Lifestyle

Wednesday 20 August 2014

How the Quakers changed Ireland for good

The low-key group is using the Gathering to celebrate its history

Dressed for the part: Amy Mooney, Agnes Conroy and Roisin Dempsey in Quaker costume preparing for the opening of the exhibition of the Quaker Tapestry at Mountmellick in Co Laois

Ireland's Quakers may keep a low profile, but their contribution to the shape of modern Ireland shouldn't be underestimated. And this group, like so many others, is using the Gathering to celebrate their remarkable history.

The Society of Friends or Quakers made a crucial contribution to business and economic development in this country.

In the early part of the 19th century over 8,000 people were employed in Quaker-owned industries in the town of Mountmellick, Co Laois in brewing, milling, textiles, tanning and engineering. Indeed, the town became known as the 'Manchester of Ireland'.

This link with the Irish business sector remains strong and many Quaker names are still prominent in trading circles, including such stalwarts of the scene as Jacobs, Odlum, Pim, Goodbody and Bewley.

Even more important is the peace and reconciliation work done by the Quakers in the North from the beginning of the Troubles, and before that the heroic relief work undertaken during the Great Famine.

To coincide with the Gathering, a museum in Mountmellick is to host the internationally renowned Quaker Tapestry in an exhibition that runs from tomorrow to August 10.

The Tapestry is set out in panels depicting the history and achievements of the Society of Friends since their foundation in England in the 17th century.

While the Tapestry is on permanent display at Kendal, in Cumbria, part of the exhibition travels around the world. For the first time in two decades a travelling portion of 20 panels comes to Mountmellick.

Bridget Guest, the curator of the exhibition in Kendal, is travelling to Mountmellick along with four volunteers to look after the tapestry and conduct workshops on its creation and on the techniques involved.

Bridget, herself an embroiderer, is passionate about the Tapestry.

"There is certainly a 'wow factor' when people first see it, it's like looking at a storybook on the wall that is beautifully presented," she explains.

The Quaker Tapestry came into being as a result of a suggestion made by an 11-year-old boy at a Quaker meeting in the southwest of England in 1981. The boy suggested to his teacher, Anne Wynn Wilson, an accomplished embroiderer, that the Quaker story could be told on tapestry.

Ann Wynn Wilson took the suggestion on board, began the Tapestry and a year later an exhibition of the work-in-progress aroused an enthusiastic response.

"It turned into a major collaborative project as designers came forward, embroidery groups were formed, and training workshops were arranged. When the work was completed in 1996 it comprised 77 panels of narrative embroidery worked on by over 4,000 men, women and children from 15 different countries. The process of making it is as important as the finished work," explains Bridget Guest.

Two of the panels on exhibition were embroidered in Ireland and refer to Quaker humanitarian work in the country.

At the height of the Famine in 1846, Quakers were instrumental in setting up soup kitchens, providing seeds for planting and promoting the fishing industry. Irish Friends set up a Central Relief Committee in Dublin, with members from Belfast, Waterford, and Limerick distributing clothing and over 36,000lbs of seeds to sow 10,000 acres along with tools for farming and fishing.

By 1852 the Quakers had helped 40,000 people and handled £100,000 in aid, the equivalent of €10million in today's money. Some of the money was used to help emigration to Canada and America.

In the North the Quakers were among the earliest activists in pursuit of peace and reconciliation. After the introduction of internment the Ulster Quaker Service Committee set up the Visitors' Centre in the Maze prison. The service included a minibus to help families of prisoners with transport difficulties.

In 1980 'Quaker Cottage' was opened on a site in Black Mountain, west of Belfast and developed into a cross-community support group working with mothers and children up to 11 years of age from mixed communities.

In 1982 Quaker House was opened in Belfast as a joint project of British and Irish Friends to provide an informal, relaxed atmosphere where men and women with differing viewpoints could listen to one another.

According to Christopher Moriarty, the work of the Quakers in the North was their most important work in Ireland in the 20th Century,

"We will never know how many lives we saved," he said.

Dolores Dempsey is manager of the Mountmellick Development Association (MDA), the local organisation responsible for the museum. Dolores explains how the MDA and its museum have been planning for years to bring the Tapestry to Mountmellick.

"The Quakers are an immense part of our town's heritage and there is no more appropriate way to honour that heritage than by hosting the Tapestry," she said.

The exhibition runs from July 27 July to August 10.

Irish Independent

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