A Strange Reception

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter I (16) | Start of Chapter

Believing that the actors alone in the following tragedy will be the only persons who will understand who I mean, I shall not spare to tell the whole truth. I had promised to accompany the young ladies home from church, and dine with them, when the letter of introduction was left; I did so, and was introduced to a spot where the style of house and lands showed them to be a vestige of an aristocratic race. The parent had gone down to the dust, leaving a son and three daughters on the paternal estate, with all the insignia of comfort around them. They were of the Established Church, lofty in their views, great haters of the low Irish, and quite careful that the Apostle's injunctions should be religiously observed, where servants are required to "be obedient to their masters."

"I receive you," said the sister to whom the letter was directed,"on the strength of the note you brought; but I must be candid in saying, I am not partial to the Americans, because they keep up no distinction of rank, and eat with their servants."

Dinner was soon brought, when a maiden lady, whose age had been stationary probably for the last twenty years, was introduced. This lady had seen enough of the world to make her vain, possessed enough of its wealth to make her proud, and had religion enough to make her a boasting pharisee. I soon knew I had much to fear and little to gain, for she called for a new bottle of wine to be opened, as the doctor told her she must always use a little at her dinner, or brandy, if she preferred it; for she was bilious. "See, madam," said she to me, "our Saviour made wine, as the marriage could not be celebrated without it; and Paul said to Timothy, 'Use a little wine for your often infirmities.' Do you see, madam, God has made all these things for our comfort"—taking a glass with much relish at the same time. Seeing me decline a plate of flesh,"What! don't you take meat? Have the doctors told you it's bad for you? Why, do you know that meat was given on purpose for the benefit of man?" Here followed an unbroken lecture on the creation, the command given to Adam to control the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air, and the fish of the sea, and make them his food. Then the practice of our Saviour. "So you see, madam, I have the Bible at my tongue's end; and here's Miss W—, a good Christian, a church-going woman. Come now, don't go to church to-night. You came from America, and can tell us much about it. This would do us more good than a sermon. Come, come, what do you say to all this?"

Not a word had been uttered to interrupt this pell-mell volubility, when the presiding sister said, "Mrs. N. is a disciple of Mr. Graham, and perhaps would give us a little lecture on flesh eating?" "O!" cried the antiquated heroine, clapping her hands, "that's it—that's the thing—that's the thing!" Sipping her wine again, "Come," nodding her head, "you may make a convert of me; come, I'm ready. Now begin. Hear, hear!" The uproar became quite theatrical, for all joined in the chorus of "Hear, hear! Begin, begin!" To give a little rebuke, but more to make an honorable escape, I asked, "How do you spend your Sabbaths? Perhaps something else would be better." All with one voice cried out, "Give us a lecture—a Bible lecture on flesh eating—now! now! and we will be all attention." The lecture commenced, when soon the whole four pounced upon me, and with one vociferous tumult, crying and clapping their hands, and the chief speaker exclaiming, "Now! now! we have got it—Hear! hear! Why now, you must be a fool, or out of your mind. I thought you were in a decline, you looked so emaciated and so woe-begone."

In self-defence I was obliged to say, "You will excuse me from making any attempts to proceed. I sincerely think the lady who has been speaking must be insane, or half intoxicated." This finished the battle; the ridicule was turned into rage; I left the table, followed by the youngest sister, and we both went into the garden. Apologising for the warmth of the lady, she said, "you must know that she is highly respectable." "But lacks good breeding," I continued. "No indeed," rejoined the miss.

The eldest sister made the same apologies in essence, and I remarked, that the conduct I had seen to-day in this house would have disgraced the lowest American table, even where servants might be permitted to take a seat! I then took my bonnet and shawl, made my salaam, and departed.

This, reader, was my first letter of introduction, and it was a letter which, when given me in New York, I was assured was the very one that would introduce me into the first Protestant society in Dublin.

Truly, I never had spent the hours of a Sabbath so profanely in my life. I was vexed at myself, and disgusted with the spider-web education of females in the higher walks of life; but I was not discouraged; neither did I rail at all Ireland, or tax her fair daughters with being the most affected, the most impudent, and the most ignorant of all others. I have not found it so, though this specimen in a family of high pretensions was then and still is a problem quite difficult to solve.

On Wednesday morning I walked with a young lady to the Phoenix Park. On our way we met many interesting things, which made me inquire, who shall heal the wounds of bleeding, dying Ireland? So far as taste of man and nature's best skill could make it, every spot is full of interest, but every pleasant object in Ireland is dashed with some dark shade, which defaces, if it does not entirely put out, the beauties of the picture. In my pleasant morning walks in the land of my fathers, I had never been accustomed to meet the pale-faced dejected mother, and the ragged child, begging "a halfpenny for a bit of bread." This morning a modest-looking woman approached with a basket of oranges, and without giving her the pain of a refusal, I said, "I am sorry, ma'am, I have not a penny to buy an orange." I then asked,

"Have you a family?"

"Yes, ma'am; and their father's been dead this eight months, and they are all helpless around my feet."

"Have you been to breakfast?"

"No, ma'am, I come out to get a bit, if I could sell a little of these. A morsel will not cross the lips of one of us till it is bought by these."

"How much do you make a day?"

"Sometimes sixpence, but moretimes not so much."

As I passed on, "sometimes sixpence, but moretimes not so much," sounded in my ears; and yet this to Dublin ears would scarcely be called a cry of distress, or the speaker an object of compassion. And often have I been answered, when pleading for the poor, "What's that? They are used to it." "Used to it!" The longer the poor have suffered, and the lower they have fallen, the more haste should be made to rescue them.

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.