Mr. Griffith

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter IV (4) | Start of Chapter

The next day we were to visit Arranmore, a pretty sunny island, where peace and comfort had ever reigned. The peasantry here were about 1500 in number, occupying a green spot three miles in length, and had always maintained a good character for morality and industry. They kept cows, which supplied them with milk, sheep with wool, geese with beds, fowls with eggs; and grew oats, potatoes, and barley; they wore shoes and stockings, which none of the female peasantry can do in the country places; they likewise spun and made their own wearing apparel, and as the difficulty of crossing the channel of the sea, which was three miles, was considerable, they seldom visited the main land.

When they saw the potatoe was gone, they ate their fowls, sheep, and cows, and then began to cross the sea to Templecrone for relief. What could they find there? One man could do but little to stay the desolation. Hundreds had died before this, and though I knew that painful scenes were in waiting, yet, if possible, the half was not told me.

Six men, beside Mr. Griffith, crossed with me in an open boat, and we landed, not buoyantly, upon the once pretty island.

The first that called my attention was the death-like stillness—nothing of life was seen or heard, excepting occasionally a dog. These looked so unlike all others I had seen among the poor I unwittingly said—“How can the dogs look so fat and shining here, where there is no food for the people?”

“Shall I tell her?” said the pilot to Mr. Griffith, not supposing that I heard him.

This was enough: if anything were wanting to make the horrors of a famine complete, this supplied the deficiency. Reader, I leave you to your thoughts, and only add that the sleek dogs of Arranmore were my horror, if not my hatred, and have stamped on my mind images which can never be effaced.

We made our first call at the door of the chapel; the fat surly-looking priest was standing there; and, saying to him, “Your people, sir, are in a bad state.”

“Bad enough, they give me nothing.”

“Why should they?—you cannot expect or ask anything of the poor starving creatures.”

The curate withdrew, leaving the battle to be decided by the priest, pilot, and myself, for he had known him before.

“Ah,” said the pilot, softly, “he's a hard one; there's the Christian for you,” pointing to the curate, “he's the man that has the pitiful heart,—not a cratur on the island but would lay down the life for him.”.

This pilot was a Roman Catholic, but that characteristic impartiality, peculiar to the Irish, where justice and mercy are concerned, belonged to him likewise.

We went from cabin to cabin, till I begged the curate to show me no more. Not in a solitary instance did one beg. When we entered their dark, smoky, floorless abodes, made darker by the glaring of a bright sun, which had been shining upon us, they stood up before us in a speechless, vacant, staring, stupid, yet most eloquent posture, mutely graphically saying, “Here we are, your bone and your flesh, made in God's image, like you. Look at us! What brought us here?”

May God forgive me, and I believe he will, or I would not say it. With Job, I said, “Let darkness and the shadow of death stain that day when first the potato was planted in this green isle of the sea, to oppress the poor laborer, and at last bring him to a valley of death—deep, dark, intricate—where slimy serpents, poison lizards, and gnawing vultures creep and wind about his wasted limbs, and gnaw into the deepest recesses of his vitals.

In every cabin we visited, some were so weak that they could neither stand nor sit, and when we entered they saluted us, by crawling on all fours toward us, and trying to give some token of welcome.

Never, never was the ruling passion stronger in death. That heartfelt greeting which they give the stranger, had not in the least died within them; it was not asking charity, for the curate answered my inquiries afterward, concerning the self-control, which was the wonder of all, that he had sent a man previously through the island, to say that a stranger, from across the sea, was coming to visit them, but she had no money or food to give, and they must not trouble her.

I gave a little boy a biscuit, and a thousand times since have I wished that it had been thrown into the sea; it could not save him: he took it between his bony hands, clasped it tight, and half-bent as he was, lifted them up, looked with his glaring eyes upon me, and gave a laughing grin that was truly horrible.

The curate turned aside, and beckoned me away. “Did you see that horrid attempt to laugh?”

“I cannot stay longer,” was my answer. We hurried away.

The noble-minded pilot said, “Will you step into my little place, and I will show you the boiler where I made the soup and stirabout, while the grants lasted.”

These grants were mostly sent by the churches in England, and some poor deserving persons selected to give them out, and a very small compensation granted them, from the food they were distributing; and it should be here remarked, that when mention is made of the difference between “hirelings” and “volunteers,” I mean those “hirelings” who were paid by government great salaries, and like the slave-overseers, could order this flogging, and withhold that, according to their own caprices. This does not in the least apply to such distributors as these.

The house of this man was a step in advance of the common cabins, and every part as clean as cabin or cottage could be; his young despairing wife sat, with a clean cap and apron on, for she knew we were coming, and uncomplainingly answered our inquiries respecting food, that they had not eaten that day, and the husband led us into the next room, opened a chest, took out a small bowl, partly filled with some kind of meal, and solemnly declared that they had not another morsel in the cabin or out, nor a sixpence to buy any. The curate said, “I know him well, he is a deserving man, and tells us the truth.”

When we left this cabin we passed a contiguous one, and a decently clad woman, with shoes and stockings, and blue petticoat, (that was the kind the peasants always wore in their days of comfort,) very pleasantly offered me a bowl of milk. Astonished at the sight of such a luxury, I refused, from the principle that it would be robbing the starving. “I regret,” said the curate, as we turned away, “that you did not take it, her feelings were deeply injured: a shadow of disappointment,” he said, “came over her face, as she answered in Irish: ‘The stranger looks wairy and her heart is drooping for the nourishment.’”

O, my Heavenly Father! myheart drooping for nourishment,” after having taken a wholesome breakfast, and with the prospect of a good dinner at our return.

A second kind woman was about making the same offering, when I begged Mr. Griffith, who spoke Irish, to say how much I thanked her; but that I never drank milk, and was not in the least hungry. Inquiring how we came to find milk, the pilot answered, that scattered here and there, a comfortable farmer, who had milked some three or four cows, had saved one from the wreck; but that would soon go, and then all must die together. We hurried away.

And now for the burying-ground. “You have seen the living, and must now see the place of the dead.”

A famine burying-ground on the sea-coast has some peculiarities belonging to itself. First, it often lies on the borders of the sea, without any wall, and the dead are put into the earth without a coffin, so many piles on piles that the top one often can be seen through the thin covering; loose stones are placed over, but the dogs can easily put these aside, and tear away the loose dirt.

This burial-place was on a cliff, whose sides were covered with rough stones, and the ascent in some parts very difficult. We ascended, sometimes keeping erect, and sometimes being obliged to stoop and use our hands.

When we reached the top, the painful novelty repaid all our labor. It was an uneven surface of a few perches, with new-made graves and loose stones covering them. A straw-rope was lying near a fresh-dug grave, which the pilot said belonged to an old man, who two days before he saw climbing the cliff, with a son of fifteen lashed to his back by that cord, bringing in his feeble hand a spade. “I untied the cord, took the corpse from the father's back, and with the spade, as well as I could, made a grave and put in the boy;” adding, “Here you see so many have been buried, that I could not cover him well.”

This was the burial-place of Arranmore, and here, at the foot, was the old roaring ocean, dashing its proud waves, embracing in its broad arms this trembling green gem, while the spray was continually sprinkling its salt tears upon its once fair cheek, as if weeping over a desolation that it could not repair.

At a little distance was a smooth green field, rearing its pretty crop of young barley, whose heads were full and fast ripening for the sickle. “This,” said Mr. Griffith, “is the growth of seed which was presented by William Bennet, last March; the poor creatures have sowed it, and if the hands that planted it live to reap the crop, they will have a little bread. Take a few heads of it, and send them to him as a specimen of its fine growth, and of their care in cultivating it. Had these industrious people,” he added, “been supplied in the spring with seed of barley and turnips, they would not need charity from the public. The government sent a supply around the coast, the delighted people looked up with hope, when, to their sad disappointment, this expected gift was offered at a price considerably higher than the market one, and we saw the ships sailing away, without leaving its contents; for not one was able to purchase a pound. And we have since been told, that the ‘lazy dogs’ were offered seed, but refused, not willing to take the trouble to sow it.”

We left without doing one favor, and without being asked to do one, except to drink a basin of milk.

We found two little meagre, almost naked girls, sitting upon the beach picking shells and grinding them in their clean teeth; they gave a vacant look as we spoke, but answered not.

I gave the six boatmen a shilling each, who had not eaten one mouthful that day, and Mr. G. added sixpence each. Their grateful acknowledgments were doubly affecting, when they said, “This is more than we have had at one time since the famine,” and they hastened to the meal-shop to purchase a little for their starving families.

We went to a full dinner, prepared in that style which the gentry of Ireland are accustomed to prepare for guests; but what was food to me? The sights at Arranmore were food sufficient.

What could be done?

Mrs. Forster said, she had written to England, till she was ashamed to tire their generosity again; not once had she been refused from the churches there, and she felt that their patience must be exhausted. She gave the names of some of her donors. A letter was written in the desperation of feeling to an Independent minister there; and God forever bless him and his people, for the ready response. Arranmore was relieved a little.