Famine Relief in Ireland (1846 - 1850)
In 1846, the Irish potato crop failed owing to blight for second year in a row, leaving large parts of the population, particularly in the west of Ireland, threatened with destitution. Irish Quakers numbered only three thousand out of a population of eight million, but their contribution to the famine relief was far out of proportion to their numbers.
“If there be one thousand of our fellow-men who would perish if nothing be done, our rescue of one hundred from destruction is surely not the less a duty and a privilege, because there are another nine hundred whom we cannot save,” they wrote at the start of the crisis.
In November 1846, Joseph Bewley organised a relief committee, based in Dublin, and supplemented with further ‘corresponding members’ around the country. Quakers in London also established a relief committee to raise funds in the UK and America.
Soup kitchens were set up in towns throughout the worst affected areas. Copper steam-vats were purchased from Abraham and Alfred Darby, a Quaker company in Liverpool, in which a soup made from rice and maize, called ‘stirabout’ could be made. Local people were found to run the kitchens.
Through the winter of 1846/7, Quakers distributed clothes donated by the British relief committees. Some had been made by donors and others were from factories that had been induced to donate. By the following winter, large quantities of fabric from America were being donated, and making this into clothing generated employment.
By the summer of 1847, the focus of the Quaker relief efforts was changing. The scale of the destitution was too great for Quaker resources alone and those who had pushed through the early efforts at famine relief were exhausted. Government soup kitchens were coming into effect and Quakers saw no need to duplicate their efforts. Instead, they began to focus on providing longer term help.
Loans and grants were given to stimulate local economies, from cottage industries to flax mills. Fishermen were helped to redeem tackle they had been forced to pawn. There were some, largely unsuccessful, attempts to set up new fisheries.
English Quaker William Bennett realised that one of the reasons the failure of the potato crop had been so devastating was the over-dependence on that one crop. Wanting to encourage more diversity, he purchased vegetable seeds that he then distributed in Counties Mayo and Donegal. Later, Quakers helped to distribute a much larger government donation of seeds to 40 thousand small holders and helped to plant 9.6 thousand acres.
In 1848, Quakers supported a land reclamation scheme, paying local workers generously to bring wasteland back into agricultural use.
Jonathan Pim, one of the members of Bewley’s original committee, successfully petitioned the government to change the system of land tenure that left smallholders in such a vulnerable situation. He helped to draft the Encumbered Estates Act of 1849.
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, employing more than 200 people to grow a variety of crops and raise animals, continued well into the 1860s, providing a working demonstration for small holders on how to successfully grow crops they were previously unfamiliar with.
A similar scheme was set up, independently of the relief committees, in Connemara by James Ellis and his wife. They turned 1800 acres of bog into a model farm, ran a school and a dispensary and laid out gardens.
Many of the Irish Friends who worked on the relief efforts, including Bewley and Pim, exhausted themselves or permanently damaged their health. In a report written in 1852, the Quakers concluded – in the face of the number of deaths and the scale of emigration that had resulted from the famine – that their response had been a failure. Yet more than £200k in funds had been raised by Quakers around the world. Nearly 8 thousand tons of food and 8 tons of seed had been distributed. Apart from those that were fed, many were given employment or taught new skills.
The scale and scope of the Quaker efforts was far out of proportion with the size of their community and is still remembered in Ireland today.