KINDRED LINES

Published in Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2016), Volume 24

Quaker records in Ireland

By Fiona Fitzsimons

Above: Aquatint engraving of an original painting by John Bluck of an early nineteenth-century Quaker Meeting.

Above: Aquatint engraving of an original painting by John Bluck of an early nineteenth-century Quaker Meeting.

In the 1650s and ’60s the Quakers, emerging as one of the more radical Dissenter groups, began to migrate to Ireland. They sought converts among the Irish population, many of whom were of English descent and spoke the English language. The Restoration (1660) transformed the Quaker religion. They set aside millenarian beliefs and developed a long-term strategy for the survival of their faith community in the world. Their refusal to take oaths excluded Quakers from public office, the universities and hence the professions. They turned a minus into a plus and engaged in business—trade and manufacturing.

After 1660 Ireland became a hub of the Quaker diaspora as it moved across the Atlantic. Quaker Meetings exchanged letters through which they developed confidence and a coherent identity. The letters wove a ‘web of community’ between Ireland and England that extended into North America.

Between the 1660s and the early nineteenth century the Quakers in Ireland spread out beyond the cities and established Meetings in more remote districts. The structure of Meetings in Ireland and England was similar, with some differences—Ireland had provincial Meetings, for example.

The Quakers were excellent record-keepers and, unusually, in Ireland their entire archival collection survives. The Irish Quaker Collection currently comprises over 1.5 million records collected from monthly Quaker Meetings after 1660. The collection includes births, marriages, deaths, removals, sufferings, disownments and testimonials, school records, etc. The rich detail in these records allow family and social historians to understand the fabric of these people’s lives, as a ‘middling’ community in Ireland.

Birth, marriage and death records are self-explanatory and require little further description, beyond saying that the Meeting attended is always recorded. Quaker marriages include a list of those attending the wedding: immediate family appear in the left-hand column. Marriage records are a useful way to construct ‘kith and kin’—the core social group. Death records include parents’ and spouses’ names, and dates and place of burial. Congregational records provide names, addresses and the date of Meetings, and can be used as a census substitute to trace your ancestor. To the family historian, however, the most useful records are disownments and resignations, testimonials and sufferings.

The Quakers established their own norms of behaviour: they didn’t observe holy days; didn’t doff their caps; used ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ (which in the early modern age was reserved as an intimate form of address); and refused to pay tithes to the Established Church. Disownments and resignations include records of Quakers expelled for deviating from accepted behaviour, but also includes records of Quakers who went before their Meeting to acknowledge their errors and remain as Friends. Testimonials are positive statements of support used when a Quaker joined a different Meeting, or were sometimes used in parallel with disownments.

Sufferings detail the Quakers’ own records of what they perceived as state interference in their freedoms. The greater number of these concern non-payment of tithes. Removals include migration within Ireland and the British Isles, and transatlantic migration. These records detail the individual’s name, age and occupation; their address in the country of origin and the Meeting attended; the date of migration; their destination address and the Meeting they intended to join; and the names, addresses and relationship of their closest blood relatives.

Records for all Meetings in the area corresponding to the Republic of Ireland have been digitised, indexed and published on-line on findmypast.com. Currently, digitisation for the Meetings in Northern Ireland is being completed and will be published on-line by the end of this year. The earliest Meeting book for Dublin was separated from the main collection and is now held in the National Archives of Ireland. The Adventurers 1642–59, Cal. State Papers Ireland series, contains records of land grants in Ireland during the Commonwealth and includes grants to Quakers.

Fiona Fitzsimons is a director of Eneclann, a Trinity campus company, and of findmypast Ireland.

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