Staging story of US woman who chronicled Famine

Writer Rua Breathnach with the cast of Welcome to the Stranger in Skibbereen. Left toright, Sadbh Perry, Kevin Cadogan, Maddy Crooker, Josh Campbell, John Coughlan,Molly Cronin, Rua Breathnach, Paddy Burns, Donal O’Sullivan, John Collins, MargaretO’Driscoll, Maura Cunningham, Theresa Brand, and Mícheál Hurley. Picture: John Minihan

The life and writings of Asenath Nicholson, a US woman who documented the Famine, has been dramatised for Rua Breathnach’s latest play, Welcome to the Stranger, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

She travelled to all but one county in Ireland at the height of the Famine and penned two exposés of the plight of the impoverished people she met, leaving behind her one of the most extensive primary source accounts of the Irish famine.

But the name Asenath Nicholson means nothing to most Irish people and you won’t find her mentioned on the school history syllabus.

In Welcome to the Stranger, playwright Rua Breathnach has dramatised the story of Nicholson, a Vermont Puritan who travelled Ireland mostly on foot, sharing one meal of potatoes a day with her hosts.

She wrote numerous favourable accounts of Irish people’s dignity and honesty in the face of hardship, leading to writer Frank O’Connor dubbing her first book “a Protestant love story to a Catholic people”.

Breathnach first stumbled upon Nicholson’s story while researching a “vague idea” he had of writing a play on the Famine.

“I was immediately gripped by her story,” he says.

“I almost looked over my shoulder to see if anyone else had noticed her, because I couldn’t believe that nobody had really written any plays or fiction about her before. Here was this fascinating and unique character who had slipped under the radar in the history books.”

Nicholson set off for Ireland in 1844. At the time, the Irish were the destitute migrants of the US; her curiosity was piqued by the large numbers of impoverished Irish arriving in New York.

She pledged to travel to Ireland to discover the social and political conditions that gave rise to their plight.

Her first book, Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger, describes the conditions of extreme deprivation and political unrest she encountered. She then spent a year in Scotland, returning to Ireland following the crop failure of 1846 for the three worst years of starvation. The resulting book, Annals of the Famine in Ireland in 1847, in 1848, and 1849, is a harrowing read.

Nicholson observes the starving burying their dead with their bare hands, and worse. She learns the horrible meaning of a cabin with the door pulled shut: There would normally be an entire family dead inside, with the last to die pulling the door in for privacy. The cabin would then be pulled down on the corpses as an alternative to burying them.

She wrote with immense compassion and, Breathnach says, with a modernity that makes her work universal and relevant.

“She was a brilliant writer and very modern in her approach, in that she was able to question her own observations,” says Breathnach. “She tried to distance herself as much as possible from any prejudices people might have about Irishness or poverty. She came to Ireland with a very open outlook.”

Welcome to the Stranger will premiere, fittingly, at Skibbereen Arts Festival: Skibbereen was hit notoriously hard by the Famine, with up to 10,000 bodies interred in mass burials in Abbeystrewry graveyard.

This year’s arts festival has numerous Famine-themed events, in honour of the loan by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in Connecticut of an extensive collection of Famine-related artworks, currently exhibited as Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger at Uilinn West Cork Arts Centre in the town.

Breathnach and Belgian director Rémi Beelprez worked with a cast of non-professional local actors for the production; 16 actors play 35 speaking parts, of characters Nicholson met along her journey, while Nicholson is played by Clare Lalor, an American yoga instructor and the wife of sculptor Brian Lalor.

“Clare has very little acting experience, but she came to an early reading of the play and I knew she was perfect immediately,” says Breathnach.

Using a local cast and rehearsing in Abbeystrewry Church Hall brought an emotional resonance to the project:

“There’s an overwhelming emotional charge to this topic, in this area. The legacy of the Famine is right under the surface and I think it still affects attitudes, and people’s relation to land and to authority down here.”

Breathnach, originally from Dublin, moved to Union Hall two years ago, having lived in Brussels, where he co-founded Keepsaketheatre company with Beelprez. They have worked together on two plays penned by Breathnach, but familiarity aside, he says working with a Belgian director on Welcome to the Stranger provided necessary balance.

“He really has no history linked to Ireland and came with a very fresh perspective on this, a little like Nicholson herself,” he says.

Keepsaketheatre’s Welcome to the Stranger, premiering as part of Skibbereen Arts Festival, is on in Skibbereen Town Hall on August 1 and 2 at 8pm. Bookings, festival programme and more info: skibbereenartsfestival.com

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