Ireland The Great Hunger

2019 is a special year for both our museum and Bridget Guest, General Manager. Bridget celebrates her own 25th year, alongside that of the Quaker Tapestry Museum. A designer and embroidery tutor Bridget knows the panels and their stories well and will be sharing her 25 favourite panels with us, as her own unique celebration of the 25th anniversary of Quaker Tapestry Museum.

Ireland: The Great Hunger 1845 – 1848

In 1841 the population of Ireland, north and south, was eight million. Nearly half of these lived close to perpetual poverty in bad housing. The potato was their staple food as well as the main source of a meagre livelihood. There had been crop failures three times that century, but none as devastating as in 1846, when the corn crops were also poor. In one week, potato blight destroyed the whole crop and there was widespread hunger and destitution.

Various relief agencies were set up. In 1846, Irish Quakers set up a Central Relief Committee in Dublin, with members from Belfast, Waterford and Limerick. A committee of 20 British Quakers was appointed, led by William Forster of Norwich to make visits to the distressed areas. He reported that he saw children “worn to skeletons, their features sharpened by hunger and their limbs wasted almost to the bone”. Pigs and poultry disappeared because they could no longer be fed; tools were sold … although Forster noted that there was affluence in some areas as scarce supplies were stockpiled and sold at inflated prices.

In the centre of the panel we see a soup kitchen, with a woman distributing turnips. The Dublin committee was the first to establish soup kitchens at 1penny a quart, 3 halfpence with bread and arrangements for those who couldn’t afford even that.

The panel also shows grain and tools to help start the people growing food once again. The relief operations grew throughout Ireland. Amongst the provisions provided and distributed were clothing, over 36,000 pounds of seeds to sow 10,000 acres of land and tools for farming and fishing.

On the right of the panel the familiar scene of a funeral as the death toll rose to one and a half million. Above the funeral procession we see a devastated smallholding.

Careful records and accounts were kept, so that we can read of the 56 boilers given by the Coalbrookdale Company for the soup kitchens. By 1852 the committee had handled over £100,000 in relief donations, a considerable sum in those days. Some of the money was used to help emigration to Canada and America, as we see on the left of the panel.

The joint committee presented an extensive final report to the Government, with 350 pages of evidence and corroborative detail. Successive relief organisations have often been told that they should not interfere in political matters, but responsibility often requires criticism. The report was hard-hitting and backed by firsthand knowledge. It criticised the Irish Land laws, the absentee landlords and other factors which exacerbated the potato famine.

Designed and embroidered by the Wigham family and the Dublin and Waterford groups.

Our 25th anniversary is giving us a good excuse to look back fondly on our many highlights. One of which takes us back to 2013 when we took 20 Quaker Tapestry panels on tour to Mountmellick, a small town in the centre of Ireland, where the local community had organised a special celebration of its Quaker Heritage.

Mountmellick in Co. Laois, 60 miles south west of Dublin, was once home to a major Quaker community. In the early part of the 19th century more than 8,000 people were employed in Quaker industries in the town earning it the nickname, ‘the Manchester of Ireland’. To celebrate and honour this important part of their heritage the managing committee of the local museum requested that part of the Quaker Tapestry might be exhibited at the museum.

We were amazed at the response, over 2,500 visitors came from all over Ireland to see the work over the two week period. The exhibition featured on all the national newspapers and on national radio. Each day we were overwhelmed with the number of visitors and their enthusiasm for the Tapestry.

In a wonderful coincidence the Mountmellick Museum where the Tapestry was displayed is itself dedicated to the preservation of a form of Quaker needlecraft known as Mountmellick Work, a unique form of white on white embroidery developed by Quaker women in the town to assist local women earn an income during the Great Irish Famine.

During our visit our small team of staff and volunteers found time for some fun and frolics with our hosts. On a number of occasions we savoured the warmth of the Irish welcome in the forms of food, story, song and a few drops of ‘morning dew.’ Not to be outdone, the Cumbria crew delighted their hosts with their store of story and song.

Photo shows Bridget Guest on the right with her host Delores Dempsey in the Mountmellick Museum


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“If you do nothing else in Kendal visit this exhibition.

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