During the current coronavirus outbreak, when Quakers around the world are seeking to minister to those in need, it is inspiring to recall the extraordinary work done by Friends in Ireland, Britain, and the United States to relieve the suffering of the Irish poor during the Great Famine of the 1840s.
At that time, around one third of Ireland was dependent upon a potato monoculture. When the blight, Phytophthora infestans, destroyed most of the potato crop in the fall of 1846, hunger, exacerbated by a pitiless winter, began to claim lives. Quakers on both sides of the Irish Sea quickly organized relief. In Dublin, the Friends Central Relief Committee began operations in November. The operation, closely coordinated with Friends in London, became one of the first examples of what we today would call an NGO—a non-governmental organization operating on an international scale.
Using the Irish Quaker network, the Dublin Committee sought information from across the island. Several men traveled through the West of Ireland in order to understand conditions on the ground. At a time when many in Britain thought the reports of mass starvation were exaggerated, the published reports of Quakers like William Bennett, William Edward Foster, and James Hack Tuke warned of a catastrophe in the making. Far from exaggeration, Foster insisted that no amount of coloring could “deepen the blackness of the truth” of the suffering he and his colleagues witnessed.
In addition to time and money, the Quaker effort, led mostly by businessmen, was characterized by a strong sense of organization. Charity without knowledge and direction can be useless. The Dublin Central Committee quickly established an efficient organization. Subcommittees were set up for each of Ireland’s four provinces. Offices were acquired and a secretary was hired. The Committee set up a system of matching grants, facilitated by a standard questionnaire. Instead of handing out large sums of money, the Committee preferred the more time-consuming process of making many modest grants to ensure their effectiveness. The members found that working through women contacts often proved the most efficacious.
Having long experience in feeding the poor, several Quaker groups established model soup kitchens, the largest operations being in Dublin and Cork. The British government was so impressed by the efficiency (and relatively low cost) of these operations that it decided to abandon its expensive and cumbersome public works program for several months of mass feeding. When it became clear that there would be a significant gap before the government’s operation would become functional, the Dublin Central Committee offered to partner with the authorities to expand existing soup kitchens. When the government refused the offer, the Quakers continued to do the best they could. Large boilers were provided to local relief groups, the kettles and boilers often donated by Quaker iron mongers in England.
The Friends took care that their relief efforts did not disrupt local economies, a problem that often faces international relief agencies today. For example, when setting up a model farm in the West of Ireland, the Dublin committee imported expensive guano so as not to disrupt the local market for fertilizer.
By May 1847, Irish Quakers had donated £4,800, while the London Committee raised about £45,051 (approximately $5,000,000 in today’s money). This was on top of thousands of pounds worth of donated food and clothing. Contributions raised by Quaker meetings in America, which included donations from many non-Quakers, eventually surpassed funds collected by Friends within the United Kingdom.
In contrast to various Irish Protestant groups which mixed charity with proselytizing, Friends made their aid available to all, regardless of religious persuasion. As Anesath Nicholson, an independent evangelical aid worker put it: “The Society of Friends stand out in Ireland, as they do in other places, distinct….they are entirely free of vain boasting and whining tales of persecution, or the great growth of their denomination, the downfall of error before their preaching, etc. …The caution of these people in the time of famine to avoid the appearance of proselytizing was carried to an extent almost unparalleled.”
Eventually, the economic, physical, and psychological stress on those Friends most active in famine relief took their toll. As William Edward Foster wrote: “I have not the nerve…to look upon the suffering of the afflicted; it takes too much possession of me, and almost disqualifies me from exertion.” International donations of money, food, and clothing, upon which the Quakers’ efforts depended, began to dry up. By the end of 1847, “donor fatigue” was setting in.
In 1849, faced with rising death rates in many parts of Ireland, the government offered the Dublin Central Committee a modest subsidy if it would continue its efforts. The Committee, already winding down most of its activities, felt it had to decline the invitation. In the Committee’s Transactions, published a few years later, the group explained: “Exertions of this character could not last. The work was too great and those qualified to labor too few.” Nevertheless, the heroic efforts of the Society of Friends in the United Kingdom and the United States had alleviated much suffering and demonstrated what one inspired, well-organized, determined, and dedicated group could accomplish by putting their spiritual values into practice.
For more information about Quaker assistance during the Great Famine in Ireland, see the following resources:
Bennett, William. Narrative of a Recent Journey of Six Weeks in Ireland. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010.
Goodbody, Rob. A Suitable Channel: Quaker Relief in the Great Famine. Bray, Ireland: Pale Publishing, 1995.
Society of Friends. Transactions of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends during the Famine in Ireland in 1846 and 1847. Dublin: Hodges, Smith, 1852.