The Isle of Oma, and the Natives thereof

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter XXIV (14) | Start of Chapter

We walked out of town; stopped at a cabin where a Catholic old man, who had been a sailor, kept us too long; for so powerful was the effluvia from various kinds of filth of cabin and cattle, that the girl, though used to such places, became nauseated, turned pale, and was faint. We gladly got out into the fresh air, but the girl was quite ill for an hour. We sought a decent house, found a decent bed, and paid a decent price, and took a breakfast of potatoes with the good Methodist woman. Walked back, and took a second tour on Diamond Mountain for the spectacles, all unavailing, and we returned to Clifden, certainly wiser than we were three days before, and I was certainly poorer. The next morning for Omey.

At an early hour I set off from Clifden (the capital) to visit this island, the distance of seven miles. Reaching a village of the most ancient kind, such as houses of stone, constructed like a loose stone wall, without gable ends—some with tops like a bee-hive, or inverted basket—some with holes for smoke to ascend, and some with no way for its escape but through the door; I selected one of the largest dimensions, knowing that there would be a full turn-out from every cabin and potatoe-field in sight and hearing. I was not disappointed. As if by magic, in a few moments every neighboring cabin was vacated, the hill-side and bog had not a foot to tread them—every spade was dropped, and in a few moments the ground of the cabin was literally packed with men, women, and children, in rags and tatters—some with hair erect, and some with caps, and some with hats, but more with none. In one solid mass they all sat down upon their haunches, and began their welcomes to Ireland, and their wonder that so "goodly a body should leave so fine a country to see such a poor people;" my polka coat, my velvet bonnet, and all that outwardly appertained to me passed in review. Taking out a tract, I read a little, while they wondered at my "plain spache," and thanked God that they had seen such a devotee, going, as they supposed, on penance. "And sure ye must be hungry—and such a dacent body wouldn't ait a potatoe." Assuring them I was not hungry, they all rose and joined in one universal valedictory of, "God bless ye, and speed ye on yer journey." One woman followed me out, and begged me to turn into her cabin and take an egg; I told her that I was greatly obliged that she should show me so much kindness, but I must hasten to secure a walk across the strand before the tide should set in.

I crossed the strand, and reached an island a mile in diameter, of one rude pile of stone, with a little patch now and then of green, without a road, the foot-paths being so obscured by sand blown in from the beach, that guess-work was my only guide. Here were huts, some of stone, and some of mud; and here, too, were habitations dug in the sand, as rabbits burrow, and whole families live therein; an aperture to crawl in admits the inmates, serving as door, window, and chimney; on the ground straw is spread, which serves for table, bed, and chair. At each end of this island live the owners, called "lords."

The miseries of that island must be seen to be believed. I went into a hut, and found a family about drawing their stools around a basket of potatoes. They received me with much urbanity, made sensible inquiries of my country, and spoke of the good she had done to poor Ireland. Seeing that their dinner was cooling, I said, "your potatoes look quite tempting, sir; may I take one?" "Take one!" said the delighted wife, "would ye ate one?" The man added, "I was ashamed, ma'am, to be seen aitin' 'em while you was in. This is a dry bit, without milk or butter, ma'am, and yer country never ait like this." "Can you read?" I asked. "I could once, ma'am, but my eyes are grown dim." I handed him a tract, and he read tolerably; went out, and called his son to choose one from my bundle for himself, as I had given him the privilege. They had selected the finest potatoes for me, and toasted them upon the coals. They had two guests besides; a beggar, and a friend of their own, and all had a scanty dinner but myself. The guests would not eat till I was well supplied, and the poor man did not make a comfortable meal, and this was the only meal for the day.

The son was sent to show me the path to Lady M——, and, wading ancle-deep in sand, I made my way to it, and found an entrance into the kitchen. The lady had gone to Clifden, and the floorless room was a deposit for calves, pigs, hens, and ducks. Two servants were sitting on the hearth, and handing one a tract, which had a red cover, the scene that followed I better felt than my tongue or pen can describe. The girl went out, and in a few minutes the dilapidated door, with a tremendous noise, was burst open, pouring in a host of men, boys, and girls, who were employed planting potatoes; and they with one consent pounced upon me, demanding books, and they must be red ones. Begging them to be quiet, and I would make an equal distribution (having about fifty with me)—they would hear to none of this, but rummaged my basket, demanding an entrance into my pocket, all clamoring at once, some in Irish, and others in broken English, while the servant girl stood aghast. A man more manageable than the rest, who had entered before the mob, and had been reading a tract, declared to them that the books were "dacent," and that they were blackguards; and after I had given the only one in my possession, he succeeded by physical force to drag them out of the house—such as were dragable, while the others took their own time and own way. I made off, with an apology from the servant, that she could give me nothing to eat, as all was "locked up."

My next depôt was to be at the extremity of the island, where lived the other "lady." She, too, was out; but I was admitted into the kitchen, and had a quiet survey of what was passing there. Here I counted sixty-three living and moving beings, quadruped and biped, besides such as walked erect—a kennel of dogs, three coops for hens, chickens and ducks, a calf or two, a pen of young pigs, a fold of sheep and lambs, and an able-bodied goat—these all walked and talked each his own language, with no pugnacious symptoms; and if the "lion and lamb did not lie down together," the goat and lamb did.

But the "lady,"—she entered with a goodly-looking daughter of fifteen, both attired in long linen coats, with respectable tails reaching nearly to the ground, worn by the father and brother. They passed through in dignified silence, and in a moment the lady returned, saying, "Come down to the parlor." I went down to the parlor, and here was a ground floor, a dirty-looking bed, a few wooden-bottom chairs, and a table by the wall, with one leaf turned up, and a platter of potatoes and a cup of milk. "Will you take some dinner?" I did not decline, for I was hungry, and a long walk before me, and the tide not yet out, and the sun was set. The lady was young-looking and handsome, and the mother of sixteen hopefuls, was rich, and rode out to Clifden, giving great dinners in the city, and on the island, assimilating herself to the society around her.

Eight o'clock, the tide was said to be out, and I had a strand of a mile to cross, and six miles to Clifden then before me. A boy was sent to show me the shortest course, and when I had nearly reached the strand, a girl called out, "The mistress says may be you'll come back, and stop all night." A strange oversight, my pride answered, that this invitation was not given before. I thanked the child and went on, quite to my disadvantage. Midway the strand in the sea was quite deep: I waded in and stood demurring; the night was dark, and to find a passage out seemed impossible. I turned back, and made my way to the "lady's;" she then made a shrewd investigation of the cause of my visit. Looking at her altogether, her savage living, her ragged dress, and pretence to high rank, I was disgusted to find myself at the option of such an "out of the way affair," and I told her plainly I came to Ireland because I had a right to come; that they were daily sending loads of beggared and abused emigrants to us, and I had come to see how and what they could be at home; and making the application to her own kitchen, she understood me when I said, "I have seen, and am satisfied." She was rebuked, and treated me with uncommon attention through the evening. She gave me a clean bed, in a floorless room, a cup of milk by my side to drink in the night, and in the morning presented me with a dish of potatoes, and was sorry she had no bread; declining the potatoes, I walked the seven miles without eating, and was much enriched by what I had seen.

Ireland’s Welome to the Stranger is one of the best accounts of Irish social conditions, customs, quirks and habits that you could wish for. The author, Mrs Asenath Nicholson, was an American widow who travelled extensively in Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine and meticulously observed the Irish peasantry at work and play, as well as noting their living conditions and diet. The book is also available from Kindle.