Asenath Hatch Nicholson

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Dublin Map 1797
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Co. Mayo

Philanthropist / Author

This amazing Quaker from New York saved many lives in Ireland during her time as she came to “personally investigate the condition of the Irish poor.”  Her sketches and snapshots, vividly recaptured individuals also many events during one of the most horrific periods of Irish history.  [i]  She had an Evangelical belief in the Social Reform of all classes of persons.  She was a committed abolitionist, a temperance crusader plus social reformer with a caring disposition.  Her personal mission was to promote the Bible along with providing food.  She spent almost four years & four months in Ireland as she travelled through the country in her polka coat and velvet bonnet with a very large muff walking or in Bianconi coaches.  [ii]

Asenath Hatch was born at Chelsea, Vermont on February 24th, 1792.  Her Hatch family belonged to the Protestant Congregational Church.  Her independent Spirit was discovered, then encouraged as aged sixteen years she began her teaching career.  During 1829 she married Norman Nicholson; a widower with three children.  She moved to New York: they were both interested in the vegetarian / coffee – free diets of Rev. Sylvester Graham with the result that they opened a Boarding – House thus offered vegetarian diets to their guests.   [iii]  

Travels Overseas

She travelled to both Scotland and Ireland to distribute bibles among the people. While in Ireland she allowed herself twenty – three pence a day for food: a diet of bread & cocoa also she reduced her stipend to 16 pence (no cocoa) when her resources dwindled.  From July 1844 to August 1845, she walked through Ireland visiting every county but Cavan.  [iv]


As soon as she arrived in Dublin on December 7, 1846, Nicholson wrote to the readers of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune also Joshua Leavitt’s Abolitionist Emancipator describing conditions in the city, she asked for assistance for the Irish poor.  She did not have the means to finance her relief efforts, yet she despaired that she was brought to witness a Famine without the means to relieve the hungry.  A letter duly arrived from Greeley with money from his Tribune readers which she regarded not only as the answer to her prayers but a sign of divine intervention.  Other friends sent food, money also clothes to distribute or to send to trusted friends to administer.  During July 1847 New Yorkers sent Nicholson five barrels of Indian corn aboard the United States frigate Macedonia.  She described herself walking through Dublin each morning as she distributed slices of bread from a large basket.  She opened her own soup kitchen in the Liberties, an area she had selected for its extreme poverty.    [v]

Lazy People?

She had heard that the Irish poor were lazy; however, based on her experience when she visited the Irish in their cabins, she concluded that they were not lazy; they just lacked work.  Whenever she saw the poor employed, she made a note of it.  The sight of a woman and her daughters as they carded and knitted produced this comment: “This was an unusual sight for seldom had I seen, in Ireland, a whole family employed among the peasantry.  Ages of poverty have taken everything out of their hands but preparing and eating the potato and then sit listlessly on a stool, lie in their straw or saunter upon the street because no one hires them.”   [vi]

Humanitarian Works

When the blight came a second year, Nicholson returned in the winter of 1846 to do what she could to help (that time without the bibles).  She spent much of that time in the Famine-stricken west.  Nicholson’s food kitchen was operated on a triage system.  She decided that £10 divided among 100 people helped no one, so she committed herself to several group of families for whom she cooked Indian meal daily.  Nicholson stayed in Dublin until July 1847 when she left for Belfast.  When the Temporary Relief Act (the “Soup Kitchen” Act) had become effective: she left Dublin and went to the west of Ireland.  During July 1847 she visited County Donegal, from there on to Newport, Co. Mayo.  She had visited Newport earlier; that time she stayed with her friend, the postmistress Mrs. Margaret Arthur.  There she found “misery without mask.”  She discovered further misery when she went west from Belmullet to spend the winter of 1847-1848 in the Erris peninsula.  She quickly set to work as she visited the poor or encouraged relief workers. [vii]

Praise or disdain

Over and over Nicholson contrasted the lack of charity among relief officials with the compassion of volunteers.  She challenged the government on two counts: their stewardship of relief resources and their attitude toward the poor for whom they were responsible.  She made a distinction between the paid relief officers, whom she characterized as bureaucratic, hierarchical and self-serving, also volunteer relief workers (Quakers, coast guardsmen and their families and local clergy) who were compassionate, egalitarian and selfless.  She raged that grain was diverted from food to alcohol. She charged that grain used for distilling could have fed the Irish poorShe was quick to praise resident landlords who provided employment for their tenants or derided those who abandoned the people as she saw it.  She recorded the names of Rev. Patrick Pounden, the Rector of Westport plus his wife, plus Rev. Francis Kinkaid, the Church of Ireland curate of Ballina for their selfless acts to the poor.  Nicholson continued to appeal for help through letters: on October 31, 1847, she wrote to her friend the English Quaker philanthropist William Bennett who had visited the west of Ireland early in 1847:  “You, sir, who know Erris, tell, if you can, how the landlord can support the poor by taxation, to give them food, when the few resident landlords are nothing and worse than nothing, for they are paupers in the full sense of the word.”  She went on to ask Bennett to use his own resources or his influence to support a local employment scheme. “I must and will plead, though I plead in vain, that something may be done to give them work. I have just received a letter from the curate of Bingham’s Town saying that he could could set all his poor parish, both the women and children, to work, and find a market for their knitting and cloth, if he could command a few pounds to purchase the materials.”  [viii]

Later Years

In the fall of 1848, when she thought the Great Irish Famine was over Nicholson left Dublin for London.  The “lone Quaker” who saw her to her boat was probably her friend the abolitionist Quaker printer Richard Davis Webb.  She later joined the cause of world peace when she went with delegations to Paris and Frankfurt.  She returned to New York where she lived quietly.  Nicholson was in declining health for some time.  She died of typhoid fever in Jersey City on May 15th, 1855.  [ix]


‘Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger; Or an Excursion through Ireland in 1844 & 1845 for the Purpose of Personally Investigating the Condition of the Poor’ 1847 Baker & Scribner, New York / 1847 Charles Gilpin London.  ‘Annals of the Famine in Ireland in 1847, 48, 49’ 1851.  ‘Treatise on Vegetable Diet, with practical results: or, a leaf from Nature’s own book’, illustrated by facts and experiments of many years practice.’  1848 Glasgow.  ‘Lights and Shades in Ireland’ 1850 Charles Gilpin London in three parts: P2: Early History, P2: Saints, kings and poets of the early ages, P3: The Famine of 1847, 48, 49.  ‘Query, Home Rule’: The Substance of a Speech’ in part delivered, in part intended to be delivered […] at a public meeting in the Town Hall, Leamington’ on Saturday, April 17th, 1886 Birmingham Cornish 1886.   [x]


Her quotes here portray her concern: “Reader, ponder this well. Enough grain, converted into a poison for body and soul as would have fed all that starving multitude.” 

“Should I sleep the sleep of death, with my head pillowed against this wall, no matter. Let the passerby inscribe my epitaph upon this stone, fanatic what then? It shall only be a memento that one in a foreign land lived and pitied Ireland and did what she could to seek out its condition.”

During her later years she recalled her experiences in New York and Vermont: “It was in the garrets and cellars of New York that I first became acquainted with the Irish peasantry, and it was there I saw that they were a suffering people.”    [xi]


Her book may be read online at this link: [xii] 

Her name is mentioned on both these sites: [xiii]


Nicholson’s Book ‘Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger’ was translated into a Play by Rua Breachtnach as ‘Welcome to the Stranger’ for the Skibbereen 2018 Arts Festival. [xv]

Christine Kineely discusses at this link: Maureen O ‘Rourke Murphy’s ‘Aseneth Nicholson & the Great Irish Famine.’ Published by Syracuse University Press Oct 10th, 2015.  [xvi]

‘Annals of the Famine’, incorporated in ‘Lights and Shades of Ireland’ 1850 has a portrait by Anna Maria Howitt of Nicholson.  [xvii]


Áine Ryan in her column ‘Extraordinary Mayo People You May Not Have Heard Of’ in the ‘Mayo News’ edition 16th June 2020 on pages 24 / 25 covers Asenath Nicholson’s life as an Evangelist, Activist & Compassionate Stranger.  She includes a review of  the book ‘Compassionate Stranger’ the only Biography of Nicholson by Professor Emerita  Maureen O ‘Rourke Murphy who also edited the Journals of her Irish experiences within ‘Annals of the Famine’ & ‘Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger.’


Maureen Murphy  @IrishCentral  Mar 10, 2017 › Roots…/lifestyle/…/staging-story-of-us-woman-who-chronicle..…/review-compassionate-stranger-asenath-nicholson-and-t… › Biography & Memoir › Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger › eBooks › Annals of the Famine in Ireland…/welcome-to-the-stranger-asenath-nicholson-in-west……/irelands-great-hunger-volume-2-relief-representation-and-remembran..


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