Quakers during the Irish Famine

The Christian may despair of conquest when kindness and love have no effect, and in the famine, when these were exercised, they were felt and acknowledged. Let any stranger, in the year 1850, go into every parish in that country, and make investigation of the true state of feeling, as it would naturally flow out without any design; and if that stranger made no party allusions that should awaken jealousy, he would hear lavish blessings bestowed on dissenters of every grade, where these dissenters had manifested a kindly feeling. "And there's the rector that would do the heart good,"—"There's the blessed minister, that's worth the day's walk to hear his discourse,"—"And would ye see the lady that's the blessin' to the poor?" &c. Do you say this is selfishness?—it is a just appreciation of right and wrong; and where right is not exercised why should it be acknowledged? What gospel requires that a man should say of an unjust neighbor that he walks uprightly, lest some evil-eyed partisan should judge him by his own narrow spirit? And blinded as the world is by sin, and perverted as education may be, there are things done which will bear looking in the face without blushing; there are things done so well that an enemy, however skillful, could not improve them; and there are fallen men and women in the lower ranks of life, without any refinement of education, that can appreciate these well done things and even do them too; and with all the zigzag movements in the famine there were some redeeming qualities, there were some things carried on and carried through, which were not accused of sectarianism, for the simplest reason—none was manifest.

The Society of Friends justly merit this acknowledgment, and they have it most heartily from every portion of Ireland. Not belonging to that Society, my opportunity of testing the true feeling of the poor was a good one, and when in a school or soup-shop, the question was put—Who feeds you? or, who sends you these clothes? the answer was: "The good Quakers, lady, and it's they that have the religion entirely." One young man seriously inquired of me, what sort of people they might be, and if their religion were like any other, and where they got sich a good one; "By dad, don't you think it's the best in the world?" It certainly produces good works among the poor of Ireland, was the reply. "And where may they say their prayers? I wish I could hear 'em;" or, "don't they say prayers?" He pressed so closely, that vague answers would not avail; the foundation of a faith which was so different from what he had seen in any people, as he said, "intirely," he determined to make out; and finally inquired if they suffered persons of other faith to see them worship; and added, "I should like to see it." He was directed to a meeting in Dublin which was open on that day, and after getting all preliminaries as to how he must behave, he ventured in.

The meeting was a silent one; he saw no altars, he heard no prayers, and his astonishment at their worship was equal to his admiration of their goodness. "And wasn't it quare they didn't spake?" "They were waiting in silence till they should have something given them to speak." This increased the difficulty, and he went away perfectly confounded, wishing he could know something more about them, "for they must be a blessed people."

This simple-minded lad lived in a remote part of Ireland, had never been in a city before; and he said that he had seen these good people in the mountains giving alms, and "didn't they spake so kindly," he added, "I intended to see 'em if I could find where they stopped." Simple-minded youth, what could he do more?

Whilst writing this, a report has been sent me of the Birr Mission, at Parsonstown in Ireland, under the superintendence of Mr. Carlisle, and I happily find by the following extract this fresh proof of the effect of kindness on the hearts of the most bigoted.

The Report states: "The medical coadjutor of the Mission, noticed in our last Report as having been sent to us from Edinburgh, continues his labors most assiduously and most usefully. Nothing has done so much toward removing the prejudices of Roman Catholics against us—even those who formerly were most opposed and most bigoted—as his kind, unwearied, and skillful attention to the sick poor. It has already opened the way for the word of God to many families from which it formerly was debarred; and we observe that the prejudices of a class of society above the poor, with whom he has no direct intercourse in the way of his profession, are giving way before this kind and conciliatory approach to the population generally."

Were there space in these pages, like instances might be multiplied, and two which come under my notice were so in point, that they are entitled to a record in a better place.

A few miles north of Dublin, in the winter of 1847 and 1848, a minister of the Independent church was sick for weeks, and his life seemed suspended in doubt for some days. One Sabbath, in a chapel, after the morning service was finished, the priest called the attention of the people to his case, and added, "If he dies, God will take from us one of the best men in the country, and who will fill his place? All we can do is to pray for him, and surely you will all do that." Voices were loud in responding, yes, yes; and they tarried another hour and went through their prayers for the sick. Now, as inefficient as these prayers might be, they were the legitimate offspring of kindness and goodwill which this minister had practiced, till he had not only removed prejudice, but had substituted like feelings of kindness.

The second case was that of a good woman, who belonged to the Methodist denomination. She had been a pattern of good works in her neighborhood, without regard to party; and the poor loved her as their long-tried friend. She died. The priest of the parish was noted for his peace-making spirit and liberality. The Sabbath after this good woman's death, he concluded the exercises of the day by naming the circumstance, and saying, "When God takes such good ones from the earth as this woman was, the living have not only cause to mourn, but to tremble, lest that his anger has gone out against the inhabitants, and He will not suffer such righteous ones to live among them."

In a few weeks from this, that priest died, the husband of the good woman just named dropped an obituary notice in a paper which he edited, mentioning the conciliatory disposition of the priest, and his exertions in the parish to keep peace. A nephew of this priest called a few days after and thanked the editor for the kind notice, saying, "it was more than he could expect." In two weeks from this an obituary of the nephew was inserted in the same paper. But mark the effects of simply carrying out the principle of Christian kindness! Was Christ dishonored—was Christ offended?

Read "Annals of the Famine in Ireland" at your leisure

Annals of the Famine in Ireland

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This book still has the power to shock and sadden even though the events described are ever-receding further into the past. When you read, for example, of the poor widowed mother who was caught trying to salvage a few potatoes from her landlord's field, and what the magistrate discovered in the pot in her cabin, you cannot help but be apalled and distressed.

The text of this new edition has professionally been reset and an index added to the paperback.


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