Quakers in West Cork

Posted on: 10th October, 2016

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

ABOVE: Quaker couple Bev Cotton and Miriam O’Donovan

Since their foundation in the 17th century by George Fox, the ‘Religious Society of Friends’, or Quakers, as they have come to be known as, have been encouraged to walk cheerfully over the world, answering to ‘that of God’ in everyone.

The central basis of Quakerism is the belief that each person can make direct contact with God, which led Quakers or ‘Friends’ to reject the need for clergy.

“There is no hierarchy, no ministers, no preaching, no creed, no gospel, none of that. It’s for each person, him or herself, to be responsible for the health of their own spiritual life,” explains Quaker Miriam O’Donovan to Mary O’Brien. “You seek ‘that of God’ in everybody and try to find that point of connection in everybody.”

Quaker meetings last for an hour in silent worship or occasional spontaneous ministry.

“If you feel moved by the Spirit or if there is something, even just a thought, that you really want to share, you might stand up and communicate this to the group. Everyone present will reflect on what was said. Someone else might be moved to say something, or no one might speak at all for the entire hour,” says Miriam.

Miriam and her husband Bev Cotton are members of the West Cork Quaker group, which meets once a month in Skibbereen. The couple has been attending meetings since they were both students at Oxford University.

“I was in my late 20s, happily married but wrestling with the world; busy with a small child, a job and my studies – I felt there was something missing from my life but I just couldn’t put my finger on it,” says Miriam.

“Every day, I walked past the Quaker meeting house on St Giles at Oxford with my daughter Phoebe in the pram. They had nice notices on the window and you could see that they were very involved in the community. One day I popped into their shop and got talking to this really lovely woman, an elderly Quaker and Elder of the Meeting.”

Miriam really liked what the woman had to say and started attending Quaker meetings.

“It was like taking a beautiful cool drink of water when I was in a very parched place in my life,” she reflects.

“I needed a space in my life where I could just sit down and reflect on how I was living it.”

Of course there is more to the Quaker faith than attending meetings. Quakerism is about the way you live your life in the community.

The work of Quakers during the Great Irish Famine has become a model for a wide range of Quaker action and relief work since then, to this day.

Many Quakers have been prominently involved in Oxfam from its foundation, and Quaker values influenced the way the organisation conducted relief work from the outset.

In May 1942, Quaker Edith Pye established a national Famine Relief Committee and encouraged the setting up of a network of local famine relief committees.

The campaigning work of the Famine Relief committees – during and after World War II – helped pave the way for the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949, governing the protection of civilians in wartime.

“It’s about going the extra distance,” says Miriam who, in her local community, has co-founded the Clonakilty Favour Exchange and was involved in setting up the ‘Incredible Edible’ project in West Cork. Miriam is also a passionate campaigner for disability rights in Ireland.

“I feel Quakerism has taken me outside my own personal concerns, encouraged me to lead a more participative life.

There’s a great social aspect to that as well of course. Your interaction with others tends to be around the doing of practical things in the community and you make great friends.”

Quakerism was first brought to Cork by Elizabeth Smith and Elizabeth Fletcher in 1655. William Penn (1644 – 1718), the founder of Pennsylvania, started his life as a Quaker in Cork.

According to David Butler’s book ‘The Quaker Meeting House of Ireland’ there were Quaker meetings in Kinsale, Bandon, Castle Salem and Skibbereen. The Bandon meeting house (1655 – 1807) was sold and partly demolished in 1807. In Skibbereen, meetings were held from 1694 – 1730. Kinsale meetings took place from 1655 – 1751 and meetings were held at Castle Salem from 1704 – 1730.

Along with other non-conformists, early Quakers were persecuted, even imprisoned, for their beliefs.

Quakers were excluded from universities, professions such as medicine or law were not open to them, and they were debarred from many public and civic offices.

Many Quakers took up professions in trade or industry, where they often prospered due to their basic integrity.

By the 19th century, Quakers were predominantly middle and upper-middle class tradesmen, merchants and bankers.

“Quakers introduced the price tags on products,” say Miriam. “A fair price for a fair product.” Although their success in business went against their spiritual belief in living a simple life, many Quakers channelled their wealth into philanthropic works.

Well-known Irish businesses founded by Quakers include Jacob’s Biscuits and Bewley’s Tea and Coffee.

An application for formal membership of the Society is not made until you have attended a number of meetings and become thoroughly immersed in the Quaker worship and familiar with the principles.

“People usually attend meetings for a number of years before applying to become ’Friends’,” says Miriam, who joined after five years. “It’s a very easy and friendly process.”

“I’m not at all a natural Quaker,” says Miriam. “I don’t have that sense of calm and reflection that is a typical Quaker. I get very passionate about things. But I need this, perhaps more than most. I find that being a ‘Friend’ speaks to my condition and I feel compelled to try and overcome my failings. I don’t always succeed; I probably fail more often than not. But I find it enormously helpful.”

The West Cork Quaker Group Meeting for Worship is on the last Sunday of each month at 11pm in the Family Resource Centre, Field’s Car Park, Skibbereen. All welcome to attend.

There is also a meeting scheduled to take place on the second Tuesday of each month at 6pm at the Bantry Christian Fellowship Church, The Square, Bantry but check the website in case of cancellation or postponement.

For more information go to www.westcorkquakers.com.

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