Welcome to the Stranger: Asenath Nicholson in West Cork

Who was Asenath Nicholson? When I saw that a new play was to be performed during the Skibbereen Arts Festival this year, I became curious about the subject. The play, Welcome to the Stranger, is based on Asenath’s books, Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger, and Annals of the Famine in Ireland written about her sojourn in Ireland before and during the Great Hunger. As an eye witness account of the conditions she saw, it is invaluable. So why is she not a household name?

As I discovered, there is actually quite a lot about Asenath available online, much of it centred on the research of Maureen O’Rourke Murphy of Hoffstra University, who has written the definitive book on Nicholson, Compassionate Stranger, as well as editing Asenath’s own writings for re-release. Prof Murphy has provided a piece about the book to Irish Central, and the book itself has been comprehensively reviewed in the Irish Times by Christine Kinealy, Director of Quinnipiac’s Great Hunger Museum. Both of these articles summarise Asenath’s life and the significance of her account of her time in ireland, so pop over there now for a quick read, and then come back here. There is also a lecture by Prof Murphy online (entertaining and erudite), as well as a very well-done radio documentary (although I can’t find out who produced it). These take a bit longer so save them for later.

 

Rua Breathnach, the writer of the new play, is taking an interesting approach to depicting Asenath’s lengthy time in Ireland (four years in all) and the production is being staged and directed by his long-time collaborator, Rémi Beelprez. It will debut in Skibbereen on Aug 1, followed by a discussion session. Robert and I have our tickets already (you can get yours here) and are looking forward to seeing what Rua and Rémi have done with such rich source material.

Rua and Rémi

Seeking more information, I discovered that Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger is available online in its original form, and also in a clickable version, and of course I was immediately drawn to the chapters about her time in West Cork and in Bantry in particular. This was in February 1845, before the potato crop had failed for the first time, but here Asenath describes perfectly the conditions that prevailed among the poor which led ultimately to the catastrophic events of the next few years – the extreme poverty and lack of resources, the lack of employment of any sort, and the dependence on a single food source.

Bantry as it is now, a thriving and attractive market town

Her chapter section heading is “Arrival at the miserable town of Bantry.” Here is why she went there:

When about leaving Cork for Killarney I intended taking the shortest and cheapest route ; but Father Mathew said, “If you wish to seek out the poor, go to Bantry; there you will see misery in all and in every form.” I took his advice, went to Bantry, and there found a wild, dirty sea-port, with cabins built upon the rocks and hills, having the most antiquated and forlorn appearance of any town I had seen; the people going about not with sackcloth upon their heads, for this they could not purchase, but in rags and tatters such as no country but Ireland could hang out.

This and the other wood engravings* are by James Mahony for the Illustrated London News of 1847, and are from Niamh O’Sullivan’s book, The Tombs of a Departed Race; Illustrations of Ireland’s Great Hunger, available at The Skibbereen Heritage Centre. 

Asenath was in Ireland specifically to observe and record the conditions of the poor, but she was unprepared for what she saw in Bantry. She even feels moved to warn her readers, If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.

The morning opened my eyes to look out upon sights which, as I write, flit before me like haggard spectres. I dressed, went forth, and made my way upon the rocks, found upon the sides of them some deplorable cabins, where smoke was issuing from the doors, and looking into one, the sight was appalling – Like an African kraal, the door was so low as to admit only a child of ten or twelve, and at the entrance a woman put out her head, with a dirty cloth about it; a stout pig was taking its breakfast within, and a lesser one stood waiting at a distance. The woman crouched over the busy swine with her feet in the mud, and asked what I wanted?. . .Looking in, I saw a pile of dirty broken straw, which served for a bed for both family and pigs, not a chair, table, or pane of glass, and no spot to sit except upon the straw in one corner, without sitting in mud and manure.

There was a new workhouse in the town, which Asenath describes as lofty and well-finished but it was closed and shuttered, though all things had been ready for a year ; the farmers stood out, and would not pay the taxes. Asenath goes on to say The poorhouse was certainly the most respectable looking of any building in Bantry; and it is much to be regretted, that the money laid out to build and pay a keeper for sitting alone in the mansion, had not been expended in giving work to the starving poor, who might then have had no occasion for any house but a comfortable cottage.

The ruins of the Schull Workhouse

As an aside, in the end the workhouse did open, but the conditions in it were appalling. You’ll find a link to Dr Stephen’s report (be warned, it’s heart-rending) in our post about the Schull Workhouse, which also contains lots of information about workhouses in general.

Asenath refers to ‘wading’ through the streets of Bantry. She describes a set of dwellings called Wigwam Row: a row of cabins, built literally upon a rock, upon the sloping side of a hill, where not a vestige of grass can grow, the rock being a continued flat piece like slate. The favored ones who dwell there pay no rent, having been allowed in the season of the cholera to go up and build these miserable huts, as the air upon the hill was more healthy. And there, like moss, to the rocks have they clung, getting their job when and where they can, to give them their potatoes once in a day, which is the most any of them aspire to in the shortest winter days.

As she walks, Asenath sings hymns and dispenses tracts and testaments, some of which she keeps in an enormous bearskin muff. She attracts attention everywhere she goes and the children of Bantry follow her around. Begging is endemic and she is frequently cheated. However, she comes to admire the Irish and particularly their sense of hospitality and their generosity to her and to each other. In a typical description she writes about a Bantry woman with whom she interacts: I looked at this woman, and at the appurtenances that surrounded her. “The whole chart of Ireland,” from lips that could neither read English nor Irish! She had a noble forehead, an intelligent eye, and a good share of common sense; she had breathed the air of this wild mountainous coast all her sad pilgrimage, and scarcely, she said, had a “decent garment covered her, or a wholesome male of mate crossed her lips, save at Christmas, since the day she left her parents that raired her.”

Famine Memorial, Dublin

We will leave Asenath on the road to Glengarriff, struggling to make headway as the magnificent scenery claims her attention, to the relief of her helper, John, who, burdened with her ‘purse’ and her muff, is able to take frequent rests while she catches up. She has given us a unique, first-hand, eye-witness account of Bantry in 1844 – one that contrasts tragically with the beautiful market town we have come to know well. She went on to travel the length and breadth of the country and to open her own soup kitchen in Dublin at the height of the Famine, this time dispensing bread, rather than tracts – let’s follow up with her in August at the play!

The interior of an Irish cabin in 1844 by Francis William Topham,  painting now in the Ulster Museum

This summer we also look forward very much (harrowing as it will be) to a major exhibition at Uillinn (the West Cork Arts Centre): Coming Home is an exhibition of the largest Famine-related art collection in the world. It’s on loan from Quinnipiac University in the US, and opens on July 20th. There will also be a very special Performance/Event at the Schull Workhouse by acclaimed Irish artist Alanna O’Kelly titled Anáil na Beatha, Breath of Life. Future posts!

*More about wood engravings, from Brian LalorThe process is an exceptionally important pre-photography development in visual communication terms and, in its day (early 19C), quite as radical as email. The reporter, O’Mahony, drew on the spot in pencil, the drawings were sent by postal coach and packet boat to London where a team of engravers worked through the night to meet the publishing deadline, on the small (generally 4” square) blocks of fruitwood that fitted with the type into a letterpress printer. For speed, they often had a number of engravers working on a single image by using separate blocks which were then bolted together. On the ILS 1844 image of Ballydehob (not shown) you can see the joins.

Orange to Green – For the Week That’s In It

Right so…where were we when we got interrupted by the bould Saint Patrick? Ah yes, on the red side of the colour wheel. Let’s keep moving, so, on to orange and through the yellows till we hit the greens. (For anyone tuning in for the first time, take a look at Purple and Pink, which also has links to previous posts on our penchant for colourful buildings.)

Biggs is an iconic building in Bantry

We’ll start with the orangey ones (except I couldn’t resist heading off with this gorgeous house on the Beara Peninsula). Orange is a startling shade but also surprisingly sophisticated.

Timoleague (top) and Leap

And some times just plain fun. Nothing like a splash of sunshine to brighten your day!

Kinsale (top) and Goleen

On to the yellows – a favourite of many, it seems, both shop-owners and householders.

Kinsale, Clonakilty, Kilmallock

Depending on the trim, yellow can seem quite electric. I love this shop in Millstreet (above)

This one is in Aghada, East Cork

Wonderful collection of colours on and around this farmhouse
More Kinsale
Eyeries, on the Beara, is one of the most colourful villages in Ireland. It’s where you’ll find the rainbow

The Ludgate Centre, in Skibbereen. It’s just as colourful inside

I’ll stop just shy of true greens and leave them and the blues for next time. The limes, above and below, are the exact right transition colour from yellow. Don’t you agree?

A real beauty, in Kilgarvan

And, if you really need your green fix NOW, head over to Robert’s post, Spring Green.

Whiddy Island

Whiddy Island from Sheeps Head

Whiddy Island from Sheep’s Head

On a sunny Sunday in March, we were lucky to find out about a guided tour around Whiddy Island and enthusiastically signed up. Our guide, Tim O’Leary, runs the ferry to the island and its only pub, the Bank House. He is a native Islander and extremely knowledgeable about the island’s history, traditions, stories, flora and fauna. 

Off to Whiddy Island on a beautiful day in March

Off to Whiddy Island on a beautiful day in March

It was a gorgeous day for a tramp – a good thing as it’s a six mile walk – and the weather allowed us to drink in the glorious views and to stand at various spots listening to Tim as he shared stories of life on the island.

Whiddy Island Graveyard

Whiddy Island Graveyard

In the graveyard he told us about the island tradition of burial: a coffin has to be lifted from the boat at a particular quay and laid on a special coffin rock. From there it is shouldered uphill to the burial ground by four men of the same last name as the deceased. Nothing but human power can be used on the long uphill climb, or to dig the grave or conduct any part of the service. “We will carry this tradition on,” he said, “as long as we can.” The burial ground itself is part of an ancient ecclesiastical site and commands views across the island.

View out to Bantry Bay from the Island high point

View out to Bantry Bay from the Island high point

We learned that many island families made a good living in times past from fishing and fish processing, and it still an important part of the economy, although now mussel beds have replaced fishing lines and ‘pilchard palaces.’

Tim shows us the 'hairy rope' used to grow mussels. Mussel beds ring the Island.

Tim shows us the ‘hairy rope’ used to grow mussels. Mussel beds ring the Island.

The land was famous for being fertile and one historical document talks about the earliest potatoes always being grown on Whiddy. All this activity supported up to 800 people but like many places in West Cork the population was decimated by the Great Famine. Now, fewer than 30 people live here year round.

The Island can no longer support a school

The Island can no longer support a school

We walked up to the remains of O’Sullivan Beare’s castle, which functioned more as a prison than a dwelling as it housed those who needed to be ‘encouraged’ to pay the taxes he imposed for fishing rights. We explored the area that had once been a thriving American Air Force base for a brief period at the end of World War I – nothing remains except acres of concrete and memories of the vibrant life that the service personnel brought to this small community. Other defensive structures exist on the island too – several ‘batteries’  with huge guns were built after the French invasion of 1796 but alas they are too unsafe to visit.

O'Sullivan Beare's stronghold

O’Sullivan Beare’s stronghold

The west end of the island contains enormous tanks that now house the Irish national oil reserves. It was built as a Gulf Oil terminal in the late 60s and was the scene of a horrifying accident in 1979 when an explosion sank a French tanker, the Betelgeuse, and 50 people lost their lives. The enormous tanks, behind their barbed wire barriers, loom darkly against the landscape, a permanent reminder of this awful tragedy.

The oil tanks at the west end of the Island

The oil tanks at the west end of the Island

Take the ferry across to Whiddy Island any time and hike around the hills and the beaches. But if you can, catch one of Tim’s guided walks, and finish with a well-deserved pint in the Bank House at the end of the day.

There's nothing like a guided tour with Tim!

There’s nothing like a guided tour with Tim!

One thing, though…when Tim sat in this desk back in the day, his teacher forgot to teach him about distances. So just take it with a grain of salt when he tells you there’s “only another half mile to go.”

desk

A note on the West Cork Speak Competition! Deadline extended to the end of next week. Only one entry so far, so don’t be shy and get those conversations in!

Goats, Bees and Spies on the Sheep’s Head

The Weather Rolls in around Kilcrohane

The Weather Rolls in around Kilcrohane

White GoatsI’ve just finished reading White Goats and Black Bees by Donald Grant. Donald and Mary Grant, a couple of journalists based in New York, impulsively decided to jump off the career treadmill and become farmers in Ireland in the 1960’s. They bought a small acreage on the Sheep’s Head, where they raised goats and ducks, cultivated an enormous vegetable garden, and by degrees and sheer hard work turned themselves into ‘peasants’.

This out-of-print book was drawn to my attention by my friend, Aideen, whose father, while in New York, had encouraged the Grants to consider West Cork. Aideen visited the Grants as a young woman and still has memories of their gorse wine.

As a Back to the Land narrative, this is a classic. Earnest urban professionals consulting Department of Agriculture pamphlets, conducting slug patrols, keenly observing the social structure of their goat herd and duck flock, battling the wild Atlantic storms, making cheese and smoking hams: this is the kind of thing that sent thousands of idealistic young people into communes all over the world, or in the case of Ireland, into the hills behind Ballydehob. The need to be accepted by the locals, a thread that appears in so many Year in Provence-type books, is coupled with the outsider’s puzzlement at the impenetrability of some aspects of local behaviour.

The Sheep's Head, looking across Dunmanus Bay

The Sheep’s Head, looking across Dunmanus Bay

Grant is not a gifted writer when it comes to scenery: …Trees wore their autumn colours. Streams tumbled down rocks, sparkling… Nevertheless he does slowly build up a picture of a man coming to grips with his place in the natural world and his relationship with animals and the elements. Perhaps the strongest sections of the book are those in which he chronicles the hard work and resourcefulness that it takes to sustain life on a smallholding, the setbacks and difficulties he and Mary encounter, and the support of the neighbours and community without which it would be impossible.

Mary the SpyThe story of Donald and Mary took a strange turn for me when I decided to Google around a bit, digging for more information about them. Astonishingly, Mary was convicted in Israel in 1956 of spying for Syria! She spent a year in an Israeli prison, eventually applying for a pardon. According to one account, she had fallen for a Syrian diplomat who persuaded her to take photographs in Israel for the Syrians. She was so unsophisticated a spy that she was captured on her first day. She and Donald met when they shared a desk at the United Nations, where they were both correspondents: he for the St. Louis Post-Dispatcher and she for Look Magazine. Little did the people of Doneen know of the chequered history of the American woman who introduced goat’s cheese to their far-flung parish.

Donald and Mary continued to live on the Sheep’s Head and eventually in Bantry for the rest of their lives. While Donald died in 1983, Mary lived until last year, 2012. Both are buried in their beloved Kilcrohane.

Buckets of Culture

Željko Lučić as Rigoletto. Photo by Metropolitan Opera

Željko Lučić as Rigoletto. Photo by Metropolitan Opera

-What we love about being here – the scenery, the history, the people, the hiking, the markets, the food, the opera…

-What? The opera?

-Yes, and the theatre. And very good cinema too.

-Wait – seriously? I thought you were there to get back to nature?

-Well, er, yes, but…

-But?

-West Cork is also a Mecca for artists of all kinds – musicians, actors, painters, poets, photographers – and part of being here is taking advantage of cultural events. As one local told me last year, “if it’s culture you’re after, we have buckets of it.”

-Oh, OK…tell us all about it, then.

The weekend started with a trip to Cork to stay overnight with my cousin and to go to the Metropolitan Opera Live Broadcast of Rigoletto. This was a stylish production with the action moved to 1960’s Las Vegas and the singers modelling themselves on Rat Pack characters. The Duke of Mantua made a wonderful fist of Old Blue Eyes, and Marilyn Munro made an appearance as Ceprano’s wife. The singing was glorious, with the German soprano Diana Damrau as a transcendent Gilda and Željko Lučić suitably tortured and barrel-voiced as Rigoletto.

The following day we visited a friend in his beautiful and very modern house in Kinsale, ate a huge Sunday lunch and then got into The Music, with Alastair on the fiddle and Robert on his melodeon.

about EllyThe Cinemax in Bantry has all the latest releases and comfortable seating. They run an Arthouse Tuesday and this week we saw ‘About Elly’ by the Iranian Director, Asghar Farhadi. I had seen his movie ‘A Separation’ and was struck then, as I was now, by how much these films challenge our stereotypes of Iran. This one featured an ensemble cast of outstanding actors as young professionals from Tehran. The plot revolves around the disappearance of one of the group during an outing to the Caspian Sea, and the disintegration of cohesion as white lies and deceptions are compounded and revealed. The exploration of the dynamics of man-woman relationships was particularly riveting in what is apparently a time of transition between traditional and modern notions of gender roles.

Photo from Schull Drama Group Facebook Page

Photo from Schull Drama Group Facebook Page

On Friday night we attended the Schull Drama Group’s production of The God of Carnage, a play by French actor and playwright, Yazmina Reza. This is the same company of players that was responsible for the broad comedy and slapstick of the traditional pantomime we had seen in January and this comedy/drama was a testament to the depth of their talent. Two couples, Veronique and Michel and Annette and Alain, meet to discuss a contretemps between their sons. Their plan to do this in a civilized manner, over coffee and clafoutis, quickly descends into chaos, as accusation and counter-accusation reveal the fault lines of each marriage and the assumptions and veneers of middle-class privilege.

Amanda and Peter on our Rock Art Day

Amanda and Peter on our Rock Art Day

Finally, Saturday saw us in the company of two new friends, Amanda and Peter Clarke on a Rock Art Day of tramping through the countryside. Peter and Amanda are the talented couple behind two websites: Sheep’s Head Routes and Sheep’s Head Places, both invaluable resources for exploring this part of West Cork. Amanda is also a keen photographer with a wonderful eye. You can read her description of our day, and view more of her beautiful photography at her Blipfoto site.

Half-Term Break

2013-02-14 14.11.07

This being their half-term, my sister arrived for a few days’ visit with her two children – Ava, 8, and Hugo, 6.  But half-term is not scheduled this week in all parts of the country – and particularly, it is not scheduled for here. This means that organised activities for children are not up and running, and local amenities suitable for children are all shut for the winter. But no problem! All you need is a dram of sunshine, a beach, a market, a stream, and a couple of imaginative youngsters.

In the garden at Ard Glas.

In the garden at Ard Glas

Barleycove Beach, mid-February.

Barleycove Beach, mid-February

Bantry Market and Never Too Early to introduce them to archaeology.

Bantry Market and Never Too Early to introduce them to archaeology

They went back to Dublin yesterday and we miss them already!