If He Died, What Then
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Commissioned by The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and written especially for them and the soprano Dawn Upshaw, If he died, what then is a setting of part of Asenath Nicholson’s astonishing Annals of the Famine in Ireland. Originally published in New York in 1851, Asenath Nicholson’s book recounts in vivid detail the unfolding famine in Ireland in the years 1847-1849 as directly experienced by her. Mrs. Nicholson was a formidable and unique character. Born in Vermont in 1792, she had founded in the 1830s a boarding house for the poor and homeless in New York City. There she noticed that the largest contingent of the most desperate came from Ireland. Eager to discover why, she left New York for Ireland to see for herself. Her first book, Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger, recounts her maiden journey around Ireland. When she returned for a second more extensive trip in 1846, she found herself in the middle of an unfolding catastrophe that was to transform the country irrevocably. Known in Gaelic as An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger), the famine of 1845-52 caused the deaths of more than a million people, and the further emigration of at least another million people, a significant proportion of which made their way eventually to the United States and Canada.
Nicholson was a non-conformist Protestant missionary of sorts, and one might suspect that some of her interest in helping the Irish may have come from a desire to entice the largely Roman Catholic population away from their “Popish” ways. Many did just that, and even held back food unless they felt they could secure a conversion. However, she excoriates such behavior in her book, and it seems from her account anyway that there was no such transaction, as it were, to her charity. Like the beloved Quakers of Dublin who gave charity without expecting much in return, Nicholson set up a soup kitchen for the poor in one of Dublin’s most blighted areas, the Liberties. After about half a year or so of doing this, she then took it upon herself to travel the country, often on foot, to observe at first hand the devastating effects of the famine. Her book concentrates on these experiences, and many of them are harrowing. Nevertheless, dotted throughout there are examples of great courage from unexpected quarters, kindness and even occasional humor.
If he died, what then concentrates on the story of the interaction between an old man (desperately seeking supplies for his family dying of starvation at home) and a government-appointed relieving officer, whose job it was to give out food to the starving.
Paid relief officers don’t come across well in Nicholson’s book, especially in comparison to volunteers from across the spectrum of Irish life and abroad (from individual Americans and English sending money and supplies in the post, to the Quakers, coastguards and beleaguered parish priests, among others, devoting much of their day to setting up soup kitchens, distributing food, and helping the starving in any way that they could). Nicholson even notes many instances throughout her book of the charity of the poor and starving towards each other. In contrast to those volunteering their charity, the paid relieving officers were pathologically bureaucratic and seemingly lacking in any empathy. Perhaps the very situation of their employment encouraged that type of behavior. The history of humankind is heavily populated with examples of bureaucratic systems that create a buffer between the individual and his moral responsibility to those around him. In the Irish situation too, the attitude towards relief works among the paid officials may have been compromised by an often ambivalent attitude towards such charity held by the government itself in London. Lord Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, charged with special responsibility to Ireland at this time wrote that the “Famine had been ordained by God to teach the Irish a lesson, and therefore should not be too much interfered with”. Mrs. Nicholson, to her credit, disagreed.