During 1844 and 1845, Asenath Nicholson, a Christian widow from USA, travelled around Ireland, mainly by foot but, when the opportunity arose, by cart or carriage. She had come to Ireland to find out for herself why so many of the Irish were emigrating to USA and why they were so exceptionally poor.
She arrived in Dublin armed with a quantity of bibles and Christian tracts, which she handed out to people as she travelled around the country. She was appalled by the conditions where the living conditions of many people were no better than those of the animals they tended - in fact, in most cases, the people and the animals shared the same dwelling. For the majority, potatoes formed the only food and were eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner and, only occasionally, was some variety afforded by stirabout - a mixture of milk and oats.
Asenath was a Protestant; however, she was able to sympathize to some extent with the Catholics (despite the fact that many of them were completely unacquainted with the bible) and, quite often, remarked positively on the high level of education in their schools. Well aware of the problems caused by alcohol, she admired the work done by the temperance reformer Father Mathew, with whom she spent some time in Cork.
Through Asenath's eyes, the reader gradually becomes familiar with the wild beauty of the country, the generosity of its people and the injustices of a system where absentee English landowners had little or no thought for their tenant farmers who could be dismissed without reason and without warning.
The fact that Ireland's Welcome to the Stranger is a first-hand account of conditions in the 1840s (and not an account written from hearsay many years later) makes the book extremely valuable and interesting. We may not agree with all of Asenath's views, but her honesty and her observant descriptions of everything she experienced make this a book a must-read for anyone interested in Irish history.
Image (inside a house) from www.thesundaytimes.co.uk
Image of Asenath, drawn by Anna Maria Howitt, from multitext.ucc.ie
Image (outside a house) from www.sligoheritage.com