Friends to all: the remarkable story of the Quakers in Ireland

21 May 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 21 May 2021

Last summer, just before the second wave of the pandemic struck, Shane Whelehan became chief executive of Quaker Service Northern Ireland.

His appointment opens a new chapter in the remarkable story of a religious group which has contributed so much over more than two centuries in Ireland especially during famine and conflict. It also pioneered an approach to relief and development which forms the basis of much international aid to this day.

The Religious Society of Friends emerged in the mid-17th Century and was inspired by the preacher George Fox. Friends believe that people can have a direct experience of God without the mediation of clergy or liturgy. They also believe that God is in all of us, and that all of life is sacred and interconnected.

This in turn leads to a commitment to “faithful living” and action and the forms that has taken through history: opposition to slavery, a tradition  of pacificism, a concern for prisoners for human rights, and, from the earliest day,s a rejection of any distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.

Its work during the Irish famine was extraordinary, not least because of how far ahead of its time it was. The Quakers set up a Central Relief Committee in November 1846 which immediately appealed for funds, food and clothing. It also sent out questionnaires and investigators all over Ireland to get an accurate picture of need, employment levels and the true conditions of people in affected areas. The information was published immediately, refuting suggestions by some in government that the distress was exaggerated.

In fact conditions were so dire that the Quakers extended their appeal to North America.  A priority was supplying cooked food – huge boilers were installed across Ireland – 35 in Ulster, 37 in Leinster, 65 in Connacht and 137 in Munster to make soup. Quaker soup was substantial, containing for example 75lbs of meat per 100 gallons, as opposed to the 12.5lbs in the official government soup recipe.

It was distributed unconditionally – nobody was asked to attend a Protestant church or school for a meal (a shameful practice which was carried out by other denominations).

Whilst food and clothing were immediate responses, the Quakers also tried to stimulate more lasting change. Hemp was supplied to fisherwomen to make nets and shoe leather to make shoes. Other skills like lace-making and weaving were taught. By 1851 there were 32 schools making high-quality goods which sold well in America.

Model farms were also set up and fishing stations were funded. Loans helped fishermen recover equipment they had had to pawn for food and trawlers were supplied to allow deep water fishing in the West. Ownership of these boats was passed on to the fishermen.

This work is worth highlighting in some detail because it demonstrates the principles of thorough research, meeting need, helping to develop resources, teaching local people to use them and then handing them over to local ownership. This is the basis on which international aid agencies work to this day and shows the thoroughness of Quakers not just in identifying need but also in finding longer term solutions. 

And Quakers spoke truth to power too. When Prime Minister Lord Russell asked them to run a further relief campaign in 1849 they refused on the grounds that the crisis was “far beyond the reach of private exertion”. The only body that had the resources and the power to provide relief was the British government itself. It needed to face up to its own responsibilities. By this time 15 Quakers had died of famine-related disease and Jonathan Pim who led the relief committee had collapsed with exhaustion.

Meanwhile Quakers had worked out that the only permanent solution to Ireland’s woes was land reform. Pim was elected to parliament in 1865 and tirelessly campaigned on the subject. He is said to have drafted the Land Act of 1881, which brought the "3Fs" fair rent, fixity of tenure and fair sale.

That is some legacy for Whelehan to inherit. He’s not a Quaker, in fact of 17 staff only one is a Friend.

He said: “When I applied for the post I looked at their values and I thought that if they were to be my guidance why wouldn’t I want the job.”

The guardian of those values is the board – 75% of which are Friends or Attenders (people who worship and work with Friends but are not members).

Shane added: “It’s a very strong board which provides very strong guardianship of the values of Quakerism and these remain the basis of all our work and the direction of what we should be doing.”

He says that the purity of that vision is what makes the Quakers stand out as does the importance of sustainability. “We just don’t do things that others are doing or are unnecessary.

 Typically Quaker Service identifies a need, operates a service and then stops either because it is no longer needed or others take it on.

So when it lost the contract for the Visitor Centre at Maghaberry Prison in 2016, after the initial hurt came the realisation that others could do this work, and that it could now move on.

As the pandemic raged Quaker Service strategy was centred around survival – the survival and protection of all the people it works for and for the organisation itself.

The year ended with all staff and volunteers still in place and no financial deficit.

Quaker Service operates two services in Northern Ireland and also has a trading wing – the charity shop Quaker Care.

Quaker Cottage is  a cross-community family day care centre in west Belfast – delivering daily therapy for mums with childcare and projects for young people up to 18 years old.

Quaker Connections, is a volunteer programme based at Maghaberry Prison, where families visiting prison and people in prison are supported through befriending and practical support services.  It serves all of Northern Ireland’s prisons.

All these continued during pandemic with the shop operating online and staff from the cottage calling round to mums and babies doors with hampers, stress packs, even handmade birthday cards.

Work with prisoners continued too. “We were allowed into different parts of the prison estate through the joys of zoom, said Shane.  “We were able to talk to people in prison on their landings.”

With the immediate crisis over the organisation is now working on a new strategy.

Shane said: “It’s an honour for me to be here – but every day is a school day for me.”

 One fascinating challenge is understanding Quaker culture.  Quakers make decisions through a process they call “communal discernment”. They believe that when they come together they can discern truths that are beyond the reach of any individual. Therefore they don’t vote, instead they seek unity over the wisest course of action.

This approach is currently being deployed as the organisation develops its new strategy – so it is a very thoughtful, deliberative process as they reflect on their foundational values and consider how both they and the work they inspire need to evolve to meet the needs of today’s society.

Shane’s task is to work with their vision, translating it into action.

An example is with the Quaker Care shop and how it might adapt to the Quaker commitment to sustainability by embracing the principles of a circular economy. This might involve, for example buying land to operate a Christmas tree farm, or use salvage yards to repurpose items so that they have a further useful life and don’t end up in landfill.

A further idea Shane is working on is around Restorative Practice, this takes the principles that underpin Restorative Justice and applies them in other contexts.

It is defined as: “all of those activities used to engage those affected by harm and conflict to communicate effectively about the impact of behaviour, explore relationships and mutually agree the steps that need to be taken to acknowledge and where possible repair the harm that has been caused.”

 For example schools are beginning to use them to resolve conflicts and Restorative Practice is also used in family settings, to heal relationships.

He sees the potential for embedding this approach into everything the organization does. “We could see this not just as a stand-alone service we offer, but at the heart of everything we do so that we develop a healing approach to all issues.”

If that is what emerges it is hard to imagine a more suitable direction for Quaker Service to follow. Quakers in Ireland have a reputation for honesty and integrity earned over the centuries.

And in a part of the world so riven by conflict it does not take a great leap of the imagination to see how such quintessentially honest brokers who see the good in everyone might help heal divisions and  bring their testimony of peace to conflict in all its forms.



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