In 1800s Ireland, the majority population was Roman Catholic, but most of the land and wealth was owned by Protestants, chiefly of the so-called Irish Ascendancy, families with British roots, or by absentee British landowners. Tremendous hostility existed between the Irish and their conquerors, who mistreated the Irish in the extreme.
I ran into another group, though, which intrigued me. They were never large—8,000 at their peak—and they were at odds with Roman Catholics and Protestants, both theologically and liturgically. Yet when the catastrophic potato blight devastated Ireland, the Society of Friends, or “Quakers” as they were called derogatorily, dedicated themselves to help Irish farmers as fully as the British allowed. They opened soup kitchens and schools, teaching skills that would allow farmers to work in other ways when they were evicted from their tenancies. When their soup kitchens were shut down by the British, the Quakers simply opened them in other locations. They did more to help the starving Irish than any other group, domestic or foreign.
As I read about all this, a Quaker family called the Malcomsons caught my attention and my imagination. They were virtually the only Irish industrial family that flourished during the Great Hunger, providing employment, housing, training, and education for thousands of Irish workers and their families in Portlaw, County Waterford. Next week I’ll post under Historical Links more about the Irish Quakers and some of the history of this remarkable family.
Horse Thief 1898 is framed around the Malcomson history. The rest, as they say, is fiction.