The North Union Poor House

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter I (14) | Start of Chapter

My next visit was to the Poor House, for I had heard much of their well-managed laws from all but beggars, who gave them no share in their affections. The house contained one thousand seven hundred persons of all ages, and all who were able were at work or in school. The rooms were well ventilated, and the floors daily washed. The aged appeared as comfortable as care and attention could make them. One old lady was pointed to us who was a hundred and six years old; she could read without glasses, and had the use of all her faculties. The dinner-hour was near; three pounds and a half of potatoes were poured from a net upon the table for each individual; fingers supplied the place of knives and forks, and the dexterity of a company of urchins, in divesting the potatoe of its coat, and dabbing it into the salt upon the table, caused me imprudently to say, "I am happy, my lads, to see you so pleasantly employed." "Silence" was written upon the walls, but this unlucky remark of mine changed the suppressed titter into a laugh, and the unfortunate wights were turned into the yard, in spite of all mediation on my part, as being the aggressor. But the loud laugh and buoyant leap of these boys testified that the loss of a dinner could not bring sadness into the hearts of these merry Irish lads.

The most admirable arrangement was shown in the beds, which were made of straw, and emptied every month, and clean straw substituted. The straw taken out is cut up, and flung into a large pit; the suds from the laundry are then conveyed to it by a channel, and it is thus converted into a rich manure. The yearly profit from this plan is from £130 to £140; this is a great economy, besides the advantage of cleanliness to the inmates. This manure is sold for the benefit of the institution, and a multitude of swine are fattened on the offals of the food, and are sold for the same purpose. Twice a week soup is given, and stirabout and buttermilk in the morning; the aged and invalids have bread and tea when required.

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.