A Scene on leaving Tullamore

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter II (12) | Start of Chapter

The chief centre of attraction was now where we stood, as I was a stranger. They attacked me with, "God bless you," "a penny, if you plase, lady," "a ha'penny for a poor woman and child, whose father is dead this twelvemonth," "one hap'orth for an old man," and "the price of bread for a poor boy;" the boy grasping my clothes, and holding fast, in spite of my efforts to disengage myself—the cries and importunities redoubling, while, like swarming bees, they sallied out from every quarter, till the crowd was immense. In vain I preached loyalty to the government, temperance, and peace; my voice was lost in the clamor of "plase, lady, it's the hap'orth ye'll give us, thank God." The overseer of the coach, from his window seeing my dilemma, hastened out, and kindly begged me to get upon the coach, where they could not annoy me so seriously. He helped me aloft. Laborers and beggars, some on crutches, some with two legs, and some with one, mostly clad in coats of divers colors, variegated with all shades and hues; boys with a garment suspended from the hips, hanging in strips, making a kind of frill—these all followed in pursuit. By the time I was well adjusted, a sea of upturned faces, some with hats and caps in hand, to catch the falling penny, lavished all sorts of blessings on America and the kind lady who had come to see them, who as yet had not given them a farthing. Waving my hand for a moment, all was silent. I endeavored to count them; there were about two hundred and twenty, one half at least beggars. The huddling became so confused that I could not proceed, and I resorted to exhortation, telling them to be true to their young queen; that they had a Father Mathew to keep them sober; a never-tiring friend in O'Connell, who said he would "rot in prison for them if need be;" and under all these encouragements, they must be patient. "That we will, lady, and the blessin' of Almighty God be on ye, and the prayers of the blessed Vargin, if ye'll give us the penny." The scene had now become, to say the least, ludicrous, painful, and unseemly. I had travelled by sea and by land among the savages of my own country, the poor abused slaves on the plantations, the degraded, untutored native Canadians; but this eclipsed the whole. I looked down upon the forbidding mass, and saw every lineament of talent, every praiseworthy and noble quality, every soul-speaking glance of the eye, every beauty of symmetry, that God's image ever possessed, united with every disgusting, pitiable incongruity that imagination could depict. Much did I wish that the good queen would leave her throne for the one on which I was sitting, and see for a few moments her subjects, her loyal Irish subjects, as they really are, disgusting to refined eyes as it might be. She must, she would pity, and though her administration had done nothing to produce this state of things, yet her administration should and could produce something better. I begged the coachman to make speed, knowing that a few pennies dropped among them would endanger faces and eyes, if not pull me from the coach; and the promise was given, that when my bag of money should come from America, part of it at least should be poured down upon them. "Faith," cried a poor woman with a dirty urchin hanging to her, "and ye'll be here no more, if the bag's to come with ye." The coachman attached his horses, leaving the whole town with the troop of ragamuffins swinging hats and caps, cheering America and the queen, shouting and calling for a penny till we were out of hearing.

When we had well escaped, "What is this?" I begged the coachman to tell me. "It is the case of all Ireland wherever you travel; a fine country, but cursed with bad laws." "But whence could all these miserable objects that swarmed around the coach proceed?" "From the mountains and places around; they all know the time that the coach goes out, and are always in readiness; they are not all street beggars, only trying their hand at the coaches and canal-boats."

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.