The “Famine Pots” of Ireland

The “Famine Pots” of Ireland

In 1845, the population of Ireland numbered almost eight million. The Irish were an industrious, hardy people, exporting to England their livestock, peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey and even potatoes. However, when the Irish potato crop failed that year and the next, large parts of the population, particularly in the west of Ireland, were left destitute. Irish Quakers, who numbered only three thousand across the whole country, began to mobilize their Societies to respond to the need.
 “If there be 1,000 of our fellow-men who would perish if nothing be done, our rescue of 100 from destruction is surely not the less a duty and a privilege, because there are another 900 whom we cannot save,” they wrote at the start of the crisis. In November of 1846, Joseph Bewley organized a twenty-one member relief committee, based in Dublin, and added further "corresponding members" from around the country. Quakers contacted their Societies in London, who also established a relief committee to raise funds in the UK and America.

In the next weeks, the first soup kitchens were set up by Quakers in the towns of Waterford, Enniscorthy, Limerick, Clonmel, and Youghal, throughout the worst affected areas. Copper steam-vats, which came to be called “Famine Pots,” 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 volunteers stepped forward to run the kitchens. Others served soup to neighbors out of large caldrons.

Through the winter of 1846-1847, Quakers also 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 was donated, generating employment as women began to sew clothing. By the summer of 1847, the government of Ireland, due to the scale of the destitution, followed the Quaker pattern and opened several hundred more soup kitchens The Quakers were too few to stem the tide of famine. When the government assumed responsibility for short-term feeding, the Quakers trained their focus on providing sustainable, long-term solutions.

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 attempts to set up new fisheries. In addition, English Quaker William Bennett realized that one of the reasons the failure of the potato crop had been so devastating was the over-dependence on that one crop. To encourage more diversity, he purchased vegetable seeds he then distributed in Counties Mayo and Donegal. Later, Quakers helped to distribute a much larger government donation of seeds to 40,000 small holders and helped to plant 9,600 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 that same spring, land was purchased in east Galway for a model farm. Buildings were constructed, lands drained, 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 with which they were previously unfamiliar.

The potato crops did not fully recover until 1852. Although estimates vary, it is believed that as many as a million Irish men, women and children perished during the Famine, and another million emigrated from the island to escape poverty and starvation. Many landed in various cities throughout North America and Great Britain.
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 £200,000 in funds had been raised by Quakers around the world. Nearly eight tons of food and eight tons of seed had been distributed by this tiny band. Apart from those who were fed, many were given employment or taught new skills. The Quakers had courageously saved thousands of lives.

The Irish Society of Friends, committed to peacemaking, saw a catastrophic famine looming and stepped forward, small in number as they were, to save their neighbors. They started with a bowl of soup. What might happen, we wonder, if the people of God in our day were to see the world’s hungry and do the same?

-Karen O'Dell Bullock
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