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Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

Established in Ireland by 1654, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) is remembered for its unprecedented relief during the Great Famine of 1845 to 1851. Never numbering more than about 3,000, Irish Quakers had an impact on social policies and the relief of distress far greater than their proportion in the population. English in origin, some were farmers, others artisans and merchants. Upon moving into manufacturing, the professions, commerce, and shipping, they won respect for their rectitude in business. After the Restoration of 1660, Irish Quakers were considered a threat to the supremacy of the established Church of Ireland, and they endured a century of persecution, distraint of their goods, and imprisonment. In response they developed systems to care for oppressed members, which they soon extended outside of the sect. About 1680, Quaker Anthony Sharp of Dublin prepared a plan to care for the indigent and beggars. During the Williamite war pacifist Quakers cared impartially for the wounded and distressed, inspiring the memorable cry "Spare the Quakers, they do good to all and harm to none." In the 1798 rebellion Quaker women organized soup kitchens, the distinctive manifestation of Quaker practicality. In the famine of 1821 to 1822, Quakers worked on relief committees. By documenting and publicizing distress during the Great Famine in the late 1840s, Quakers defined the limits of philanthropy and state responsibility, challenging official policies with irrefutable statistics and contravening government relief procedures. They brought an awareness of the true condition of Ireland to North America. Through their Central Relief Committee they coordinated the outpouring of famine relief materials and money (amounting to about 6 million dollars in modern funds) directed to their care. Quakers tackled the Irish Fisheries Board over inappropriate legislation for fishing seasons, made interest-free loans to bring waste land into production, revitalized the fishing industry, led the establishment of linen manufacture in parts of the west and south, undertook the provision of employment for women as well as men, and carried out two massive distributions of green-crop seeds to provide immediate food and an alternative to potatoes. A model farm was set up to train Irish farmers in the management of new crops. Quaker relief policies were institutionalized in the sect and have become the methodology in Third World relief and development today.

In the postfamine years the Quakers, led most visibly by Jonathan Pim (MP, Dublin city, 1865–1874), pressed land-reform campaigns through legislation from the Encumbered Estates Act of 1849 to the great 1881 Land Act. The Friends mounted relief campaigns during the acute distress of 1860 to 1863 and 1880 to 1881, and yet again during the war of 1919 to 1921. In the 1980s Quakers led a campaign to find homes for itinerants and to get their children into school. The relief work that is remembered in the phrase, "They fed us in the famine," is only one aspect of major services to Ireland in 350 years of Irish Quakerism.

SEE ALSO Great Famine


Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends. Transactions of the [CRC] . . . during the Famine in Ireland in 1846 and 1847. 1852.

Hatton, Helen E. The Largest Amount of Good: Quaker Relief in Ireland, 1654–1921. 1993.

O'Neill, Thomas P. "The Organisation and Distribution of Relief." In The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History, 1845–52, edited by R. D. Edwards and T. D. Williams. 1956.

Pim, Jonathan. The Condition and Prospects of Ireland. 1848.

Richardson, J. M. Six Generations [of Quakers] in Ireland, 1655–1890. 1893.

Helen E. Hatton

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