Shelton Abbey

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter III (5) | Start of Chapter

Shelton Abbey, owned by the Earl of Wicklow, is a spot of much interest, not only for its beauty, but for the happy traits of character united in the earl and his family, who make the lot of the poor peasant tolerable, if not cheerful. Lady Wicklow has established three schools among the cottagers, which she supports; and she visits from house to house, inquires into their wants, and gives them premiums for cleanliness. Slated roofs are substituted for thatch, and on visiting fifteen of these cottages in one day, I saw not a dirty uncomfortable one, and only one where the shrubbery and flowers were not blooming in tasteful profusion about the windows and whitewashed walls. One of the earl's seven daughters writes religious tales for the cottagers' children, and gives them as rewards for industry and cleanliness. The earl supports a school for boys, where they can be kept till the age of fourteen. I visited one of Lady Wicklow's schools, and saw a group of cleanly, well managed children, who are instructed by a maiden lady of good capacity. The children are Roman Catholics and Protestants, and on inquiring into their attainments the answer was, "They are educated according to their rank; they belong to the lower order, and reading, writing, arithmetic, and a little knowledge of the maps is all the education they will ever need." This was a dark spot in the picture, which emphatically said (contrary to the injunction, "occupy till I come"), "Hitherto shalt thou go, and no further." What does this principle say to the wise plan of the Almighty in the distribution of his talents? If the

Saviour gave them to the poor, was he wise in doing so? Did he say, when he gave five talents, "I give you these five; but as you belong to the poor of the world, you must hide all but one." What steward over God's poor can give a good account of his stewardship, who has directly or indirectly checked the rising of an intellectual talent, which would be used for the glory of God, or the benefit of man?

Shelton Abbey has the appearance of a castle. It is a granite building, with a belfry for the clock, which makes a tower of no mean pretension. In the interior of the edifice there was no lack of good taste or splendor. The family were in London at the time of my visit; but the servants and gardener, left in charge, showed us the premises. A little spinning-wheel, with flax upon the distaff, stands in the parlor as an ornament and a pattern of industry. Whether Lady Wicklow has taken "hold of the distaff" with her own hands, and furnished her house with fine linen, was not told us; but she certainly has strong traits of one of Solomon's virtuous women. The pictures were numerous and costly. The enormous representation of a stag-hunt, with dogs holding by the teeth a poor stag in the act of leaping headlong, formed a cruel contrast to the benevolent countenance of the earl hanging near it.

"I would not enter on my list of friends,

The man who needlessly sets foot upon

A worm."

A call at the cottage of the young married sister of the family where I was stopping, gave an additional zest to the beauties of the morning, and the scenery around. She received us with such simple-hearted kindness, and spread such a well prepared repast in such a little parlor, and in so short a time, while her chattering little girl decked us with the freshest flowers of the cottage, that I almost wished my lot had been cast in the parish of Kilbride, after I had received my education. After our palatable lunch, we went from cottage to cottage, our company swelling at every stopping place, welcoming the American stranger; the salutations being often, "Welcome, thrice welcome to our country; a thousand welcomes to Ireland."

The children all joined in the salutations, and we ascended an eminence that overlooked the sea. Need I tell the reader I was proud of the honor of sitting in the midst of that group? Twilight was gathering around us, and the richly cultivated fields, with here and there a costly domain and the thatched cottage of the peasant, were at our right and left; for we had left the ornamented part of the parish. But here the eye was not pained with squalid poverty, and had I not since seen any of the desolations of this ill-fated isle, I must have said, "If this be Ireland, who shall weep over her?" I regretted that the fall of night made a separation necessary, for I loved to hear the tiny voices of the children, as they plucked the wild flowers, and filled the lap of the stranger; and when, at a gate, or the door of the cottage, I heard the "God bless ye, lady," I sent up a hearty wish to heaven, that all Ireland's enemies might be touched with feelings like my own.

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.