Quakers in Ireland
Quakers have had a long presence in Ireland, confronting issues of peace building and social justice. Particularly significant is their role in relief work during the Irish Famine (1846-50), and in mediation and community reconciliation during the worst period of sectarian violence (1969-1998). Sustainability is now an important area of activity.
The first Quaker in Ireland is believed to have been William Edmundson, who was ‘convinced of the truth’ while on a trip to England around 1653. On his return, Edmundson made several converts and Irish Quakers held their first meeting, in Mountmellick in 1659. George Fox, the founder of Quakers, came to Ireland in 1669, and William Penn became a convinced Quaker in Cork.
The first permanent Quaker Meeting House in Ireland was built in 1709. In 1786, a small group of Quakers built a boarding school to provide an education for the children of poor Quaker families. Four Quaker schools remain in Ireland today.
Quakers in Ireland have a long history of helping suffering people without partisan regard, beginning after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
In 1798, during the rebellion against English rule, Irish Quakers refused to carry guns, tried to dissuade the two sides from fighting and provided food, shelter and medical aid to both sides.
When Ireland suffered a terrible famine (1846-1850), Irish Friends appealed to Quakers in England and America to provide food and clothing. Soup kitchens were set up and a model farm was established to demonstrate efficient crop cultivation and help people to manage their holdings better. Altogether, during the Famine, Friends raised £200k in aid, a huge sum of money at the time.
The Cork Street Fever Hospital in Dublin was founded by Quakers in the early 19th century. The Royal Hospital in Donnybrook, Dublin, was also originally a Quaker hospital.
Many Irish businesses, such as Jacobs the biscuit manufacturers, Malcolmson’s the shipbuilders and Goodbody’s the flour millers, had Quaker origins. Quakers were involved in building the first railway in Ireland, from Dublin to Kingstown.
In 1876, a Quaker couple, Anna and Thomas Haslam, founded the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association, the original membership of which was predominantly Quaker.
In 1965, Victor Bewley of Bewley’s Café in Dublin began work to change the negative attitude towards the Irish Traveller community. He provided sites for travellers on his farm and became secretary of the Dublin Committee for Travelling People, then chairman of the National Council.
In 1969, sectarian violence flared between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. Ulster Quaker Service Committee (UQSC) was founded in response, working with volunteers to assist displaced and threatened families.
The two Quaker Meeting Houses in Belfast several times opened their doors to those escaping riots in the city. English Quaker Will Warren spent six years in Belfast as a one-man peace presence, listening to people on both sides and helping them to listen to each other.
In 1982, Quaker House Belfast was set up ‘to further the work of reconciliation and of befriending all parties in Northern Ireland’. The intention was to provide an informal meeting place in a safe neutral location where representatives could listen to the views of different parties and help them to make contact with one another. Particularly after the peace process began in the 1990s, a large part of the work involved informal, off-the-record meetings between politicians.
Mo Mowlem, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the British government during this period, said in a lecture at Friends House, London in 2002: “They did an incredible amount in a house where everyone knew they could be trusted… They told me who to listen to. Without them my life would have been much tougher than it was.”
Following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the role of Quaker House Belfast changed again to focus on community relations, dealing with the past, anti-racism and dialogue with former combatants.
Quaker House Belfast closed in 2010. By then, the once unique role it had held in cross-community dialogue and peace-building had been taken up by many others.
Today, the work of UQSC, now called Quaker Service, continues with the cross-community family support centre at Quaker Cottage and at the Monica Barritt Visitors Centre at Maghaberry prison. Inspired by this work, Dublin Quaker Service Committee began support work in Mountjoy prison in 2010.