Illuminations: The Society of Friends

Illuminations:  The Society of Friends
By:  J. Michael Finn

There were many private individuals and groups who did what they could to relieve the suffering of the Irish during the Great Hunger; however, no single group was as helpful as the Society of Friends (also known as the Friends or the Quakers). They have yet to receive serious credit for the efforts they made to rescue the Irish from starvation.

The Great Hunger began in September 1845 with the first failure of the potato crop.  Subsequent crop failures resulted in starvation, death, and disease on a grand scale, while the British continued to ship food from Ireland.  It is conservatively estimated that over one million Irish died of starvation and disease and another million emigrated from Ireland between 1845 until the early 1850s.

In 1845, the Society of Friends in Ireland numbered about 3,000. This religious group was small, but the Friends believed that God was present in everyone and this gave them an understanding that the individual in distress should be helped, if at all possible. 

It was with this belief in mind that a number of Friends, led by Joseph Bewley, organized a meeting in November 1846 in Dublin (Bewley was described as, “A Friend possessing both a warm heart and a full purse.”). This meeting established a twenty-one-member Central Relief Committee.
Members of the Society of Friends in London also established a relief committee and worked closely with the Dublin committee. The Dublin committee looked after distribution of food and clothing while the London committee raised funds. Many English Quakers came to Ireland to see for themselves just how bad the situation was and became involved directly with the Irish relief operations. 

As the work of the Friends committees progressed, they set up various sub-committees to handle specific tasks. Among these were local committees to look after local relief operations.  Many Irish Friends were merchants and had the organizational capacity to purchase goods and move them efficiently to various parts of the country (something the British government claimed they were unable to do).

The appeals for cash and non-cash donations by the Friends were met with a worldwide response never before witnessed.  People throughout the world mobilized to provide money, food and clothing to assist the starving Irish. Donations came from Australia, China, India and North and South America. In the United States, freight companies offered free delivery for any relief package marked “For Ireland.”

The initial work of the committees was through direct grants of food or the money with which food could be purchased. The relief committees of the Society of Friends often acted as intermediaries who encouraged those who had something to donate and made these donations available to local activists who were capable of running soup kitchens or other food distribution efforts.  In their own words, the Friends provided a “suitable channel” through which aid was brought from the donors to the recipients. 

Soup kitchens were set up by the Friends in towns throughout Ireland in the worst affected areas. Copper vats were purchased, in which a soup made from the best quality meat, rice and maize was distributed. Most importantly, it was stressed by the committees that their relief efforts were to be provided free to those in need, with no religious commitment attached; unlike the Church of Ireland that established “free” soup kitchens, but required those receiving the soup to reject their Catholic faith and join the Church of Ireland.

Soon the committees became involved in the distribution of clothing. In the winter of 1846-47, a large proportion of the clothing donations came from English committees. Some clothes were handmade by the donors. A warehouse was rented in Dublin to receive donations and sort them into bundles for distribution to the needy. 

In the summer of 1847, there was a major change of direction in the type of relief offered by the Friends committees. The emphasis on providing food and clothing was greatly reduced.  Instead, the members of the Friends concentrated on smart projects that they hoped would have a more long-term impact on the problem. 

The first moves towards this type of smart aid came in the early days of the Friends involvement, when cash donations were given to people in Galway and Mayo who had set up local employment projects, mainly involved with weaving and other textile production. As time went on, however, a greater variety of these projects were undertaken or supported.

Fishermen in Galway were helped to purchase back their boats and nets they had been forced to sell or pawn to feed their families. There were some attempts by the Friends to start up new fisheries to revive the fishing industry.  Only a few of these were successful. 

English Friend William Bennett realized that one of the reasons the failure of the potato crop had been so devastating was the over-dependence on one crop. To encourage more crop diversity, he purchased a large quantity of vegetable seeds that he then distributed.

In the spring of 1849, land was purchased in east Galway for a model farm.  Buildings were constructed, land drains laid and a stream diverted to power a mill. The farm employed more than 200 people. It grew a variety of crops and raised animals. It continued well into the 1860s, providing a working demonstration for small holders on how to successfully grow new crops and properly manage the land.

Working on any relief efforts was tiring and exhausting work for the Irish Friends.  Many of them were stricken with exhaustion, including Joseph Bewley, and many Friends died from contracting the fatal diseases and fevers generated by the Great Hunger. 

In a report written in 1852, the Central Committee concluded – in the face of the number of deaths and the amount of devastation that had resulted from the Great Hunger – that their relief projects had been a failure. They concluded that they were unable to improve the state of Ireland, “until the land system of Ireland was reformed, which is a matter for legislation, not philanthropy.”

Through the efforts of the Society of Friends, the relief committees raised more than £200,000 in funds during the Great Hunger period, which is about £11 million in today’s dollars.  Nearly 8,000 tons of food and eight tons of seed were distributed.
In addition, many thousands were fed and clothed by the Friends, and many more were given employment or taught new skills.  It was the sheer size of the devastation in Ireland caused their efforts to be insufficient, but their relief efforts should not be considered a failure.

The Society of Friends should always be recognized and remembered for their generosity and forward-thinking relief efforts during the Great Hunger. 

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].

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