Asenath Nicholson and the Great Irish Famine
Maureen O’Rourke Murphy is the Joseph L. Dionne Professor of Teaching, Literacy, and Leadership at Hofstra University. She is coeditor of An Irish Literature Reader: Poetry, Prose, Drama, the editor of Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger and Annals of the Famine in Ireland in 1847, 1848, and 1849, and the director of New York State’s Great Irish Famine Curriculum.
What first sparked your interest in Aseanth Nicholson and how have you pursued your interest over the years?
I was a graduate student in Dublin who was interested in the relationship between pre-famine travel literature and pre-famine fiction. Roger McHugh, my mentor at University College, Dublin suggested I have a look at the American traveler Asenath Nicholson’s Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger. While the book was not well known in 1965, it has come to be regarded as one of the most important and reliable accounts of Ireland on the eve of the Great Irish Famine (1845-1852).
What authors and books have influenced your writing?
Roger McHugh’s essay on the folklore of the Great Irish Famine, Constantia Maxwell’s The Stranger in Ireland, Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger and the work of contemporary Famine historians like James S. Donnelly, Margaret Kelleher, Chrstine Kinealy, Cormac Ó Gráda and the first team of Irish scholars: Thomas Flanagan, John V. Kelleher, Emmet Larkin, Joe Lee, Margaret MacCurtain, Máire MacNeill and Helen Vendler
Of Asenath Nicholson’s written works, which is your favorite and why?
I would have to say Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger is my favorite Nicholson title. The book is based on NIchoslon’s visit to Ireland in 1844-18445 when she walked through the country and lived among the poor.
Where is your favorite place to visit in Ireland and why?
I like Connemara, the stretch of coastline on the north shore of Galway Bay between Bearna and Carna that is known in Irish as Cois Fharraige (The Foot of the Sea). I lived in a small townland called Teach Mór in 1965 to learn Irish. It was the same time that I first read Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger, and I was struck by the similarity between Nicholson’s experience and mine. We were welcomed warmly and with great kindness by the small fisher/farmer households who had great affection for Americans, and I tried to follow Nichoslon’s example by setting down my account of living in a small Gaeltacht community.
When and why did you decide to become a writer?
When I became an historian I knew that I would be a writer. I had started as a folklorist interested in the relationship between oral and written history, so narrative has always been attractive to me.
What did you enjoy most about writing about Compassionate Stranger?
The thing I most enjoyed about writing Compassionate Stranger was the challenge of reconstructing Nicholson’s life. She left no papers and few written records apart from her books, so it required years of sleuthing and sifting through records to write her life.
What was the hardest part about writing Compassionate Stranger?
The hardest thing was linked to the best part of writing. The hardest thing was tracking down the details of Nicholson’s life. Threads would emerge and then the trail would grow cold again. There are still unanswered questions, but after forty years, one must be satisfied.
Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
Yes. When Nicholson returned to Dublin during the Great Irish Famine to do what she could to help the Irish poor and was faced with their overwhelming need, she had to decide what she would do with her limited resources. She couldn’t save everyone, but she could save some. She said in Annals of the Famine in Ireland, “I saw that a little thrown over a wide surface was throwing all away, and no benefit that was lasting would ensue. Ten pounds divided among a hundred would not keep one from starvation many days; but applied to twenty, economically, might save those twenty till more efficient means might be taken.” The message I take from her and share with my students is that we can’t help everyone but we can help some and we are meant to do what we can.