Quaker Meeting House: Peace, Tolerance and the Troubles

The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakerism, was founded by George Fox in the 1640s. The first recorded Quaker meeting in Ireland was held in 1654 at the home of William Edmundson in Lurgan, Co. Armagh. Edmundson, a former Cromwell soldier, soon ventured northwards to Belfast, Coleraine and Derry in an attempt to convert others to the Quaker faith. Edmundson’s party got a decidedly mixed – and occasionally violent – reception in Ulster. In a chronicle published in 1789, Belfast was described as ‘a town of great profession of religion, but very deficient in hospitality. Not an inn nor public house in the town being willing to entertain them, one excepted’. On their return to Lurgan, ‘following a meeting on the local green’, the party was ‘set upon by the local populace’ who then ‘procured the imprisonment of William Edmondson in Armagh Jail’.[1]

Greater religious tolerance prevailed in the nineteenth century, but an air of curiosity still pervaded contemporary accounts. An 1811 article in the Freeman’s Journal described a ‘public meeting for worship in Robert Acheson’s house, Donegall Street’ where ‘the whole time of the meeting the audience was silent and attentive; the novelty of a female orator was peculiarly attractive’.[2]

The first record of a Quaker meeting place in Belfast was in 1682 when ‘a house was rented for this purpose from Mr. Ralph Sharpley, but it was given up a few years afterwards’. After a lengthy absence, regular Quaker meetings recommenced in 1790 ‘in a loft of a tannery belonging to Mr. Samuel Alexander, one of their members, now No. 155, North Street, a few doors above Union Street’.[3] Mr. Alexander later presented a plot of ground in Frederick Street to the Society of Friends, where a purpose-built meeting house was constructed in 1814. In 1820 the congregation numbered approximately sixty members and their numbers steadily increased. 264 Belfast citizens reported as being of Quaker faith in the 1891 census, with North Belfast being home for the majority.[4]

The Quaker movement was founded on the principles of tolerance, peace and charitable assistance. In an Irish context, the Quakers were ‘instrumental’ in providing relief during the potato famine of the 1840s and later programmes to diversify crop farming.[5] The Quakers have played an active role in calming political tensions in Ireland and facilitating peace initiatives. The pacifist and non-partisan position of Irish Quakers was ‘recognised by the time of the 1798 Rebellion, when Quaker homes were spared molestation and where the wounded of both sides were often cared for’.[6] In 1922, during a particularly severe outbreak of violence following partition and the creation of Northern Ireland, the Belfast Quakers ‘held on our premises in Frederick Street [a meeting between] Catholic and Protestant clergymen … in an endeavour to promote a feeling of fellowship and goodwill in our city’.[7] During the Second World War, the Quakers operated an evacuation hostel for elderly and vulnerable Belfast residents at Killcaton House, Derriaghy.[8]

During the recent Troubles, the Quakers remained at the forefront of peace and reconciliation initiatives. In 1969 the Belfast Friends’ Emergency Committee was established in response to the urgent need of families in distress following the outbreak of sectarian violence that summer. Frederick Street Meeting House opened its doors as a night shelter for families displaced by violence. Dr. Joyce Neill wrote in her Brief History of the Ulster Quaker Service Committee that ‘men stayed behind to protect their homes, while their families slept, not too comfortably, on the benches of the old meeting house’.[9]

In the early 1970s the Belfast Quakers began a long-lasting relationship with the Northern Ireland Prison Service. In response to visitor facilities at Long Kesh internment camp (later HMP Maze) which ‘shocked and horrified’ Quaker members, a committee was established to operate a canteen to serve members of the public visiting gaoled family and friends. Opened in January 1972, the Quaker canteen operated ‘two shifts daily’ serving ‘some 500 cups of tea per day’.[10] Prison outreach work morphed into comprehensive pastoral care with the construction of the Monica Barritt Visitors’ Centre at HMP Maghaberry in 1988.[11] That initial voluntary response evolved over the years into today’s professional statutory-regulated charity, Quaker Service. Although Quaker Service no longer runs the tea bar, their prison outreach work continues through the Quaker Connections arm of the charity, which offers visits and support to isolated prisoners in all Northern Irish prisons.

In 1982, Quaker House Belfast was set up ‘to further the work of reconciliation and of befriending all parties in Northern Ireland’. The intention was to provide an informal meeting place in a safe neutral location where representatives could listen to the views of different parties. Particularly after the peace process began in the 1990s, a large part of the work involved informal, off-the-record meetings between politicians. Quaker House Belfast closed in 2010, but Quaker Service continues the work through its ongoing close involvement with the Restorative Practices Forum NI.

Other current work includes the comprehensive whole-community programmes for mothers, children and teenagers from North and West Belfast, which are provided at Quaker Cottage on the slopes of Black Mountain.[12] In addition, a small social enterprise, Quaker Care, raises funds for charitable work and provides engagement opportunities through volunteering and work placement.

Though small in number, the Belfast Quakers continue to provide vital social services and conflict reconciliation support in Northern Ireland and have earned the respect of communities of all political and religious hues. Further information about their activities during the Troubles can be found in the Denis Barritt papers, which are available for consultation at PRONI (Ref: D4201).

Footnotes:

[1] John Gough, A history of the people called Quakers (Dublin, 1789).

[2] Freeman’s Journal, 8 November 1811.

[3] Belfast News-Letter, 7 February 1895.

[4] Belfast News-Letter, 10 June 1891.

[5] https://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/how-the-quakers-changed-ireland-for-good-29450045.html

[6] The Irish Independent, 25 July 1964.

[7] The Evening Echo [Cork], 9 March 1922.

[8] Belfast News-Letter, 8 July 1943.

[9] http://www.quakerservice.com/Quaker_Service/Publications_files/Quaker%20service%20FINAL%20%281%29.pdf

[10] The Irish Examiner, 23 July 1973.

[11] https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/victims/docs/group/quaker/quaker_report_07.pdf

[12] http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/225/Quaker-House-Belfast-1982-2010

Members Involved

YEAR: 1830

Location: Frederick Street