The Poor Widow's Welcome

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter V (10) | Start of Chapter

We reached our destination, and alighting from the kish, I was told, for the honor of the spot, that here, some two hundred years ago, lived a noble lord who had twenty noble sons. With these he daily rode out, with each an attendant, on twenty noble horses, all shod with silver shoes. I was desired to stay outside till the way should be prepared for my reception. In a moment I was ushered in as a "fine gal he had found in Kilkenny." The family were sitting at their supper of potatoes and buttermilk, around a naked deal table, upon which the potatoes were poured. The widow, two grown up sons, and a grandson, constituted the group; and when I was seated, all for a moment were silent. "This is Mary's mistress," said my companion. Simultaneously every potato was dropped, all rose, and with a kind of unaffected dignity reached me the hand, saying, "Welcome to our cabin!" They then sat down, and all was silent again. "We've been long waitin' for ye," said the mother, "and was in dread that ye might be lost; but ye must be wairy and in want of the tay." I assured her that a potato would be a greater relish. "Ye can't ate the potato," said she, the sons joining in the assertion, till by actual experiment, I soon convinced them to the contrary. The reader should be informed that the daughter of this widow had, in three years service at my house, sent home £40, which had not only kept her mother in tea and bread, but had given them all the "blessed tobacco" besides. "She had been home," the old woman told me, "on a visit, and made such an overturnin' in the cabin that they had like to be destroyed; not a hap'orth of a pig, duck, or hen, could take it's bit in the place; not a straw could be left upon the flure in the mornin'; and now," she added, "we will all be kilt if ye have not a clane bed and a nice bit to ate." To do her justice, her place was cleanly, although two comely pigs that were fattening for the fair, and a goodly number of turkeys and ducks took their repast in the cabin on the remains of the supper.

My bedstead was behind the cupboard, in the kitchen, meeting the wall on one side and the cupboard on the other, with a little aperture at the head for an entrance. This was the widow's bed-room, and here, upon a soft feather-bed, I was put; but the sheet, the sheet,—a married daughter had taken her clothes to wash, and she must put me in one she had used herself. She was greatly troubled. Giving her all the comfort in my power on the subject, she bade me good night; and though I would not wish the reader ever to be packed in feathers in such a narrow box in a hot August night, yet I am not unwilling that he should know that my first night in a cabin, with all its concomitants, was a sleepless one, and one which can never be forgotten. The dawning of light found the good woman stealthily peeping around the cupboard, and with a shake of the head, I heard her whisper, "Ah! she didn't lie down in her bed, the cratur." She crept to the hearth, made her peat-fire, swept every vestige of dirt from the earthen floor, and sat down to smoke. Her sons soon joined her, each in his turn taking a "blast at the pipe," and then walked slowly out, "for," said the mother, "she's wairy, and a fut of ye mustn't be movin'." That day was a memorable one. In this parish lived a young married girl who had been a servant in my house in New York; she had returned and was living a mile distant; she had been aroused at midnight by the man who conducted me to the parish, and early the next morning she was at the door. Anne was young, handsome, and tidy, and had been a great favorite in my house. I was a little concealed when she entered, and did not recognize her till she fell on my neck and wept. "Ah! and it's ye that may bawl, when yer two eyes meet the one that took you a slip, and made ye the thriftiest woman for the man that owns ye in all the parish." Anne spoke not, nor could she for some time. "And do I see you? and what can we do for you in this humble place? John is waiting to see you, but would not come with me, till I had seen you first." "Ah! and John's the lad that's caught the clane bird." "What shall we do for you?" was again the question. "You cannot stay in our cabins; they are not fitting; you must come with me; I know best what you want, and will get what you say." The whole parish was now in a stir, work was suspended, and a general levee held. They talked of building bonfires; they talked of uniting and buying a sheep to kill, though not one had eaten a dinner of flesh since Christmas. The grey-headed and the little child were there to welcome me, to thank me for "thinking of the like of such poor bodies," and from some miles around visitors called before the setting of the sun to look at the American stranger, and bid her God speed. "What will she ate, the cratur? it's not the potato that raired her." Two children begged the honor of going seven miles in quest of fruit, and went. Night and rain overtook them, yet they persevered, slept away through the night, and cheerfully returned the next day with two pears and a spoonful of blackberries, which was all they could procure. All went away sorrowful that so "nice a body should be so trated," and all asked me to visit their cabins, "though they were not fittin' for such a lady."

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.