Return to Belfast by Derry

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter IV (7) | Start of Chapter

The comfort and hospitality at Roshine Lodge must be left, and with the kind Mrs. F. and her friend I turned away sadly from the scenes of desolation there witnessed, and again went to Gweedore, to meet Mrs. Hewitson, who was to accompany me to Belfast, and we prepared for the journey. She had distributed her grants, and her unceasing labors, often for twenty hours in twenty-four, called for relaxation. We left the pretty spot in sadness, for the starving were crowding about and pressing her for food, following the carriage—begging and thanking—blessing and weeping. We were obliged to shake them off, and hurried in agony away. "Many of these poor creatures," she observed, "will be dead on my return." On our way we passed the afternoon and night at Derry; it was a day for a flower and cattle show. Here were attracted most of the gentry in the county, as well as nobility; and we had an opportunity of sitting on a seat upon the sloping side of a hill, for nearly three hours, in a public garden, which overlooks a pretty part of the town, and feasting our eyes with a view of it. It was supposed nearly three thousand ladies had come out in their best, on this pleasant day, to see this pretty show of flowers; and though these were almost surpassingly beautiful, as Ireland's flowers are, yet the ladies were more so. Their pretty figures, (for they are in general of a fine form,) and becoming dresses, in all the variety of modern colors and fashions, brought me, after more than two hours' admiration, to the conclusion that a more beautiful assemblage of females, of the like number, could not be found. Had the women been educated after the model of Solomon and Paul's "virtuous women and housekeepers," what a crown of glory would they be? But alas! The most of the fine material of which woman is composed, is made up for ornament rather than use, in that unhappy country. A few Mrs. Hewitsons and Forsters are sprinkled here and there, and many can be found in Belfast who have arisen to a higher standard in this respect than the country in general; and the famine, which has been the proof of all that is praiseworthy and all that is deficient in females, has shown that Belfast has a capital, which when employed can be worked to a great and good advantage. But their late rising and late breakfasts wasted the best part of the day; and their foolish custom, which made it approach to vulgarity to give a call before twelve, retarded much that might have been done more easily and effectually. It is much to be scrupled whether one arose "while it was yet dark, to prepare meat for her maidens."

I spent a day in the Library, which was instituted in 1788, and now contains 8,000 volumes, without one of fiction. Is there another library on the globe that can say this? It speaks more for the good sense and correctness of principle in the people of Belfast than any comments or praise whatever can do. I felt, while sitting there, that here was an atmosphere of truth, entirely new. What would the reading community of all nations be, if youth had access to such libraries as these, and to no others?

From Belfast I went up the coast of Antrim, visited many beautiful towns and places, but all was saddened by the desolations of the famine. Industrial schools were everywhere showing their happy effects; and often by the wayside, in clusters upon a bank, or under a tree in some village, were young girls with their fancy knitting, sitting pleasantly together, busy at their work; and this was a striking fact, that in no case, where they were thus employed, did they look untidy; though their garments were of the plainest and poorest, yet they appeared cleanly. I visited a school at Larne, of this description, conducted by a pious widow woman; and the arrangements, in all respects, reflected honor on the superintendents and teacher. Their reading, writing, working, and knowledge of the scriptures, manifested great wisdom and faithfulness in the teacher, as well as aptness in the scholars. The most useful work was done there, and the finest fancy material, much of which has been sold in London, at a fair price, for the benefit of the poor children. One little girl of twelve, by her industry in that school, the preceding winter, had kept a family of three or four from the poor-house by her fancy knitting, occasionally working nearly all night. The father came to the window with a load of turf, to thank her for the instruction of the child, which had fed them through the winter, and this small token of his gratitude, humble as it was, he hoped she would not refuse.

These schools, scattered through the island, in the midst of the desolating famine, looked, to the traveler, like some humble violet or flower, springing in the desert or prairie, where a scathing fire had swept over the plain, and withered all that was most prominent to the beholder. Never did I see a company of these little ones, at their cheerful work, or have one present me with a specimen of her attainments, but the unassuming hope-cheered look, eloquently said, "Will you let us live? Will you give us our honest bread, for the willing labor of our hands, and allow us a dwelling-place among the nations of the earth?" Here in these pretty towns, along the coast of Antrim, had the poor-laws manifested their handy-work. The advice of Daniel O'Connell concerning them, was, "If you begin to build poorhouses, you had better at once make one grand roof over the whole island, for in due time the whole country will need a shelter under it." This precaution was not altogether a random one, for already had many of the industrious respectable tradesmen and widows, who were keeping lodging-houses, been compelled to give up their business—the taxes had come in and taken all within doors, which would sell at auction, for the poor-rates. I was directed to a respectable house to procure lodgings for a few days; the disheartened widow said, "Two days ago I could have given you a well-furnished bedroom and parlor, but now I have neither table, chair, or carpet on the floors; the money was demanded for a new tax just levied, I could not raise it, my furniture was taken, and I have no means to fetch it back, or to get bread." She could not expect respectable lodgers to stop with her, and saw nothing but hunger or the poorhouse for herself and children. Telling her if she would give me a place to lie down, I would stop, and give the usual price, she gladly accepted it, and the money paid her for this was all the means she had to get one meal for herself and three children, while I was in the house. This was a person of good reputation, kept a tidy, well-furnished lodging-house; and before the extra taxes had been laid on, had been able to put by a little money, but it had all been demanded the past year, and the means taken away to procure any more. This was the condition of the entire country.

While riding upon the car, the driver pointed to a peculiar dwelling, with a sign for refreshment, saying, "The woman here is a lucky one, for she pays no rent; if you wish I will stop and let you go in." The entrance was through a door, into a cave, which narrowed as it extended back, till it came to a point, and was very much in the shape of a harrow. A person could stand upright at the mouth, but must stoop, and then crawl, if he proceeded. The old woman lit up her torch, and crept on, insisting that I should follow. The passage was so long, dark, and narrow, that paying the old woman her expected sixpence, I got excused. She had an old bed, lying by the side of one wall of the cave, a little table on the other, on which she kept cakes and "the drap of whisky," for the traveler; and she told us merrily, that no landlord had disturbed her, and she had got the comfortable "bit " for many a twelvemonth. Happy old woman! It is hoped that when her gray hairs shall be removed to a still darker cave, the inheritance will fall to some other houseless head, who, like her, shall enjoy unmolested and unenvied this happy den, which like comfort few of the poor outcasts of Ireland can ever hope to attain.

Some of the most romantic spots are scattered upon this coast, which is for many a mile enlivened by white rocks, and small white pebbles, near the sea, so that the whole is so inviting, taking sea, rocks, beautiful road, and in many places backed by the rich woodland, that I left the carriage, and loitered among the varying beauties of running brooks, murmuring cascades, neat cottages and pretty churches, and deep green glens. My imagination was inclining to drink in the spirit of the simple little boy who accompanied me. When looking down from an eminence, on the path where we were walking, I saw a crumbling stone cabin, deep below me, in so narrow a defile that its opposite walls nearly extended to the perpendicular hills on each side; and inquiring of the child who could ever build there, expecting to live in it, he simply replied, "Oh, lady! that is a fairy's house; the people have put on the roof many a time, but at night the fairies come and take it off. They live in this glen, ma'am." "Then the fairies do not like roofs to their houses?" "I 'spose not, ma'am."

These fairies have doubtless saved many an agent or tithe-gatherer a "good baitin'," whose cowardly conscience has come by night to rob some corn or hay-stack for his unjust gain. Leaving my little companion, I ascended higher and higher, till at my feet far away stretched the broad sea; and about were sprinkled cabins, looking like the "shabby gentility," which a decayed person who had fallen from higher life keeps up. I entered one of cleanly appearance, and stumbled upon a most frightful sight. A woman with a child on her lap gave me an indifferent nod of welcome, and pointed to a bed through the door; supposing some starving object lay there, I turned to look, and on a bed lay her husband, his face uncovered, swollen and black, entirely blind, and blood still fresh about his hair and pillow, and he speechless. She was alone with him, her infant the only inmate: the doctor had just left without dressing his face.

The story was, two hours before, going to his labor, a furious bull had broken from his fastenings and was in mad pursuit after a lady, whose screams attracted the poor laborer; he ran with his spade, rushed between the horns of the animal and the lady, but could not save himself from the bull, which trampled him in the dirt, gored his face, broke his upper jaw, and tore apart one nostril. Three of the animal's legs were tied with the rope when he accomplished all this. The story ended by—"Thank God, the lady was saved, and the mad bull shot by the owner," and not one word of complaint about her husband. When I said, "What a pity that he went near him." "But, ma'am, didn't he go to save the lady, and wouldn't she been kilt if he hadn't done it?" So much for being a lady in Ireland, and for Irish courage and humanity. Returning to Belfast, I prepared for Dublin, and again sought out old Cook Street; some of my pensioners had removed, but none dead: their rent had been left to be paid weekly for them, and sufficient knitting given for their employ. Another grant was coming for me, to be deposited at Belfast, and the expense of transportation to Dublin would be such, that it was placed in the trustworthy hands of Mrs. Hewitson, who could get it conveyed to her destitute people at a smaller expense, when she should return. This donation, she afterwards said, was eked out for months at the most sparing rate; and the only relief she had in her power during the following winter season. A box of clothing was in my possession, and with this and a little money, I resolved to go to the western coast, in Connaught. I went, and Connaught will long live in my memory, for there are still scenes of sufferings of cruelty, and of patience, which no other people yet have shown to the world. That people who from the time of the invasion have been "hunted and peeled," treated as the " offscouring of all things," driven into "dens and caves of the earth," as the only shelter, now still live, to hold out to the world that lineament of the "image of God," which is, and which must be the everlasting rebuke of their persecutors; which says in the face and eyes of all mankind, to their spoilers—"You have hated me, you have robbed me, you have shorn me of my beauty; and now, while famine is eating up my strength, gnawing my vitals, you are turning me into the storm, without food, or even "sheep-skins or goat-skins" for a covering; and then tauntingly saying, "Wherein have we robbed you?"