Simplicity key to happiness for Ireland's Amish community

Members of Ireland’s only Amish Mennonite community in Waterford. Photo: Benedict Shegog

Rachel Lavin

IT was like stepping into a real life episode of Little House on the Prairie.

I am just in time for Sunday service at the Christian Fellowship community centre, Ireland's only - and little known - Amish Mennonite community.

As the choir filled the modest hall, I am ushered to the women's pew, where they are all dressed in ankle-length homemade dresses and veils.

The only clue that I am an outsider is the little girl in front of me who stares at me for the duration of the service, eyeing up everything from my skinny jeans to my curly hair.

The Sunday service outside the picturesque fishing village of Dunmore East in Co Waterford is like no other in Ireland. Founded over 20 years ago by William McGrath, the community originally consisted of several Amish and Mennonite families who moved from America, Poland and Ukraine. Today the Christian Fellowship has over 70 members.

I had assumed the Amish community would be opposed to modern technology, but I was wrong. During the service, the pastor, Dan Yoder, whipped out an iPad to aid a power-point sermon on "grace". Pastor Dan later said the small Irish Amish-Mennonite community use cars, listen to music on CD players and often use the internet.

His wife Barbara told the Sunday Independent: "With each new technology coming out we question if we need it or not, if it furthers our cause and adheres to our morals."

As for their traditional dress, Barbara explains: "For us modestly is a high priority. Most fashion is to attract attention but we believe that is wrong as it encourages vanity."

The veils, she says, "are scriptural. They symbolise the submission to the head, that is both Jesus and our husbands."

The men and women both adhere to traditional gender roles within the community, although Pastor Dan says that while men are the main breadwinners, they also try to find flexible jobs that allow them to spend as much time as possible at home with their families.

One of the community's main sources of employment is a popular local grocery shop with a bakery, a bookshop and a wooden furniture store.

"The shop helps us to get to know the people," adds Barbara. "This way they know we are not hidden behind cloister walls."

While open to interacting with the locals, the community generally rejects modern culture, regarding it as hedonistic, materialistic and contrary to the teachings of the Bible.

They do not drink or smoke or play musical instruments. They avoid modern nightlife and even entertainment such as film or books that lack a moral message.

"Our goal is to be pleasing to God. The grace of God teaches us how to live modestly and with purpose. Not just to live for the pleasure of the senses or to do what feels good at the moment. There is no lasting value there, it destroys rather than builds," Pastor Dan said.

Given these beliefs, the community also wants to start giving back to Irish society.

Wendall, a man in his thirties tells me about Camp Comeragh, which he runs in the village of Rathcormack in west Waterford.

These wilderness camps show anti-social and troubled young men how to live independently in the wilderness for six-week periods.

Wendall told the Sunday Independent: "The camps have a simple approach. Our goal is to equip the boy with the goals to tackle the challenges of daily life. That model then enables them to go and share."

While they are not trying to convert the young men in their care, there is an interesting dichotomy between the camps and the Amish lifestyle. Wendall and the pastor say both are stripping back the excesses of modern life in order to live more introspective and moral lives.

As I leave, I am still curious about the depth of their avoidance of the modern world.

When I bump into a woman around my age (22) called Rachel at the door, I playfully quiz her on her popular knowledge.

Does she know who Barack Obama is? Yes. Enda Kenny? Yes. Facebook? Yes, some members even have it. How about selfies? Yes, but she's never taken one. I see my lift pulling up outside so I try to think of the most arbitrary thing my generation universally knows of.

Just as she turns to leave, I give it a try. "Kim Kardashian?" Rachel turns innocently and says, "Oh I'm sorry, I don't really know much about Irish history and legends" and she dashes back to a world where Kim Kardashian could well have been Cuchulainn's girlfriend for all she cares. Perhaps the Amish really are better off after all.