Asenath Nicholson

1792-1855 [née Hatch; occas. Mrs. Asenath Nicholson]; b. 24 Feb., Vermont, to a Quaker farming family; named after the wife given to Joseph by the Pharoah; began to teach at 16; m. Norman Nicholson (d.1841), a widower with children, 1829 [var. 1831; aetat. 39]; both moved to New York where they met with Rev. Sylvester Graham, a vegan and anti-caffeine campaigner; opened a vegan boarding-house and joined progressive causes incl. Abolitionism and poor relief; worked in the Irish emigrant ghettoes and faced the 1832 cholera outbreak; publ. Nature's Own Book (1835) a autobiography of childhood; resolved to help the Irish poor to know the Bible and travelled solo to Ireland where she travelled solo on foot and by car, July 1844-Aug. 1845 [aetat 52], visiting every county except Cavan;  publ. Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger (1847), reflecting her experience; returned to Ireland in Dec. 1846, as agent of NY Irish Relief Society; wrote to Horace Greeley requesting help for the Irish poor and received donation from him and NY Tribune readers;
set up a soup kitchen in the Liberties and a fundraising office in Dublin, renting a room above a printer’s workshop [prob. fellow Quaker Richard Davis Webb]; distributed five barrels of Indian corn receive by shipment from American donors - instructing the poor on how to cook the unfamiliar foodstuff; met Fr. Theobald Mathew in Cork; visited Belfast and Donegal in July 1847, witnessing "misery without a mask"; spent almost four years and four months in Ireland in total; travelled the country in a polka coat, velvet bonnet and muff, often in Bianconi coaches, sharing hardships with peasants in their homes; her “Annals of the Famine” was incorporated in Lights and Shades of Ireland (1850); came to believe that lack of employment, not laziness, was the root problem; communicated with the Quaker William Bennett who had also visited Ireland; finally left Ireland, Sept. 1848; attended peace delegations in Paris and Frankfurt; reached New York, 1852; d. 15 May 1855 [aetat. 63], in New Jersey, of typhoid fever; there is a portrait by Anna Maria Howitt;

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Works on Ireland
  • Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger; or excursions through Ireland in 1844 & 1845 for the purpose of personally investigating the condition of the poor (London: Charles Gilpin 1847), 422pp.; Do. (NY: Baker & Scribner 1847), 456pp.; and Do. as The Bible in Ireland: Irelands Welcome to the Stranger [...&c.] [abridged & ed. by A[lfred] Tresidder] Sheppard (London: 1926), 272pp. [Intro. pp v–xliv];
  • Lights and Shades in Ireland, 3 pts. (London: Charles Gilpin 1850; another edn. London: Houlston, 1850), xii, 444pp. [Pt. I: Early history; Pt. II: Saints, kings and poets of the early ages; Pt. III: The famine of 1847, ’48, & ’49]; Do. [rep.] (1850).
  • Annals of the Famine in Ireland, in 1847, 1848, and 1849, ed. by J. L. (NY: E. French 1851); and Do. [rep. edn.] ed. Maureen Murphy (Dublin: Lilliput Press; Penn.: Dufour Edns. 1998), 256pp. [Intro. pp.5-17; Bibl. 231-34].
Other writings
  • Treatise on Vegetable Diet, with Practical Results: or, a Leaf from Nature’s Own Book, illustrated by facts and experiments of many years practice 1850 (Glasgow: q. pub. 1848), 96pp.; Do., [rep. facs.] (Kessinger 2009) [regarded as childhood autobiog.]
Query, Home Rule: The Substance of a 'Speech in part delivered, in part intended to be delivered [...] at a public meeting in the Town Hall, Leamington, on Saturday, April 17th, 1886 (Birmingham: Cornish [1886]), 11pp. [pamph.] Note improb. late date.
Anthologies (sel.)

A Book of Ireland, ed. Frank O’Connor (Glasgow: Collins 1959); Diaries of Ireland : An Anthology, 1590-1987, ed. Melosina Lenox-Conyngham (Dublin: Lilliput Press 2012).

Ireland’s welcome to the stranger, or An excursion through Ireland, in 1844 & 1845, for the purpose of personally investigating the condition of the poor, by Asenath (Hatch) Nicholson
Published: 1847, Baker and Scribner (New York)
Pagination: 456pp.
Subject: Poor — Ireland
Ireland — Description and travel
Internet Archive Bibliographical Record

[ Copy held in Univ. of Toronto Library  

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  • Helen E. Hatton, The Largest Amount of Good: Quaker Relief in Ireland, 1654–1921 (1993).
  • Margaret Kelleher, ‘The Female Gaze: Asenath Nicholson’s Famine Narrative’, in Fearful Realities: New Perspectives on the Famine, ed. Chris Morash & Richard Hayes (Blackrock: IAP 1996), pp.119-30 [Chap. 8].
  • Maureen Murphy, ‘Asenath Nicholson and the famine in Ireland’, in Women in Irish history, ed. Maryann Gialanella Valiulis and Mary O’Dowd  (1997), pp.109–24.
  • ——, ‘Asenath Nicholson and famine folklore tradition in Rossport, County Mayo’, in Atlantic Currents: Essays on Lore, Literature and Language [...] in honour of Séamas Ó Catháin, ed. Bo Almqvist [... et al.] (Dublin: UCD Press 2012), [q.pp.]
  • ——, ‘Asenath Nicholson. Heroine of Ireland’s Great Hunger’, in Heroes of Ireland’s Great Hunger, ed. Christine Kinealy, et al. (Cork UP; Hamden, CT: Quinnipiac UP 2021) [q.pp.],

See also Peter Somerville-Large, The Grand Irish Tour (1982) [chap. on Nicholson].

A review notice of Maureen Murphy’s edition of Annals of the Famine in Ireland (1998), in Times Literary Supplement, calls the work ‘meticulously edited’. (Times Lit. Supplement, 9 Oct. 1998, p.36.)

[ The article on Asenath Nicholson in the Dictionary of Irish Biography (2009) is by Deirdre Bryan - online. accessed 21.02.2024. ]

[ Our Irish History incorporates references to RICORSO in its appreciable biographical and critical notice - online; accessed 21.02.2024. ]

[ The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry 1991), Vol. II, contains an extract from Lights and Shades of Irish Life. ]

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Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger; or excursions through Ireland in 1844 & 1845 (NY: Baker & Scribner 1847)

A PREFACE is like a porter at the entrance of a castle or a dinner-party; however necessary his attendance may be, and however dazzling his livery, he can expect but a hasty brush from the passers in; it is the castle they want to see, it is the dinner they have come to eat. Knowing, however, that every public act demands a public explanation, I give my candid reasons for doing so strange a work, and for doing it in so strange a way.
 We have had many “Pencillings by the Way,” and “Conciliation Halls,” and “Killarney Lakes” from the tops of coaches and from smoking dinner tables. But one day’s walk on mountain or bog, one night’s lodging where the pig, and the ass, and horned oxen feed,

“Like Aaron’s serpent, swallows all the rest.”

“Remember, my children,” said my father, “that the Irish are a suffering people; and when they come to your doors, never send them empty away.” It was in the garrets and cellars of New York that I first became “acquainted witn the Irish peasantry, and it was there I saw they were a suffering people. Their patience, their cheerfulness, their flow of blundering, hap-hazard, [iv] happy wit, made them to me a distinct people from all I had seen. Often, when seated at my fireside, have I said to those most dear to my heart, “God will one day allow me to breathe the mountain air of the sea-girt coast of Ireland — to sit down in their cabins, and there learn what soil has nurtured, what hardships have disciplined so hardy a race — so patient and so impetuous, so revengeful and so forgiving, so proud and so humble, so obstinate and so docile, so witty and so simple a people.”
 Those who then laughed at my vagaries, have all gone down to the dust. The world was before me, and all mankind my brethren. “I have made you desolate. I want you for other purposes. Go, work in my vine-yard,” was the word. I conferred not with flesh and blood. No pope or priest, no minister or prelate augmented my purse, to enable me to spy out the nakedness of the land. I came “a warfare at my own charges.” I came to gather no legends of fairies or banshees, to pull down no monarchies, or set up any democracies; but I came to glean after the reapers, to gather up the fragments, to see the poor peasant by wayside and in bog, in the field and by his peat fire, and to read to him the story of Calvary. I came to linger with the women at the foot of the cross, and go with them early to the sepulchre. I have done so; and should the fastidious reader say that this condescending to men of low estate, this eating with publicans and sinners — above all, this lodging in a manger, is quite in bad odor if not in bad taste, he must be told it wag because there was no “room for me in the inn,” or because my pained feet could go no further.
 I had counted the cost. I knew there were professed [v] Christians in the nineteenth century, who would be forgetful to entertain strangers, and would ask, “where hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness?” I knew there were “doorkeepers in the house of God,” who would say, “Sit thou here under my footstool,” if “the gold ring and goodly apparel” were wanting; and I knew that she, whose delicate foot never treads the threshold of the poor, would scruple the propriety if not the reputation of her who does it. I have not “dipped my pen in gall” towards any of those; I have mentioned no names where they could be readily avoided, and then, in most cases, where gratitude required me to do so.
 I ask no reward — I ask no sympathy. This sowing by the side of all waters has been abundantly paid by the “God save ye kindly,” and the “Fear not, I am with you.”
 Reader, I would not be an egotist — I would not boast; but I would speak of that Almighty Arm that sustained me, when, on a penny’s worth of bread, I have walked over mountain and bog for twenty and twenty-three miles, resting upon a wall, by the side of a lake, or upon my basket, reading a chapter in the sweet Word of Life to some listening laborer. And when at night-fall, in some humble lodging-house, my potatoe and salt were taken, my feet bathed, then could I sing of mercy; then could I say, what lack I yet? I never had one fear by night or by day, nor ever cast a longing, lingering look behind, to my once loved home across the ocean.
 Should the devout reader be disappointed at the want of gravity in some of the details, he can only be told that facts are delineated as they occurred; not to make [vi] a story or a book, but to present the rustic as he is — the seemly and the unseemly, the beautiful and the deformed, the consistent and the inconsistent. Whoever mixes awhile with the heterogeneous jumble of Irish sadness and Irish mirth, will find that to be grave at all times,

“Exceeds all power of face.”

 One great difficulty in the narration has been the pronoun I. Many interesting facts have been partially illustrated, and some wholly suppressed, because this officious letter must figure so prominently.
 Allow me to say to every Christian and every philanthropist, “Turn not away from your own flesh.” There is a vast amount of talent in its native rubbish in the mountains of Kerry and Connemara, and in the bogs of Connaught. Far too many roses have already wasted their “sweetness on the desert air” — too many a dark-haired Kerry girl has lavished her graces on the mountain goat and sheep she has tended, without once reading the story of the Ruth and Rebecca whom she, in occupation, unknowingly imitates. I do not say, Do the work as I have done, but, Do it, and do it better. If my steps will not serve as a pattern, my aberrations may as a warning. Their proprieties and improprieties are before you; and you must show me a “more excellent way,” or I shall certainly do the same thing in the same manner, if again honored with the mission.
 It was never my intention to tax the Irish public with another volume, added to the huge pile already written on Ireland. It was my design to go silently through among the poor, and tell the story to my own  country-men [vii]; that they might be induced to labor more untiringly and effectually for. the. .destitute portion of this nation, who are daily landing upon our shores. But I heard the sound of an “abundance of rain;” the cloud is spreading over mountain top and lowly glen; they that “for want and famine are desolate,” are crying, “give us food to eat, we loathe this light manna;” and from many a pulpit through the length and breadth of the land I hear, “Thrust in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe.” The treasury is open, and the rich men are casting in their gifts. Accept the mite of the widow; it is small indeed, but it is “all her living,” and given heartily and cheerfully.
 The reader is assured that nothing has been added to meet the state of the famine of 1846 and 1847. Facts are related as they occurred and were described in 1844 and 1845; and these facts then indicated that an explosion must soon take place, and that Ireland must be turned inside out; so that all the world might see that, deformed as may be her surface, her vitals show a disease hereditary, obstinate, and still more odious, which opiates or ointments cannot cure.
 Thanks to the Hibernian Bible Society, which furnished me with the Word of God in English and Irish, through the instrumentality of a friend, who also procured for me tracts and other suitable books for distribution, on my last tour round the coast. It was not till four excursions had been made in the interior, that my name and object were known. They, therefore, are not amenable for anything I have said or done. I was not a “chosen vessel” of theirs. God reward their bounty, by the finding “after many days,” of this bread “cast [viii] upon  the waters.” ;“Thou knowest not which shall prosper, either this or that.”
 Thanks to all those who have spoken kind words to the stranger; and thanks to those who have felt called to give the distant look or the cool rebuke — the former have filled my heart with gratitude, and the latter have made me cling closer to the High Arm that sustained me.

 Dublin, June 10th, 1847.

[Available at Internet Archive - online; accessed 20.02.2024.]
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Tenantry in King’s County: ‘[...] Is this the growth of Ireland’s bogs and ditches? Are such, the plants of nature’s gardens, left unheeded and trampled under foot, crushed in the budding by the careless passenger? Ah! little do the proud, titled, and estated ones of Erin know the power of mind which is embodied under the ragged garments, their ill-paid labor compels the toiling ones to wear. Little do they know that while they look with contempt, or make themselves merry at the expense of their unlettered blunders, that these “thing of nought” are scanning their every action, are reading them through, and, could they write a book, would tell them true tales of their character, which they never themselves understood, and which would make their ears tingle.’ (Excursions, NY 1847, p.207) ’

Hunger in Co. Galway: ‘What subjects for contemplation has this morning presented! The humble clean family; the uncomplaining children going out to school without any breakfast ; the suffering man still retaining a sense of honor in refusing the money, and a sense of propriety in escaping from the woman and basket ; the sad state to which a country must be reduced, when the cheapest article of food could not be purchased by the poor in a season of plenty, sufficient to make them comfortable ; and where woman is made to be anything but what God ordained or fitted her to be, the dishonor instead of the “ glory of man.”’ (Excursions, NY 1847m p.384.)

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Famine realities: ‘More like a dream than a reality, because they appear out of common course, and out of the order of even nature itself. But they are realities, and many of them are fearful ones - realities which none but eye-witnesses can understand, and not but those who passsed through them can feel.’ (Quoted by Peter Gray, reviewing Chris Morash and Richard Hayes, eds., Fearful Realities: New Perspectives on the Famine, IAP, 1996; in Irish Literary Supplement, Fall 1996, p.16.)

Famine deaths: ‘The young woman had been sick for weeks, and was now only able to situp a little; but having neither food, fuel or covering, nothing but death stared them in the face; and the most affecting part of the whole to me was the simple statement of the widow who said, in the most resigned manner, “We have been talking, Mary and I, this morning, and counting off our days: we could not expect any relief, for I could not go out again, and she could not and the farthest that the good God will give us on earth cannot be more than fourteen days.”’ (Quoted in Bridget O’Toole, review of A. N. Jeffares & Peter Van der Kemp, ed., Irish Literature: The Eighteenth Century, in Books Ireland, April. 2006, p.78.)

Blackguard Raleigh: ‘The poor peasants men, women and children wre gathering seaweed, loading their horses, asses and backs with it to manure their wretch little patches of potatoes sown among the rocks. “Three hundred and sixty-two days a year we have the potato,’ said a young man to me bitterly, ‘the blackguard of a Raleigh who brought them here entailed a curse upon the labourer that has broke his heart. Because the landlord sees that we can live and work hard on them, he grinds us down in our ways and he despises us because we are ignorant and ragged.”’ (Asenath Nicholson, describing scene nr. Roundstone, Co. Galway; quoted in Kevin Whelan, ‘Pre- and Post-Famine Landscape changes’, in Cáthal Portéir, ed., The Great Irish Famine [Thomas Davis Lectures Series], RTÉ/Mercier, 1995, p.27.)

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