Sunday, 20 March 2016

Thank you, Asenath Hatch Nicholson

The Oxford Biography Index calls her a “social observer and philanthropist”.  Asenath Hatch Nicholson wrote the Annals of the Famine in Ireland which was published in 1851.
She had previously published Welcome to the Stranger in 1847, a valuable record of Ireland on the eve of the Famine.  That is the account of her “first missionary journey” to Ireland in 1844 and 1845 which began when she left New York to “personally investigate the condition of the Irish poor” (her own words).  This is an important “baseline study” because the purpose of that first visit was to distribute Bibles and read Scripture to the illiterate – not food aid.  The background to this ministry is that she had been working with Irish immigrants in Brooklyn and felt a calling to go there as a missionary.  In her days in New York she had been involved in both the Abolition and the Temperance movements. A broken marriage may have triggered her decision to “move on”?
In those days, being a Protestant “Bible reader” in a predominantly Catholic setting was regarded as proselytizing.  She would distribute copies of the Bible to those who could read, and read the Bible to those who could not.  Worse yet, Protestants were not generally supportive of her democratic ideals, including her being a 100% vegetarian.  She was seen as something of a maverick – an American missionary to the Irish peasantry.  She complained that people stared at her!  After her first missionary journey to Ireland she left for Scotland in 1845.  The emergence of the potato famine only started later that year.
She seemed to be the right person in the right place at the right time.  She had now extensively traveled throughout Ireland and was busy generating a manuscript for her first book.  Meanwhile her on-going correspondence had established a rapport with mission agencies and the Christian press.  These contacts allowed her to appeal for relief aid as she started her second missionary journey to Ireland by setting up a soup kitchen in Dublin in late 1847.  Soon some money and gifts-in-kind began to arrive in response to her personal appeals.  As so often happens, church and non-state actors arrived at the scene of a disaster first and did what they could, followed in due course by government aid on a grander scale.
Church aid arrived on the same ships out of New York that brought hers, for the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, but Nicholson preferred to operate individually.  She herself walked through Dublin every morning distributing slices of bread - not Bibles this time.  Unlike the Quakers, she did not charge even a symbolic price, as she was targeting the poorest of the poor.  She figured that £10 divided among 100 beneficiaries helped no one, so she tried to make a regular difference a target group.
By 1847 the government’s Soup Kitchen Act (i.e. Temporary Relief Act) had kicked in, and she had finished her first manuscript.  While it was being published, she followed the Quaker’s lead of closing its Soup Kitchen in deference to government’s aid scheme, and she began to visit the “interior” of Ireland again.  It is from this period in Dublin and the famine-stricken West that her second book was drafted - Annals of the Famine in Ireland.  It also came to be published – four years after her first book, in 1851.  Her combined correspondence and publishing were a platform from which she pleaded the case (in today’s jargonese) for Development being a higher good than Relief, and for “Trade not Aid”.  She argued this case with other philanthropists like English Quaker William Bennett.  Her appeals were not only to friends and the public, but to government, which she also rebuked for corruption and its insensitivity.  She regarded volunteer relief workers, coast guardsmen and missionaries as being much more sensitive and effective than bureaucratic government aid workers.
She herself lived frugally on bread and cocoa, and lamented loudly the diversion of grain to distilleries.
One important feature of her Annals is a record of how poor people helped one another.  In fact, her Annals is really the third part of Lights and Shades of Ireland which she published at the end of her second missionary journey in London, in 1850.  By then she thought the famine was over, but it recurred until 1852.

This week, St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated including the famous parade in New York.  America has a huge Irish contingent which has made its mark.  Many of these are descendants of people who left Ireland fleeing the famine.
But one maverick New Yorker left for Ireland on a personal mission of love which turned into a mission of mercy.  Her work combines elements that are all dear to C4L – Bibles, literacy, disaster management, public engagement, fundraising, and writing books.  These are all part of what we do or have done at C4L and we do it in the same spirit of “taking it personally” (i.e. small is beautiful) and yet working with other actors, while rebuking government at times, especially for corruption and insensitivity.
On a personal note, my own forefathers still lived in the West of Ireland at the time of Nicholson’s two missionary journeys.  Maybe she visited them?  Only later in the 19th century did my great-grandfather O’Dowda emigrate to Canada.  Thus the “thank you” in the title - to this role-model maverick missionary, Asenath Hatch Nicholson.  She is the latest to join the C4L blogsite on Role Models.
Americans have a special place in their heart for the Irish, and Ireland reciprocates.  The feeling is mutual.    She is one reason why.
Mission work has changed a lot over the centuries.  But as the French say, as everything changes, everything remains the same.

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