," were variegated with "many colors;" patches of all shades, with thread of all hues, adorned the limbs of these congregated rustics, who had heard of my arrival, and had come out to see the "wonderful body" that had left her "country and kin to say the poor Irish." Looking down upon them, my "eyes affected my heart." They were God's creatures, made in his image, and bound to the same tribunal with me; thrown into different circumstances, they had developed different traits, and many among them might have occupied better upon the little that had been given, than the more elevated aristocrat who looked down upon them with contempt. They looked up, some leaning upon their spades, some crouching under heavy burdens, and all silent as if waiting the opening of some oracle. Singing a hymn in which all instinctively joined, if not devoutly, I said a few kind words on the subject of temperance, and the regret I felt that I should find this glen given to the immorality of drinking, when a great part of Ireland had become so sober. They murmured a response—"by dad, she's right," and slowly walked on, while I descended to enter the lodging.

I felt myself in a peculiar predicament, no escaping from this forbidding stopping-place, and these forbidding people; it was a place and company quite different from any I had seen even in Connaught. I was pursued into the lodging-house, and went through a second and more fiery ordeal of staring. They came nearer, urged me to "smoke a blast," or to "take a drap," (notwithstanding my lecture,) talked of my coat and bonnet; some bracing themselves against the wall, some sitting close by my side, and others squatting upon the ground at my feet. Fortunately for me, the organ of fear is not so largely developed as in some of more flexible texture, and my greatest suffering arose from pity and disgust. "Can you give me a few potatoes?" Four were brought in a saucer, and some dirty salt, pulverised with a knife, and likewise put in a saucer. The company were all in attendance till the supper was ended. Hoping to thin the group in some way, I asked for water to bathe my feet. A little was brought in a pot, and placed before me. "I cannot use it here. Put it in the room," was the command.

"The room!" Reader, suppose you look in. This room was up a broken stair-case, leading from the kitchen. A dilapidated door with a broken latch, like an inn among the far western wilds of America; a floor of loose boards, gaping wide between joints into the kitchen below; and all sorts of lumber, from the three-legged chair, broken chest, and crazy cradle, to the ploughshare, with the worn-out gear of the ass, and basket for peat and manure. The bed and etceteras are unmentionable, and in this varied profusion I was to spend the night. As my door was past all fastening, a company at whiskey and cards, in a chamber "near akin," at every pause in the whiskey or play, would in turn push my door a little wider, and look in. This continued till one o'clock, when I, still sitting, knew by the "God bless you's," and "ye'll be late for the night," that the company were retiring, and placed myself in a position to sleep, had sleep been in attendance.

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.