In and Out the Meeting House

David Butler, Britain Yearly Meeting

A talk delivered at Ireland Yearly Meeting 2004. David is the author and illustrator of the definitive book on Quaker Meeting Houses in Ireland, past and present, which is about to be published.

These remarks are lightly-connected incidents in Quaker life, mostly from Ireland, gleaned from a life-time spent looking at meeting houses and reading about them, and from a mere five years enjoying Irish meeting houses. They include many small events, few of which one would wish to make permanent, but which I thought you might like to hear before they sink back into the sands.

I would like to start by looking at one aspect which is uniquely Irish. This concerns the esteem in which earlier Irish Friends were held. In Britain, Friends were persecuted for many years by the government, town officers, and all and sundry with the common intention that the movement should be totally destroyed. Here, though, Friends were part of the Protestant minority, whose support the government needed in order to maintain its supremacy. Thus Friends found themselves in a position of political privilege which they had done nothing to earn, and at a time when political action was anathema to them. As a result, Friends here were to some degree protected from government-led persecution, including the particularly vicious ‘Conventicle Acts’. They were, however, still open to other trials, such as demands for tithes and church rates, and to the independent actions of local government.

This situation led to a perception of Friends, which appeared not at all in Britain. It shows in the way that Friends were sought by landlords and businessmen who were not Quakers. A travelling minister wrote by 1750 how Friends in Ireland stood in this respect. ‘..Many considerable men in this country, that have great quantities of land to set, do very much covet to have Friends for their tenants, for many of our Friends have been so diligent and industrious, and have made such fine improvements upon the farms that they have taken, and have also been so punctual in paying their rents, that they are much respected by their landlords..’. This was an enviable reputation.

At the very early date of 1680, the Earl of Mountrath wanted Friends to settle on his land. He knew how to attract them: he offered them a site in the town for a meeting house. The town flourished, and Mountrath grew to become a considerable meeting. Forty years on, a new meeting house was needed, one hopes because the old one was out-grown. This time that same family gave Friends another plot, quite large and very central, on which a new meeting house was built, to be replaced by a larger one another forty years on. Three people present here today have stood in that very building. We return to Mountrath later.

In 1721 a group of Quakers moved to Newport on the west coast of Connaught, where Captain Pratt had established a linen weaving works a few years before. I suppose that they were invited direct by the Captain. So this small group of Quaker families upped sticks and moved right across Ireland from Ulster, to start a new life.

However, all did not go well, either for the proprietor or for the settlers. For the Friends, they were too far from the support of any nearby meeting, and one wonders whether the mill was too far away from its markets. So it was that twenty years later they had to leave Newport and make their livelihood elsewhere. They moved half-way home again, and settled at Ballymurry, which was still a long way from the Monthly Meeting of Moate. In Newport they had met in their homes, but they left behind a burial ground, of which nothing at all is now known locally. On our visit to Newport, Ross Chapman enquired at the village supermarket for the local historian. We were at once told: ‘…here she comes through the door now…’, a very happy coincidence. She did her best to help us, but her small local history group could find no residual recollection of our former presence in Newport. So this is one of several of our burial grounds now wholly lost to us.

At Ballymurry they joined another small group of Friends from Sligo, who had gone there a few years before, and between them they built a meeting house. Ross took me to see it a while ago, when it was in a precarious state, at risk from a nearby tree. It was a neat small building, with arched openings for door and windows. It made an unusually attractive country meeting house, pictorially diminished by its current use as a cattle-shed.

The very early country meeting at Ballyhagan in Ulster had a mud and thatch meeting house, which stood on land rented from the Archbishop of Armagh. In 1744 the then archbishop renewed Friends’ lease of the site for �30 a year, which to me seems a lot of money for not very much. However, at the same time he signed a new document remitting the rent during his lifetime, because he thought ‘…the inhabitants of Ballyhagan, being of the Quaker persuasion, were persons of quiet and good behaviour ‘. What better reason for foregoing the rent?

Sadly for the meeting, he lived only two years more, and we do not know how his successor felt towards Friends. I only found this interesting document by accident. Sadly, it was not known to George Chapman, when he wrote his account of Ballyhagan and Richhill meetings in 1979. I am sure he would have enjoyed it, and he would have been able to read more into it than I could. Much later, Ballyhagan meeting decided to move into the nearby town of Richhill. The proprietor of that town thought that the presence of Friends would enhance his estate. Therefore, to encourage them, he offered a good large site for a new meeting house, which is still in use.

The landlords from whom Friends obtained land for their meeting houses and burial grounds were in a strong position, as almost all early Quaker sites were leased, not bought. They had a strong influence on what was built in their territory, and some defined the nature and quality of the building materials and the form that the building took. A good deal of watchfulness, time and energy was needed when a lease was due for renewal, so as to preserve the continuity of the meeting. Then when Friends ceased to use the meeting house, it was usually surrendered to him. In a way, this may have been beneficial to Friends, as they were thus relieved of the burden of caring for empty property.

I have mentioned our enquiries for the missing burial ground at Newport. The search for lost Quaker sites can be a very satisfying and enjoyable experience. I was in a small market town where I knew there had been a meeting house, but just whereabouts was it, and did anything remain? So I stood in the market place, looking for the right person to ask. ‘Excuse me, sir, have you lived here very long?’ ‘Seventy years or so, will that do, young man?’ (this was a year or two ago). And it did too, spot on. He showed me where to find the bright little building which was now used by an evangelical church, in good order and unmistakably recognisable for what it had once been.

Another visit took me to a small country village, at noon on a hot summer day. Total silence, nobody moving, no-one to ask. At last a man appeared, who knew just what I wanted. He took me to a garden that he looked after, and showed me all that remained of the meeting house. This was a single slab of stone lying in the lawn. You might think that it would have been disappointing to find so little, but not at all. The stone had been the threshold of a corrugated iron hall, which has long since rusted away. It had been preserved by its present owner in remembrance of past service, just as he had re-named his old house Quaker Cottage. The meeting house in which my guide once worshipped, had been erected for one of the several mission meetings in that part of Herefordshire. So here I got not only the meeting house, but the story too. Incidentally, the only corrugated iron meeting houses I have come across in Ireland were at Rathfriland and Drumgask. The former was still in very good order when I last saw it. They were quick and cheap to erect, and were very well suited to mission meetings. At home, there was once a great vogue for tin tabernacles for all denominations. You bought them from a catalogue, along with sea-side cabins and veranda’d bungalows for tea-planters in India.

More recently, on a tour with Glynn and Ross, we were in a town in mid-Ireland. We knew there had once been a meeting house there. We knew nothing of its appearance, but we did know roughly where it had stood, and there we stood too, beside a derelict old building on which workmen were beavering away, an unprepossessing place. But this was exactly what we sought. The meeting house had been almost destroyed by fire some time before, and was now being rebuilt as a workshop. Had we been there a day earlier, we would not have been able to see inside it; a day later, and there would have been nothing of the meeting house left. As we watched, the workmen were concealing the remaining Quaker features beneath fresh plaster. So by that happy timing the latest of the three meeting houses at Mountrath is recorded in the book much more fully than it might have been, and with a survey too, to our great satisfaction.

Elsewhere, the meeting house has been altered by other users before I could get there. One was that great warren at Eustace Street, where Glynn Douglas and I tramped along countless corridors and small staircases, no doubt well-known to you, but an exploration to me. The Irish Film Institute has made many beneficial changes which give light and colour and new interest to the old place, and they have put up a splendid new glass roof to the yard, exposing to view the old brick walls around it. Now it very properly looks like the covered yard it one was. My only real problem was that the large meeting room had been completely blacked-out, which made it difficult to take photographs. The manager of the institute was very helpful and tolerant of the pair of us wandering around, he seemed to be very pleased with the premises, which was good to know.

Looking for old Quaker burial grounds is another matter altogether. As Friends did not use headstones for so many years, how do you know when you have arrived? I have spent hours driving around country lanes, only to end up looking at the corner of a field which had absolutely no distinguishing features, neither headstones nor grave-mounds. I was assured that this was it, but was it worth the petrol? What a delight it was then, in very remote mountainous mid-Wales, to find a gate bearing a cast iron plaque reading Quaker Burial Ground 1687, just where I thought it should be.

The response of local people to our old sites is an interesting matter, as we have found several times on our travels. At rural Quaker sites, its neighbours with whom we spoke showed no interest whatever in the ruins of the building, but they cared much for the disused burial ground beside it. It was as if they regarded the latter as part of their local history, perhaps too it was part of their own family history. And everywhere, so often, I have found that people enjoy sharing with strangers what they have at their own back door.

Let us turn now to the interesting question of who is in your meeting house. We may think we know, but do we? At one level are the people we put there ourselves. For example, Friends have never relied on the local poor law system, the workhouse nor whatever, but always made their own arrangements. This applied particularly to the poor of the meeting, its elderly and widows, who were housed in the meeting house at the expense, and at the inconvenience, of the meeting. ‘Put into the meeting house’ was exactly what so often happened, not into somewhere near it.

In 1692 a meeting which had so housed a poor widow Friend, was getting rather tired of it all. ‘…The widow French is to be acquainted that Friends are troubled to see that she does not put things out of sight during the meeting time, such as her pots and things on the shelves and cheeses on the beams which are for all to see..’. To add insult to injury her children ran up and down stairs during meeting time. Let us stop there for a moment. Pots and things are the least that may have to be accepted in a dwelling, but cheeses on the beams? And anyway, how many cheeses would a widow have at one time? And what beams are there in a small meeting house? The only likely one is the tie-beam of the roof truss, but this would usually be out of reach. Can you see the widow French hopping up on a bench with her carving-knife, to slice off a hunk of cheese for her supper? It looks to me as if some Friends were getting it all rather out of proportion.

Under another meeting house was a cellar where the meeting allowed Sarah Lyne to live, but soon after she arrived, the Prepartive Meting could not make a decision, and the Clerk had to write one of those minutes, we’d all rather not: ‘ was agreed by the meeting that Eleanor White with her child do inhabit the meeting house with Sarah Lyne, as they two can best contrive..’. Just imagine, Sarah thought she was settled for life, but here was this young child, running up and down stairs. It is little wonder that, not long afterwards, Friends were whitewashing that bit of the meeting room itself where ‘Ellen White’s bed did used to stand’. So she had moved out of the cellar, and the meeting had to put up with her bed, as well as her pots and things.

The larger Irish meetings made good provision for their poor, particularly at Dublin and Cork, but not, so far as I have found, in the meeting house itself. My examples are from Britain, but I an sure that others will be found eventually, tucked away in the Monthly Meeting minute books held at Swanbrook and Lisburn.

Think of Dublin meeting house many years ago. The site was still being acquired in bits and pieces. It had no street frontage, but was entirely surrounded by neighbours, all of whom it seemed were intent on making the most of the opportunity this offered. It was thus a source of endless problems for the meeting, and especially for those Friends who had the care of it.

In those days the meeting house was reached from Sycamore Alley by a long covered passage. In 1712 a neighbour, without asking, made a doorway from his dwelling into this passage. He then complained when he and his lodgers were inconvenienced by the presence in it of a wholly unauthorised ‘mohair twister’ who carried on his trade in the same passage. ‘Twisting’ was much the same as ‘spinning’. The job could I suppose be carried out wherever the twister was comfortable, out of the wind and the rain, and preferably free of rent. He was still at it over a year later, when ‘..David Newlands, the twister, promises to leave the passage after he had finished the work on hand..’: a pretty cheeky response from a trespasser.

Soon afterwards, David had penetrated further into the meeting’s territory: ‘…the young man is not to twist mohair in the meeting house, and the women are not to suffer women to hang out clothes to dry in the meeting house yard, and Nicholas Carter is to get a good lock on the door that opens from the alley, to keep the boys out..’. Nothing changes. More still was needed; and at about this time ‘..a lock is to be put on the door of the waste ground at the back of Sycamore Alley meeting house [where you used to park your cars] to prevent the rabble annoying Friends on their 6th day meetings..’. The key was held by the woman who kept the coffee house on Sycamore Alley, she was a tenant of the meeting. This was surely handy for the coachman, who could pop in to revive himself after he had parked the coach [I was told afterwards that this might have been an early Bewley coffee-shop]. But enough of Dublin.

Country meetings were not exempt, and among them Wexford has a rather memorable story. Firstly, the meeting’s caretaker managed to acquire squatter’s rights over the burial ground. Granted, the meeting had used it only twice in a century and a half, so perhaps not many members even knew that they had one. But it was not remote, it lay within the town walls, and one would like to think that one of them might have noticed. You can just hear the caretaker being helpful and saying ‘..don’t you worry, Friends, I’ll see to it for you..’. Now a Catholic Church stands on the spot.

But there is more. The same meeting closed for half a century around 1800, and shortly after, while the old building was thought to be standing empty, Monthly Meeting was told ‘ appears that the Methodists have had meetings for some time in Wexford meeting house, without the consent of Friends..’. One supposes that Friends would not have objected, but it would have been nice to have been asked. A while later the new meeting house was built on the same site, which Clive Allen and I visited. We were glad to see that it was in very good hands, well used and much valued, as the rehearsal hall for the local Loch Garman brass band.

Incidentally there are other meeting houses which now accommodate music. One is at Clara, erected by the Goodbody family a century and a half ago, and which still stands, virtually unaltered. This is an elegant little meeting house in a rather sombre formal setting, justly described as ‘an Italianate pavilion surrounded by yew trees’. It is now used by the Clara Musical Society as its meeting room. And I am sure that the great meeting room in the old Waterford meeting house, now the arts centre just down the road from here, has echoed to all sorts of music. And echo it might once have, for when it was first built the acoustics were terrible, and the remedy proposed at the time was expressed in a rather opaque minute. This present use of some of our former meeting houses for music is rather ironic, given the testimony of Friends past against music in their lives and in their worship.

Minutes of a meeting can also be rewarding. Take this one from Cork, and dates from the time when the New Building Committee was preparing Friends to accept the idea of having a new meeting house. It was trying, perhaps rather too hard, to make a good case. ‘We your committee, having taken into consideration the state of the premises, not only in reference to the leaky and decaying state of the roofs, the bad state of the window frames and sashes and other parts of the timber work’ and so on and on. The building committee got its way, of course, but at the cost of rubbishing the reputation of the entire premises committee, under whose care the building had been until that time. So that splendid meeting house was built, which still stands.

Over the years I have read through dozens of journals and memoirs of travelling Quaker ministers. Some scarcely notice where they are, and recount only their spiritual journey. Others were very aware of where they stood, and tell us of local circumstances of all sorts, people, agriculture, scenery or the state of the roads and of the inns. What they really liked was to be at the first meeting in a new meeting house, which is very useful to me, as it gives a fairly reliable date for a sometimes hazy event.

It is salutary to follow them as they went through the country. Some made a point of visiting every meeting in their chosen area, some would stop for several days while they visited, or ‘sat with’, every family in that meeting, ‘speaking to their condition’, this was a daunting service. Some, who had been delicately brought up in comfortable Victorian homes in England, chose to comment with regularity on the mud floors which they found here so often. I can think of no feature in Ireland that gets such regular comment. One was Martha Braithwaite of Oxfordshire, who was an experienced traveller in the ministry. Of a meeting at Cabra, she wrote in 1850 how ‘we sat down in the little room built for the purpose. The cottage to which the meeting room adjoins, has mud floors, and those in deep holes’. Incidentally, this quotation, short as it is, tells us rather more than we would have otherwise known about Cabra meeting house.

The effort required of a ministering Friend to get around could be daunting, and not merely the physical effort. William Forster was an English Friend, never physically strong, who travelled much in Ireland in 1813. When he found himself led to travel further west than he had already been, he wrote ‘in looking forward towards proceeding into the counties of Mayo and Galway, the mind is in unutterable conflict, I tremble at the idea of penetrating further into the cloud’ of darkness, bigotry and superstition.

The difficulties that Quakers experienced in integrating with the local population is illustrated by the experience of the same man. He reported in 1814 the experience of a family with whom he stayed briefly in the course of his travels. ‘…I readily accompanied my kind Friends, Samuel and Deborah Neale, to Newington. They have a noble mansion in a beautiful demesne, and afford a valuable specimen of Irish hospitality; but they live in the midst of the most undesirable neighbours. I think there are but one or two Protestant families beside themselves in the parish..’. I do not suppose for a moment that this is the whole story, but this is the message which was thought right to publish at the time.

On a more agreeable note, the Grand Canal was used much by Friends, and the company laid on special boats for those attending Quarterly Meetings. An American visitor commented of her journey on one of the boats: ‘…it was a very easy way of travelling, they cook on board, the dinner and accommodation are equal to a hotel..’. She, of course, was travelling in the first-class cabin.

These travellers reported disasters too as they found them, but always in a very quiet and urbane tone of voice. For instance, in 1803 a long-disused old English meeting house was opened up at the request of a minister, Thomas Shillotoe, and the place was crowded. ‘While I was on my feet, engaged in addressing the assembly, a circumstance occurred which, for a short time, broke in upon the solemnity that the meeting was thus favoured with. The main beam of the upper gallery, which was crowded with people, and crowded underneath, on a sudden gave a loud crack, and broke short off at one end. My feelings of dread for a short time for those who were under the gallery were much excited. But none of our company sustained any injury except from fright. The people, such as could, coming into the meeting house again, and the meeting settling down quietly, we closed under a precious sense that Holy help had been near to us during our sitting together’. Who would put like that nowadays? Thomas Shillitoe was a great man for following his guide, even in the most daunting service, he spent some time in Ireland, where he found himself required to visit every gin-shop in Dublin..

Another Friend who travelled widely in Ireland was Thomas Story, a lawyer from Cumberland. Thomas became well-known in Ireland as he was brother of the Dean of Limerick, so that despite himself he drew large numbers wherever he went in that city. The meetings he called were crowded, by people with quite false expectations, to his great embarrassment. He had the rather agreeable and inclusive way of calling his brother’s wife ‘his sister’. You can’t do that nowadays, you have to get it right. He went to the deanery with a company of Friends, where they met a company of churchmen. He commented of this visit: ‘no offence or occasion was given or taken on any hand, but all was free and friendly. And my sister being a person of excellent natural temper, and very discreet. we were fully and kindly entertained’. His visits were not always so easy.

Thomas Chalkley’s first encounter with Ireland, was by being nearly shipwrecked on the west coast. He traded between Philadelphia, England and the West Indies, and held meetings wherever he landed: Barbados, Bermuda, St Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat and Antigua. The list reminds me of my stamp-collecting days. Most travelling ministers did either one thing or the other, Thomas was very conscious of his duties, divided between his family and the Lord. ‘…My business at no time hindered me in my more weighty service. My hand, when need required, was to my business, but my heart was, and I hope is, and ever shall be, freely given up to serve the Lord…’.

Local memory of the former presence of Friends could be fickle. There had been a regular meeting at Sligo until 1717. Eighty years later, Mary Dudley arrived there after a journey, as she comments, of seventy miles, for Sligo alone. She reported that she was given a ready reception by the people, but that she found no recollection at all of the former Quaker presence there. But she continued: ‘…my very soul cleaves to some of the inhabitants of Sligo, and the remembrance of having been there is precious, whether any fruit may appear or not..’.

And upon that thought, I would like to close.

Copyright David M Butler, iii 2003