Asenath Nicholson

A Preface is like a porter at the entrance of a castle or a dinner-party; however necessary his attendance may be, and however dazzling his livery, he can expect but a hasty brush from the passers in; it is the castle they want to see, it is the dinner they have come to eat. Knowing, however, that every public act demands a public explanation, I give my candid reasons for doing so strange a work, and for doing it in so strange a way.

We have had many "Pencillings by the Way," and "Conciliation Halls," and "Killarney Lakes" from the tops of coaches and from smoking dinner tables. But one day's walk on mountain or bog, one night's lodging where the pig, and the ass, and horned oxen feed,

"Like Aaron's serpent, swallows all the rest."

"Remember, my children," said my father, "that the Irish are a suffering people; and when they come to your doors, never send them empty away." It was in the garrets and cellars of New York that I first became acquainted with the Irish peasantry, and it was there I saw they were a suffering people. Their patience, their cheerfulness, their flow of blundering, hap-hazard, happy wit, made them to me a distinct people from all I had seen. Often, when seated at my fireside, have I said to those most dear to my heart, "God will one day allow me to breathe the mountain air of the sea-girt coast of Ireland—to sit down in their cabins, and there learn what soil has nurtured, what hardships have disciplined so hardy a race—so patient and so impetuous, so revengeful and so forgiving, so proud and so humble, so obstinate and so docile, so witty and so simple a people."

Those who then laughed at my vagaries, have all gone down to the dust. The world was before me, and all mankind my brethren. "I have made you desolate. I want you for other purposes. Go, work in my vineyard," was the word. I conferred not with flesh and blood. No pope or priest, no minister or prelate augmented my purse, to enable me to spy out the nakedness of the land. I came "a warfare at my own charges." I came to gather no legends of fairies or banshees, to pull down no monarchies, or set up any democracies; but I came to glean after the reapers, to gather up the fragments, to see the poor peasant by wayside and in bog, in the field and by his peat fire, and to read to him the story of Calvary. I came to linger with the women at the foot of the cross, and go with them early to the sepulchre. I have done so; and should the fastidious reader say that this condescending to men of low estate, this eating with publicans and sinners—above all, this lodging in a manger, is quite in bad odor if not in bad taste, he must be told it was because there was no "room for me in the inn," or because my pained feet could go no further.

I had counted the cost. I knew there were professed Christians in the nineteenth century, who would be forgetful to entertain strangers, and would ask, "where hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness?" I knew there were "doorkeepers in the house of God," who would say, "Sit thou here under my footstool," if "the gold ring and goodly apparel" were wanting; and I knew that she, whose delicate foot never treads the threshold of the poor, would scruple the propriety if not the reputation of her who does it. I have not "dipped my pen in gall" towards any of those; I have mentioned no names where they could be readily avoided, and then, in most cases, where gratitude required me to do so.

I ask no reward—I ask no sympathy. This sowing by the side of all waters has been abundantly paid by the "God save ye kindly," and the "Fear not, I am with you."

Reader, I would not be an egotist—I would not boast; but I would speak of that Almighty Arm that sustained me, when, on a penny's worth of bread, I have walked over mountain and bog for twenty and twenty-three miles, resting upon a wall, by the side of a lake, or upon my basket, reading a chapter in the sweet Word of Life to some listening laborer. And when at night-fall, in some humble lodging-house, my potatoe and salt were taken, my feet bathed, then could I sing of mercy; then could I say, what lack I yet? I never had one fear by night or by day, nor ever cast a longing, lingering look behind, to my once loved home across the ocean.

Should the devout reader be disappointed at the want of gravity in some of the details, he can only be told that facts are delineated as they occurred; not to make a story or a book, but to present to the reader the rustic as he is—the seemly and the unseemly, the beautiful and the deformed, the consistent and the inconsistent. Whoever mixes awhile with the heterogeneous jumble of Irish sadness and Irish mirth, will find that to be grave at all times,

"Exceeds all power of face."

One great difficulty in the narration has been the pronoun I. Many interesting facts have been partially illustrated, and some wholly suppressed, because this officious letter must figure so prominently.

Allow me to say to every Christian and every philanthropist, "Turn not away from "your own flesh." There is a vast amount of talent in its native rubbish in the mountains of Kerry and Connemara, and in the bogs of Connaught. Far too many roses have already wasted their "sweetness on the desert air"—too many a dark-haired Kerry girl has lavished her graces on the mountain goat and sheep she has tended, without once reading the story of the Ruth and Rebecca whom she, in occupation, unknowingly imitates. I do not say, Do the work as I have done, but, Do it, and do it better. If my steps will not serve as a pattern, my aberrations may as a warning. Their proprieties and improprieties are before you; and you must show me a"more excellent way," or I shall certainly do the same thing in the same manner, if again honored with the mission.

It was never my intention to tax the Irish public with another volume, added to the huge pile already written on Ireland. It was my design to go silently through among the poor, and tell the story to my own countrymen; that they might be induced to labor more untiringly and effectually for the destitute portion of this nation, who are daily landing upon their shores. But I heard the sound of an "abundance of rain;" the cloud is spreading over mountain top and lowly glen; they that "for want and famine are desolate," are crying,"give us food to eat, we loathe this light manna;" and from many a pulpit through the length and breadth of the land I hear, "Thrust in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe." The treasury is open, and the rich men are casting in their gifts. Accept the mite of the widow; it is small indeed, but it is "all her living," and given heartily and cheerfully.

The reader is assured that nothing has been added to meet the state of the famine of 1846 and 1847. Facts are related as they occurred and were described in 1844 and 1845; and these facts then indicated that an explosion must soon take place, and that Ireland must be turned inside out; so that all the world might see that, deformed as may be her surface, her vitals show a disease hereditary, obstinate, and still more odious, which opiates or ointments cannot cure. 

Thanks to the Hibernian Bible Society, which furnished me with the Word of God in English and Irish, through the instrumentality of a friend, who also procured for me tracts and other suitable books for distribution, on my last tour round the coast. It was not till four excursions had been made in the interior, that my name and object were known. They, therefore, are not amenable for anything I have said or done. I was not a "chosen vessel" of theirs. God reward their bounty, by the finding "after many days," of this bread "cast upon the waters." "Thou knowest not which shall prosper, either this or that."

Thanks to all those who have spoken kind words to the stranger; and thanks to those who have felt called to give the distant look or the cool rebuke—the former have filled my heart with gratitude, and the latter have made me cling closer to the High Arm that sustained me.


Dublin, June 10th, 1847.

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.