The Religious Society of Friends
Had County Cork exhibited charm and grace and held fast the heart strings of a young English man who visited in 1666, the American state of Pennsylvania might yet be fields of dancing grass and undeveloped coal mines. But, alas, William Penn was not to cling to the shores of Ireland, but let loose the sails westward across the Atlantic to found a colony on the American continent. Others of his ilk, however, remained in Ireland and founded an organization that eventually helped to save the Irish poor during the ghastly famine.
The first regular meeting of Friends in Ireland occurred in 1654 at the home of William Edmondson at Lurgan in Northern Ireland. What could be termed the Friends Movement appeared in Ireland in 1655. The founder of the Society of Friends, George Fox, visited Ireland in 1669, 18 years after he had established the movement in England. In the first half of the eighteenth century, the penal code proclaimed by England was also applied to the Quakers, causing many of them to choose emigration to America. One such person was Thomas Milhous of Timahoe (ancestor of former U. S. President Richard Milhous Nixon). Another rather unusual connection of the early Quakers to recent history is made through the genealogy lineage of Bulmer Hobson, one of the founders of the Irish Volunteers in 1914 (which later became known as the Irish Republican Army [IRA]).
The Religious Society of Friends was founded on the precepts that many religious church services interfered with—rather than added to—one’s relationship with the Almighty. Instead of turning their souls over to the ritual of an established church, Friends held meetings in houses (thus meeting houses) with no regard for a clergy or group leader to guide them through a worship service. Their social conscience was their clarion. Hard work, honesty, anti-slavery sentiments, a call to alleviate social injustice—these were the guiding principles of their beliefs. A sober, industrious people, they played a key role in saving thousands and perhaps millions of Irish poor from the grave during the famine of 1845−1848. “Only the assistance provided by English and Irish Quakers prevented the annihilation of the entire population” (A Mollie Maguire Story by Patrick Campbell, p. 3).
In 1845, upon receiving reports of massive hunger and rampant disease, the Central Relief Committee was set up in Dublin. Twenty-one Quakers served on a committee that received subscriptions, distributed funds, and gathered data. The need was great. Care was given to not duplicate services already rendered by other government agencies, relief given out on a strictly non-sectarian basis. Soup kitchens were set up. Soon the clamor of needy people from all over the country nearly drowned the Friends Dublin committee. Local groups began to take on some of the burden, providing funds and direction from Dublin but allowing and encouraging local committees to do the relief work. Where did the monies come from? Mostly from Quakers themselves—in Ireland, in England, and some even from America.
William Bennett, an English Quaker, suggested he travel around Ireland distributing seeds to out-of-the-way areas. Turnip, carrot, flax, parsnip, and cabbage seeds found their way into many grateful hands.
On 900 statute acres, nearly 1,000 men and women were hired to prepare the land for crops. One farming project resulted in the purchase of 325 acres of farmland, where a model farm was established along with an agriculture school. The Central Relief Committee put out a report that painted a dismal portrait of Lady Ireland. Examining the causes of such destitution, the reports not only blamed the potato failure, but also the land laws, a vast amount of acreage governed by a powerful and influencial few.
English women were in the forefront of the distribution of clothing. The subcommittee purchased fabric with some of its funds. Leather was provided for the manufacture of shoes—a particularly helpful item for a man or woman employed in rock crushing, a government relief program.
The tiny Society of Friends (3,000 members in all of Ireland) had made an impact felt for many generations hence. All told, Quakers distributed 200,000 pounds of food and seed. “This small rather egocentric society of businessmen and shopkeepers, with their hard-working wives and families, whose philosophy and culture were so different from that of their neighbours, should at the demand of their religious experience enter so wholeheartedly on such difficult task. They had no outward reward but to become part of a legend…” (The Irish Quakers by Maurice J. Wigham, p. 88).