Quaker kindness to the Irish Jack O’Keefe
Over a million people starved in Ireland during the Great Famine (1845-1850); two million more fled the country in “coffin ships” when the English destroyed their cottages and farms. The suffering would have been even worse except for the Quakers, 3000 of whom lived in a population of 8.5 million. During the Famine, the Quakers studied the destitution in the west of Ireland, and Joseph Bewley, a successful Dublin businessman who operated tea and coffee shops, founded the Society of Friends Central Relief Committee which purchased 294 copper steam vats at cost from the Quaker firm of Albert Darby in Liverpool.
The Quakers distributed the boilers to workhouses and their own soup kitchens throughout Ireland for cooking “stirabout,” a mixture of corn maize and rice, which they had imported from America. What follows is a summary of the Quaker charities for the Irish:
- Collected funds from England and America, even from the South where the Society had to overcome their aversion to slavery.
- Founded schools taught by Quaker women to teach children reading and writing, net mending, quilting and lace making..
- Established a working model farm in Colmanstown, Galway, to teach 350 Irish farmers how to raise cows, pigs, and other livestock as well as how to cultivate wheat, turnips, cabbage, and other vegetables.
- Persuaded the Admiralty to chart the fishing waters around the coasts, which had never been done before.
- Improved fishing at Ring and Ballycotton by setting up curing houses and by providing clothes for fishermen out on the ocean.
- Extended loans to Claddagh fishermen to retrieve their hookers and curraghs from pawn and get back to fishing.
- Loaned the use of a trawler, Vivid, and imported a captain from Cornwall to assist in deep-water fishing in the Claddagh.
- Spoke to Parliament and Prime Minister John Russell about the starvation and deaths in Ireland.
American philanthropist Asenthath Nicholson had high praise for Quaker relief: “As I followed in their wake throughout the country, the name of ‘Blessed William Forster’ was on the lips of the poor cabiners. . .. When the question was put who feeds you or sent you these clothes, the answer was ‘the good Quakers lady and they that have the religion entirely.’”
A great resource on Quaker work in Ireland is Helen E. Hatton, The Largest Amount of Good (Kingston: McGill Queens University Press, 1993)