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Compassionate Stranger: Asenath Nicholson and the Great Irish Famine

COMPASSIONATE STRANGER: ASENATH NICHOLSON AND THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE is the first biography of Asenath Nicholson. Compassionate Stranger recovers the largely forgotten history of an extraordinary woman. Trained as a school teacher, Nicholson was involved in the abolitionist, temperance, and diet reforms of the day before she left New York in 1844 “to personally investigate the condition of the Irish poor.” She walked alone throughout nearly every county in Ireland and reported on conditions in rural Ireland on the eve of the Great Irish Famine.

She published Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger, an account of her travels in 1847. She returned to Ireland in December 1846 to do what she could to relieve famine suffering―first in Dublin and then in the winter of 1847–48 in the west of Ireland where the suffering was greatest. Nicholson’s precise, detailed diaries and correspondence reveal haunting insights into the desperation of victims of the Famine and the negligence and greed of those who added to the suffering. Her account of the Great Irish Famine, Annals of the Famine in Ireland in 1847, 1848 and 1849, is both a record of her work and an indictment of official policies toward the poor: land, employment, famine relief. In addition to telling Nicholson’s story, from her early life in Vermont and upstate New York to her better-known work in Ireland, Murphy puts Nicholson’s own writings and other historical documents in conversation. This not only contextualizes Nicholson’s life and work, but it also supplements the impersonal official records with Nicholson’s more compassionate and impassioned accounts of the Irish poor.


“Compassionate Stranger is not only a notable academic achievement but is also a readable and tantalizing story of one powerful woman’s drive to bring justice to the marginalized.”—Irish America

“Splendid biography of a remarkable woman.”—Dublin Review of Books

“[Nicholson’s] sharp, compassionate, first-hand accounts of the human dimension of Irish poverty were rooted in direct experience. For this reason her evidence is of exceptional value. Her life and work has found an exceptional

chronicler.”—Irish Literary Supplement

“Murphy’s beautifully written book is a fitting tribute to the kindness and compassion of Asenath Nicholson. It is also the work of an accomplished historian who has devoted five decades in pursuit of her fascinating—if at times shadowy—subject.”—Breac: A Digital Journal of Irish Studies

“This biography affirms Murphy place as the foremost scholar on the life and writings of Asenath Nicholson.”—Irish University Review

“It takes one extraordinary mind to know another, and Maureen Murphy’s story of Asenath Nicholson proves it. Had Murphy not unearthed and revealed the tale of Nicholson’s tireless courage and intelligent kindness toward the Irish during the Great Famine, we would not know of a remarkable woman or of a time, place and people indispensable to history. Meticulously researched, beautifully written, Compassionate Stranger is a gift to scholarship, literature, Ireland, and to readers everywhere who seek to understand both the hardship and nobility of the poor.”—Roger Rosenblatt, essayist for Time magazine and PBS NewsHour

“Compassionate Stranger is a landmark work of historical exploration and scholarship. Murphy has succeeded in rescuing from undeserved obscurity a woman of fierce determination and extraordinary compassion. Meticulously researched and lucidly written, Compassionate Stranger gives us Asenath Nicholson in full: social reformer, abolitionist, temperance crusader, missionary, and angel of mercy among the Irish people in the hour of their greatest need.”—Peter Quinn, bestselling author of Dry Bones

“This compelling biography offers a much needed portrait of one of the most significant commentators on Ireland before and during the Great Irish Famine; Murphy’s welcome and highly engaging study greatly advances our understanding of the political and social contexts which shaped this fascinating figure.”—Margaret Kelleher, author of The Feminization of Famine



“Maureen O’Rourke Murphy is the Joseph L. Dionne Professor of Teaching, Literacy, and Leadership at Hofstra University. She is coeditor of An Irish Literature Reader: Poetry, Prose, Drama, the editor of Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger and Annals of the Famine in Ireland in 1847, 1848 and 1849, and the director of New York State’s Great Irish Famine Curriculum.”




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