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Favourite DIB lives: Asenath Nicholson, American philanthropist

15 May 2020

Selected by Bláithín Ní Chatháin of the Atlantic Philanthropies Archive Project of the Digital Repository of Ireland,* American philanthropist Asenath Nicholson came to Ireland during the famine years to support the poor. Her two books from the time provide a vital record of the impact of the famine on the lives of ordinary Irish people. 


Introduction by Bláithín Ní Chatháin

My choice for the 'Favourite DIB lives' series is one of the most remarkable philanthropists to visit Ireland in the worst years of the famine: Asenath Nicholson of New York. I found the DIB entry on Asenath very helpful while researching  the oral and manuscript history of the 1849  famine tragedy at Doolough near Louisburgh, Co. Mayo, a few years ago.  

Asenath’s two books (Ireland’s welcome to the stranger (1847) and Lights and shades of Ireland in three parts (1850)) go some way to giving a voice to the two million who tragically died or emigrated from Ireland between 1841–61, as she says: ‘The poor would meet us and say; “God bless ye and once ye didn’t see us so but now we are all destroyed”.’ 

A very religious woman, Asenath first visited Ireland in 1844 to explore why so many Irish were arriving in their droves to New York and  to be an ‘eye witness to the real condition’ of the Irish. Asenath was viewed initially  with deep suspicion by the Irish as yet another exponent of  ‘Souperism’ as she walked the roads of Ireland giving out bibles. 

She ditched the bibles when she returned to Ireland in 1847–9, and instead rolled up her sleeves to help those in the greatest need and recorded her experiences in order to encourage others to donate aid and food to Ireland.

Asenath spent her first few months in Dublin and then travelled to the West. Her descriptions of the destitute in both urban and rural Ireland is truly shocking. In the winter of Black ’47  Asenath rented a room near the quays in  Dublin. Every day she used buy the largest loaves of bread she could find, slice them up and go into the street where the locals would gratefully crowd around the 'American Lady’. She would gather shavings from the coffin makers on Cook street and bring to the poor to make fires. As she says ‘My mind was most active, devising how the greatest good might be effected by the little which God had intrusted to me.’

However, Asenath soon ran out of money. Her harrowing accounts of what she witnessed in her letters back to New York brought about many more donations and so she was able to help more people. Despite their awful circumstances the Irish she met didn’t lose their sense of humour one man said to her. ‘Aw God save the cratur, she’s cracked to leave so fine a country.’

With the donations she received she ran a small soup kitchen, paid people’s rent and bought them fuel for fires in order to cook the government issued ‘Indian meal’. Asenath also gave us valuable insights into relief committees, the quakers’ work and her opinion on the government’s inaction.

Her work no doubt saved many lives. The biggest lesson to be learnt from Asenath Nicholson is that when it comes to philanthropy  and a humanitarian crisis; one person can make a huge impact and no amount of money  is too small to help. 

Asenath Nicholson

by Deirdre Bryan

Nicholson, Asenath (1792–1855), traveller and social reformer, was born 24 February 1792, youngest child and only daughter among three children of Michael Hatch (c.1747–1830), farmer, and his wife, Martha (maiden name unknown; 1745–1837), in Chelsea, Vermont, USA. Educated at her local school in Chelsea, she then worked as a schoolteacher in her hometown from the age of sixteen. She suffered from ill health and, on the advice of a physician, undertook a change of lifestyle which included a move to New York City. While in New York, she became involved with the dietary philosophies of Sylvester Graham, a New England temperance advocate. After hearing a series of his lectures in June 1831, she left teaching to operate a series of boarding houses, run along the Grahamite principles of vegetarianism and temperance, and sympathy for the abolitionist movement. She also worked with the Irish poor of New York City, particularly during a cholera epidemic in 1832.

By 1844 she decided that she had a calling to work among the Irish and to bring the Bible to the Irish poor. She went to Ireland and from June 1844 to July 1845 travelled mainly by foot but also by boat, jaunting car, and ass-cart. She wanted to witness first-hand the suffering endured by the Irish peasantry during the famine and so stayed with them in their homes. While there, she also distributed both English- and Irish-language bibles for the Hibernian Bible Society. She returned to Ireland in 1847 as the field agent of the New York Irish Relief Society to observe the effects of the famine on the Irish people, again travelling by various modes, but mainly by car and foot. She spent some time in Cork, where she befriended the temperance worker, Fr Theobald Mathew.

Although from a congregationalist background, she never affiliated herself with any particular denomination. Initially she was regarded with suspicion by catholics, who disliked her Bible mission, and by protestant missionaries, who were wary of her tolerant, democratic views. However, she worked closely with quaker relief agencies and the Presentation nuns. Her work with the Irish poor included aiding them in cooking the unfamiliar relief-supplied flint cornmeal. She showed them how to cook it in a more appetising manner, as many of them could not follow, or even read, the recipes provided for its usage. Her two accounts of her travels, Ireland's welcome to the stranger; or, An excursion through Ireland in 1844 and 1845, for the purpose of investigating the condition of the poor (1847) and Lights and shades of Ireland in three parts (1850), highlighted the plight of the Irish poor. The latter even recorded how she had witnessed starving people attempting to eat dogs, a fact later reported in the Freeman's Journal in February 1848 (Hatton, 136). She left Ireland in September 1848, returned to the USA in 1852, and lived the remainder of her years in relative obscurity. She died 15 May 1855 in Jersey City, New Jersey, from typhoid fever.

She married (1831) Norman Nicholson (c.1790–1841), merchant. They had no children. She also published Nature's own book (1835), which recalled her early life.

Sources: Introduction by Alfred Tresidder Sheppard (ed.), Asenath Nicholson, The Bible in Ireland [previously Ireland's welcome to the stranger] (1927), pp v–xliv; Helen E. Hatton, The largest amount of good: quaker relief in Ireland, 1654–1921 (1993); Maureen Murphy, ‘Asenath Nicholson and the famine in Ireland’, Maryann Gialanella Valiulis and Mary O'Dowd (ed.), Women in Irish history (1997), 109–24; introduction by Maureen Murphy (ed.), Asenath Nicholson, Annals of the famine in Ireland (1998), 5–17

Image: Public domain.

*The Atlantic Philanthropies Archive Project is collecting the history of Atlantic’s founder Chuck Feeney’s philanthropic investment of over $1.6 billion in Irish communities, education and peace and reconciliation projects over thirty years. 

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