Maureen Murphy’s book "Compassionate Stranger" was 44 years in the birthing. Her biography of Asenath Hatch Nicholson brings back to life a heroine of the Great Hunger, a story of the Famine little known but eminently worth telling.
Professor Murphy launched her book at the Irish Cultural Society meeting at the Garden City Library on February 11 in front of an audience of forty souls who overcame the cold air of a difficult February and the ice of a partially cleared parking lot. The audience knew the presenter and happily got to know and appreciate the subject. Dr. Maureen Murphy is the Joseph L. Dionne Professor of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership at Hofstra University. She was the Director of the Great Irish Famine Curriculum for New York State, served as president of the American Conference of Irish Studies, and was a senior editor of the nine-volume "Dictionary of Irish Biography." The audience knows Maureen Murphy as a frequent guest speaker and as the Society’s writing contest judge for the past thirty years.
Professor Murphy presented Asenath Nicholson as an exemplar of the precept that one person can make a difference. Born on 1792 in Vermont to the Hatch family, Asenath took on the teachings of her parents that life will give us the good and the bad and that we can alleviate some of the bad. Through her parents’ example, she was committed to helping people. She learned not to turn away the needy, including the poor Irish of her community. The anti-slavery movement was a natural fit for the Hatch family. Asenath trained as a teacher, and showing herself as a self-directed woman, opened her own school in 1824. After she married Norman Nicholson, she moved to New York City where she was attracted to vegetarianism, the Abolition Movement, the Temperance Movement and to the poor in the Five Points where she met the Irish in the garrets and cellars of the worst slum in New York City.
When her husband died in 1839, she worked with the neediest in Brooklyn and in 1844, sailed to Ireland to “investigate the condition of the Irish poor.” She visited every county but Cavan, reading the Bible to a country people who received her with generosity and kindness. Nicholson described her pre-Famine experience in Ireland in her book "Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger."
At this point in Dr. Murphy’s presentation, the audience had gotten to know that Nicholson is indeed a remarkable woman, well worth knowing, and that Maureen Murphy is a talented story-teller. Her presentation was animated by gesture, body movement and voice variety, including a well practiced brogue and her fluent Gaelic to add color to the voices of the Irish country people. She had made sharp choices from a 268 page book to keep Asenath Nicholson’s compassion at the center of attention by giving the audience examples of Nicholson’s feisty nature and her revolutionary spirit. Murphy did not omit a description of Nicholson’s ever-present bonnet!
Asenath Nicholson returned to Ireland in 1846 to provide famine relief. She opened a soup kitchen and distributed bread on the streets of Dublin. She spent the worst winter of the Famine in the west where conditions were the most dire. She brought all the relief that one person could, and her Bible. As the Bible says, Asenath Nicholson “… entertained angels unaware.” She described her Famine years experiences in "Annals of the Famine," which captures the devastation of those turbulent years.
Maureen Murphy succeeded in giving life and color to a neglected heroine of Ireland’s Great Hunger. Dr. Murphy, perhaps influenced by the missionary zeal of her subject, sustained over a forty-four year period her mission to make Asenath Hatch Nicholson a part of the conversation on the Great Irish Famine. "Compassionate Stranger" (Syracuse University Press) belongs on the shelf with the best books on the Great Irish Famine.
John M. Walsh