Protestant New Yorker who saved hundreds of Irish famine victims

Asenath Hatch Nicholson: The remarkable individual who personally investigated "the condition of the Irish poor."

Nicholson may have followed their example. In any case, she left Dublin and went for the west of Ireland in July 1847 where she visited Donegal and then went on to Newport, Co. Mayo. She had visited Newport earlier and was returning to stay with her friend, the postmistress Mrs. Margaret Arthur. There she found “misery without mask.” She went further into the misery when she went west from Belmullet to spend the winter of 1847-8 in the Erris peninsula.

She set to work bearing witness to the suffering, visiting the poor and encouraging relief workers. She not only recorded their names, but she also gave a glimpse of those selfless people who died working among the poor: Rev. Patrick Pounden, the Rector of Westport and his wife, and Rev. Francis Kinkaid, the Church of Ireland curate of Ballina who died on the 28th of January 1847. Catholics as well as Protestants contributed to the memorial tablet on the wall of the church.

She continued to lobby in letters for ways to bring employment to the people of western Mayo. On October 31, 1847, she wrote to her friend the English Quaker philanthropist William Bennett who had visited the west of Ireland early in 1847.

She was quick to praise resident landlords who provided employment for their tenants, but some were unable to provide relief. “You, sir, who know Erris, tell, if you can, how the landlord can support the poor by taxation, to give them food, when the few resident landlords are nothing and worse than nothing, for they are paupers in the full sense of the word.”

She went on to ask Bennett to use his own resources or his influence to support a local employment scheme. “I must and will plead, though I plead in vain, that something may be done to give them work. I have just received a letter from the curate of Bingham’s Town saying that he could set all his poor parish, both the women and children, to work, and find a market for their knitting and cloth, if he could command a few pounds to purchase the materials.”

Nicholson not only appealed to her friends and to the public, she challenged the government on two counts: their stewardship of relief resources and their attitude toward the poor for whom they were responsible.

She made a distinction between the paid relief officers, whom she characterized as bureaucratic, hierarchical and self-serving, and volunteer relief workers (Quakers, coast guardsmen and their families and local clergy) who were compassionate, egalitarian and selfless. Nicholson was scrupulous about her own expenses. She allowed herself 23 pence a day for food: a diet of bread and cocoa and she reduced her stipend to 16 pence (no cocoa) when her resources dwindled.

She raged that grain was diverted from food to alcohol. She charged that grain used for distilling could have fed the Irish poor. “Reader, ponder this well. Enough grain, converted into a poison for body and soul as would have fed all that starving multitude.”

Over and over she contrasted the lack of charity among relief officials with the compassion of volunteers. The hospitality of the Irish countryside was the leitmotif of "Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger"; the leitmotif of “Annals” was the generosity of the poor to one another. “Annals” is a vivid account of suffering that combines her eye-witness account with character sketches, parables, dramatic scenes and dialogues. Nicholson’s accounts put human faces on the statistical reports. Her account of those who served the poor is a record of grace.

In the fall of 1848, when she thought the Great Irish Famine was over, Nicholson left Dublin quietly for London. In fact, famine conditions continued until 1852.

The “lone Quaker” who saw her to her boat was probably her friend the abolitionist Quaker printer Richard Davis Webb. In England she published "Lights and Shades of Ireland" (1850), the third part of which was “Annals of the Famine.” She joined the cause of world peace, joining delegations to Paris and Frankfurt. She returned to New York without notice and lived quietly in declining health until she died of typhoid fever in Jersey City on May 15th, 1855.

Almost forgotten, her books are now back in print, so we know how she would have wished to be remembered.

During her first visit to Ireland while walking the road from Oranmore to Loughrea, Nicholson stopped to rest her blistered feet and thought of her prudent friends who had warned her against this reckless adventure. Did she wish to be back in her parlor in New York? She did not.

She said, “Should I sleep the sleep of death, with my head pillowed against this wall, no matter. Let the passerby inscribe my epitaph upon this stone, fanatic what then? It shall only be a memento that one in a foreign land lived and pitied Ireland, and did what she could to seek out its condition.”