Methodists in the Great Irish Famine



In the vast quantity of literature which has been produced concerning the Great Irish Famine there is hardly any mention of Methodists. The immediate reason for this is that they are not generally identified as such in the records to which historians have generally turned to for information about the calamity. The underlying reasons for this are threefold. They generally lacked the economic resources of the Society of Friends, and so did not establish relief projects on the same scale. What help they gave was not the subject of controversy akin to the charge of “souperism” levelled at the Church of Ireland. As a body they did not address appeals to central government. Those were the things that tended to be recorded; Methodists worked in other ways.

Methodism had been introduced into Ireland in the years 1745/47, during which years Methodist societies were formed in Dublin. In 1748 they began to expand through the Irish provinces, maintaining their character as religious societies within the Established Church (Church of Ireland). Through the early years of the 19th century the link with the Establishment came under increasing strain, and in the years 1816 / 18 resulted in a split among the societies. One third of the membership (mostly in the area around Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh) seceded from the parent body, and formed the Primitive Wesleyan Methodist Society, seeking to maintain the relationship with the parish churches. The parent body, now called Wesleyan Methodists, recognised that the relationship had effectively ceased, and they were a separate denomination.

In 1845 there were 43,340 Methodists in Ireland, according to the Minutes of the two governing Conferences. The Wesleyan Conference recorded 27,926, and the Primitive Wesleyan Conference, 15,414. For a number of reasons not many of these were at the lowest income level, the level most affected by the Great Famine. John Wesley, the Founder of Methodism, was an Englishman, a priest of the Church of England, and preached in English. Most of his early preachers in Ireland were English. For that reason the largely Irish-speaking Catholic people thought of his message as addressed to his own people. The greatest number of converts were drawn from people of English, Huguenot, or German descent, living in Ireland. These were quite often small tradesmen, but with a tendency to rise up the economic scale. Only in the 1800’s, when the preachers began to use Irish more extensively, did the Methodist preachers begin to make any great impression on the Irish peasantry.

Many of those they then converted emigrated, either because of the hostility of the neighbours whose faith they had deserted, or because they were the sort of people who not only saw advantage in changing their religious practice, but also in moving to a newly developing country.

The exception to this general rule was to be found in the Fermanagh, Tyrone, Armagh area, where the Methodists recruited largely from among the labouring classes. The county of Fermanagh and some parts of the adjoining counties had 15% of the total Wesleyan membership, while no less than 39.58% of the Primitive Wesleyan membership was to be found in the same area. It was in this area that Methodism suffered its severest losses in the famine years. Both Conferences met in June, so that statistics did not then relate to calendar years. !n 1846/47 the Wesleyans in this region sustained 28.22% of the total Wesleyan loss for the year. The Clones circuit alone lost 43.6% of its membership. The Primitive Wesleyans in the same general region lost 20.79% of their membership in the same year, 51.17% of the total Primitive Wesleyan loss.

These cold statistics are given a measure of depth by the curious footnote in the Primitive Wesleyan Minutes of 1847:

“N.B. With regard to the diminution of our numbers, when we consider the losses sustained by death and emigration, and how many of our poorer members were obliged to take refuge in the workhouses, together with those who are prevented from attending the means of grace for want of clothing, we feel cause of great thankfulness that our Society has been in such a state of prosperity.”

It sounds a strange prosperity!

Throughout the period there is evidence of continued recruitment, either by natural increase, or by evangelisation, but only the Wesleyans record the number of emigrations. It is therefore, impossible to calculate accurately the number of Methodists who perished. A figure of 4,000 would not be far wrong. That would be nearly 10% of the total membership in 1845.

In 1847 John Wherry was appointed Book Steward of the Primitive Wesleyan Methodist Conference. This made him responsible for the publication of their magazine, which appeared bimonthly. Prior to his appointment, while still in charge of the Charlemont circuit, he had begun a series of articles under the title, Thoughts on the Present Crisis. This series he continued; it comprised three articles in all.

In the first article Wherry sought to find reasons for the calamity. In the fashion of the time, he sought this, not in scientific analysis, but in theological thought. He saw it as a visitation of God on an erring people, and selected four particular matters for condemnation. The first was the greed for wealth. The second was what he called agricultural development without a sense of dependence on God. In this he was no doubt expressing the conservative objection to new farming methods which he saw as unnatural. The third was the growth of violence in the community, in the form of agrarian outrage. The fourth was the indolence of the Church.

In his second article he set aside theory, and turned to a very practical issue – the workhouses and famine relief. He described and deplored the conditions in the workhouses, and regretted the futile nature of much of the work devised as famine relief. In the final article he dealt with the responsibility of the wealthy to use their means for the relief of the destitute. In all three articles much of what he wrote would have found considerable favour in his Methodist readership.

But, to quote the old Irish proverb, “Níor líon beannacht bolg riamh!” (a blessing never filled a stomach), the most pressing problem was not to find causes of the famine, or to apportion blame, but to find some way of dealing with the situation which had arisen. Methodists tended to give their minds to what lay nearest at hand to do. There is an oral tradition among rural Methodists of the pot of gruel kept ready for any who came by in need of food. Such private assistance may not have been very much, but it did contribute in some measure to the relief of the total distress.

Minutes of the Portadown circuit surviving from the period indicate that the Methodists of the town undertook to give regular assistance to several of their poorest families, and that this assistance continued for several years after the famine. An analysis of the deaths in the local workhouse indicate that few of them were Methodists, and this has been ascribed to the care which the local circuit took of its own members.

James Collier was then the minister in charge of the Wesleyan Methodist circuit at Castlebar. He reported heartrending scenes there, and at Newport and Westport. When the soup kitchen was opened at Castlebar it was arranged that the Catholic Parish Priest, the Church of Ireland Rector and the Methodist Minister should take turns at supervising it. This must be one of the earliest cases of multi‑denominational co‑operation involving Methodists. Writing from elsewhere, William Reilly, one of the best known Methodist ministers of the period, commented that the crowds of people crawling into town made the work of relief almost unbearable, so great was their suffering.

The Irish Methodists did not set up a special agency to deal with the crisis, relying on local ministers and their people to do what they could. English Methodists did establish a special committee, the London Central Relief Committee. Unfortunately the minutes of its proceedings have not come to light. It raised nearly 6,000, a sum approximately equivalent to a quarter of a million. The Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in London gave another 300.

Valuable as was the financial assistance, of much greater value was the activity of compassionate Methodist people as they sought to alleviate the sufferings of their poorer neighbours. We have already noted the care given by the Portadown circuit to its own members and recorded in its minutes. Much more help went unrecorded, and it is impossible to calculate how many Methodists caught typhoid and other fevers from those they were trying to assist, and themselves died. Crookshank, in his History of Methodism in Ireland names two, William Alley of Galway and Thomas Bryan of Dunmanway. However, his mention of them may be due to no more than the chance that he knew them or their families; it does not indicate that they were any more heroic than the others.

An interesting case, illustrating the often mixed motives of those involved, is that of James H. Swanton of Skibbereen. He was a leading Methodist, already beginning to be known outside his native West Cork. In Skibbereen he owned a large mill and imported grain from England and Wales, having for the purpose a small fleet of ships. With Dr. Daniel Donovan, the workhouse physician for West Cork, he devised a scheme to provide free travel for the destitute of the area to England and Wales as his ships returned there empty. Donovan provided them with “sea-stock”. This outraged the British authorities who accused the pair of “shovelling paupers” into England. The Mayor of Newport in Wales impounded one of Swanton’s ships over the business.

Their offence was threefold. In the first place it was an article of political faith at the time that paupers should be relieved in their own parishes, and not transferred to another parish, much less to another country. In the second place, fever broke out among the unfortunate people on the journey, who then carried the infection into Britain. In the third place, there was a suggestion that Donovan was providing the “sea‑stock” out of funds provided by the Government for the relief of the destitute “in situ”.

This would suggest that Swanton was taking risks in one form or another to relieve the distress in West Cork. However, at about the same time, Mr. Bishop, the local Commissariat officer, was sending to Charles Trevelyan a description of the appalling destitution at Caheragh, two miles from Skibbereen, and a letter from Swanton complaining that, because the Relief Committee were undercutting his prices, he could not sell 200 tons of meal.

Before we condemn Swanton for not being willing to donate the meal to relief, it is worth remembering that those who are recorded as having beggared themselves to feed the destitute were usually of the landlord class — resident landlords. They would have been familiar with debt, if not on their own estates, then on those of their neighbours. Swanton was not of their ilk. He had the rising tradesman’s instinct to safeguard his trade, and generosity remained within the limits of affordability.

The death of each Methodist minister is recorded in the Minutes of Conference, and it is therefore possible to count five ministers who died of the fevers they contracted from the starving wretches they were trying to relieve. One was a primitive Wesleyan, William Gunne, a native of Fermanagh, who died at Dundalk in the November of 1846. The other four were Wesleyans. William Richey, from Tyrone, died at Youghal in the July of 1847. William Starkey of Cork died at his native Bandon in the September of 1847, having caught the fever at Kinsale. Fossey Tackaberry of Wexford died at Sligo in the June of 1847.

In Tackaberry’s last letter to his mother he wrote:

“I was driven, on Monday last, to seek shelter for self and horse, from a violent shower, in a poor cabin. In a shed, at the end of it, lay a poor orphan boy of ten years old, who was taken from the the side of his dead brother’s body, in a wood, four days previously. The little wretch soon had his story told:

’His father, a tailor, died five years ago; his mother, soon after, leaving three sons. The eldest, sixteen, went off seeking work, and was not heard of since; the second, aged fourteen, worked in spring and harvest for his bit, but this hard year could get no one to employ him. They begged, but got little for begging, everyone bidding them go away. They became ragged, dirty, sickly-looking; people were afraid they had fever, and would not let them in. They slept under hedges, went into the wood, lay under a holly‑tree; the elder gave all he got to the younger, and lived himself on water‑grass. He soon became weak, and died four days ago.’

This poor child was all but dead when discovered. There he was now in the shed, and the poor man could get no one to take him away; while his own large family were not far from starving.

On Tuesday I hired a car, took cap, shirt, vest, coat, trousers, stockings, boots; comb, scissors, soap, towel, brush. His condition I shall not attempt to describe. I had his hair cut close, and himself washed and brushed with soap and warm water again and again and again; lifted him naked into the cabin, and dressed him from head to foot. His first remark was, “Ah! if anyone had done this for my poor brother, he would not have died.”

I have him at lodging in this town. He is an intelligent little fellow; and, I think, of an affectionate disposition; and I hope Patrick Feeny will soon be able to go out as an errand-boy or servant, if we can procure a place for him. He could not have lived many days in the shed.’”


Unfortunately, it was probably Patrick Feeny who carried the infection to which Tackaberry himself succumbed. He was dead within three weeks, just twenty-six days before his own son, Henry, was born.

Of the subsequent history of Patrick Feeny we have no knowledge.

: Rev. D. A. Levistone Cooney, Superintendent Minister, Adare and Ballingrane Circuit, Adare , County Limerick.



Published in The Green Dragon No 3, June 1997

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