Mary Anne Sadlier, Bessy Conway; or, The Irish Girl in America
Digital History ID 1083
Mary Anne Sadlier
The famine years of the late 1840s—a period of massive Irish Catholic immigration and intense anti-Catholic prejudice—inspired a number of Irish American immigrants to reflect on their experience through fiction. Such authors as John Boyce, Hugh Quigley, and Mary Anne Sadlier used fiction to chronicle the sufferings of famine-stricken Ireland, the wrenching transatlantic passage, the disorientation of rural immigrants resettling in American cities, and the need for religious faith to help immigrants adjust to a challenging new environment.
Sadlier, an orphan who migrated from Ireland in 1844, was the most prolific and influential nineteenth-century Irish American novelist. Her 18 novels on Irish history and immigrant life offer a wealth of information about the famine generation and its religious beliefs and practices.
In the heart of the rich and fertile county of Tipperary, not far from the banks of the silvery Suir, and almost in the shadow of the mouldering castle of Ardfinnan, there is a snug and comfortable farm-house owned by one Denis Conway, as decent a man, so the neighbors say, as you would find in the five counties. Denis is what you may call a "'sponsible farmer," he holds some fifty acres of as good ground as any in Tipperary, and that at an easy rent, so easy, indeed, that Denis is putting by something every year for the "rainy day." No wonder that he should, when he can, for he has lived through the darkest and most dismal of "rainy days," when gaunt famine stared in at the door and pestilence at the window; when a shilling was worth a precious life, and a pound of meal its weight in gold, because of the hunger that was gnawing at the people's hearts, and Denis Conway had seen all that, and, moreover, he had lost his farm and his dwelling in that dreary time, and was turned out with his family to seek shelter where they could find it, all because he could not pay his rent, then fearfully in arrear. So even as a burnst child is said to dread the fire, Denis had a salutary fear of being again penniless, and now that God had given him back the blessing of prosperity,
he made up his mind not to let all its golden fruit slip through his fingers to leave him again with empty hands should the day of trial come.
Happily the dark days of famine and pestilence had passed away without leaving Denis Conway any worse legacy than that of experience. Unlike many of his friends and neighbors he had seen no one belonging to him die the awful death of hunger- reduced to the last necessity as they had been, and for whole days without eating a morsel, still it so happened that relief always came at the right time, justifying the word that was always on the old man's lips: "God is a good provider. " Surely Denis found Him so, and his cheerful and patient reliance on Divine Providence was well rewarded. How else could he and his have lived when so many died, and, still more remarkable, how else could they have got back into 'he old homestead and renovate it so that it looked as good as new, ay! and a great deal betters How came the horse in the stable, and the cows in the byre back again, and the hay, and the oats, and the wheat " stacked up" as of old in the haggard at the end of the house q What but that bountiful Providence in which Denis had trusted all along, even when things looked darkest.
But how did Providence bring all this about ? I hear some of my readers ask, and that is just what I am going to tell. Visible agents are always employed to carry out the divine economy in regard to human affairs. Now who was Denis Conway's Providence? whose hand was employed to draw him and his family from the abyss of wretchedness in which the whole country was engulfed? Who but his own daughter Bessy, the eldest of his children who had gone to America years before, in the service of a captain's lady who had taken a fancy to the girl in Carrick, where she was serving her time to a dressmaker.
Source: Mary Anne Sadlier, Bessy Conway; or, The Irish Girl in America (1861), 5-6.
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