Maureen Murphy brings to life the remarkable story of this little-remembered individual.
In May 1844, Asenath Nicholson left New York aboard the Brooklyn to “personally investigate the condition of the Irish poor.”
She had been a schoolteacher in Vermont and in New York, a proprietor of a vegetarian boarding house and a reformer who championed the causes of abolitionism and temperance. From her boarding house on the edge of New York’s notorious Five Points, she worked among Irish immigrants.
She later recalled those years saying, “It was in the garrets and cellars of New York that I first became acquainted with the Irish peasantry, and it was there I saw that they were a suffering people.”
She was determined to learn more about their suffering by walking through the country on her self-appointed mission to bring the Bible to the Irish poor. It was an ambitious adventure for an arthritic widow of 52. She would distribute copies of the Bible to those who could read, and she would read the Bible to those who could not.
Dressed in her polka coat, bonnet and India rubber boots and carrying an enormous black bearskin muff from which she produced tracts and Bibles, Nicholson must have been an extraordinary sight. She complained that people stared at her.
Her mission was not as straightforward as it might appear. Catholics regarded Bible readers as proselytes, and Protestant missionaries rejected her democratic ideas. From July 1844 to August 1845, she walked through Ireland visiting every county but Cavan.
She left for Scotland in August 1845, shortly before the first signs of the potato failure appeared. While Nicholson had not anticipated the failure of the harvest, as she traveled around the Irish countryside she frequently observed that the Irish poor depended on a single food crop.
She had heard the libel that the Irish poor were lazy; however, based on her experience visiting the Irish in their cabins, she concluded that they were not lazy; they lacked work. When she saw the poor employed, she made note of it.
The sight of a woman and her daughters carding and knitting gave her pause. “This was an unusual sight for seldom had I seen, in Ireland, a whole family employed among the peasantry. Ages of poverty have taken everything out of their hands but preparing and eating the potato and then sit listlessly on a stool, lie in their straw or saunter upon the street because no one hires them.”
A crop failure combined with chronic unemployment would turn a natural disaster into a calamity. When the blight came a second year, Nicholson returned in the winter of 1846 to do what she could do to help. She stayed two years, spending much of that time in the Famine-stricken west.
As soon as she arrived in Dublin on December 7, 1846, Nicholson wrote to the readers of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and Joshua Leavitt’s abolitionist Emancipator describing conditions in the city and asking for help for the Irish poor. She did not have the means to finance her relief efforts and she despaired that she was brought to witness a Famine without the means to relieve the hungry.
When a letter arrived from Greeley with money from his Tribune readers, she regarded it not only as the answer to her prayers but also a sign of divine intervention. Other friends sent food, money and clothes to distribute or to send to trusted friends to administer.
In July 1847, New Yorkers sent Nicholson five barrels of Indian corn aboard the United States frigate Macedonia. (There were fifty barrels aboard for Maria Edgeworth who provided the Central Relief Committee with information about Famine conditions in Co. Longford and who asked for shoes for her tenants working on a draining project.)
While she admired the work of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends (Quakers) who had established a soup kitchen in Charles Street behind Upper Ormond Quay in January 1847, Nicholson preferred to operate individually as she had in the Five Points and in her earlier trip to Ireland.
She described herself walking through Dublin each morning distributing slices of bread from a large basket. She worked out of her own soup kitchen in the Liberties, an area she selected for its extreme poverty. The Quakers sold their soup for a penny a quart.
Nicholson’s food was gratis; however, she operated on a triage system. She decided that £10 divided among 100 people helped no one, so she committed herself to a particular group of families for whom she cooked Indian meal daily. Nicholson stayed in Dublin until July 1847 when she left for Belfast. By then she had finished "Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger," her account of her earlier visit written to encourage readers to respond to Ireland’s crisis. By then the Temporary Relief Act (the “Soup Kitchen” Act) had become effective, and the Quakers closed their kitchen.