Poverty, Wretchedness, and Filth of the Dwellings

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter XVI (2) | Start of Chapter

The night was dark and rainy when I reached the town, and a comfortable parlor and cheerful fire hid from my eyes the appalling desolation that brooded without. The morning opened my eyes to look out upon sights which, as I write, flit before me like haggard spectres. I dressed, went forth, and made my way upon the rocks, found upon the sides of them some deplorable cabins, where smoke was issuing from the doors, and looking into one, the sight was appalling. Like an African kraal, the door was so low as to admit only a child of ten or twelve, and at the entrance a woman put out her head, with a dirty cloth about it; a stout pig was taking its breakfast within, and a lesser one stood waiting at a distance. The woman crouched over the busy swine with her feet in the mud, and asked what I wanted?

In truth, for a moment I wanted time to collect myself before I knew what I wanted; at last I told her my errand was to see how they do in Ireland, among the poor. "An' faith, you see enough on 'em here." Looking in, I saw a pile of dirty broken straw, which served for a bed for both family and pigs, not a chair, table, or pane of glass, and no spot to sit except upon the straw in one corner, without sitting in mud and manure. On the whole, it was the most revolting picture my eyes ever beheld, and I prayed that they might never behold the like again. Leaving this abode, I ascended the rock a little higher, and entered a second. On the left hand of the door was a bank on which lay a young man upon straw; and upon a couple of stools sat the master and mistress, waiting the cooking of a pot of potatoes for breakfast. "Is any one sick?" "No, no, idle, idle," answered the mother; "nothin' to do, and so he lies in bed. The old man here has not airn'd but a shillin' since St. John's." "And how, do tell me, do you live?" "We gets our potatoe when we can, ma'am; and that's all, ye see." "So you live, because you can't die." "Just so, lady; because the Almighty God don't see fit to take us away, an' we must be content with what he sends us; but sure, may we ask, what brought ye here among these wild rocks?" "To see the poor of Ireland; and I hope to go through the country, and see them all." "And ye'll have a long purse when ye return." Supposing she alluded to money, I told her, "not a pound, perhaps." "But ye'll have the whole chart of Ireland, ma'am."

I looked at this woman, and at the appurtenances that surrounded her. "The whole chart of Ireland," from lips that could neither read English nor Irish! She had a noble forehead, an intelligent eye, and a good share of common sense; she had breathed the air of this wild mountainous coast all her sad pilgrimage, and scarcely, she said, had a "decent garment covered her, or a wholesome male of mate crossed her lips, save at Christmas, since the day she left her parents that raired her." Telling them I wished some one to carry my carpet bag to Glengariff, the old man said he had a son as honest as any lad in Bantry, and he should take it for a shilling; the bargain was quickly concluded.

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.