From the Independent

Ireland's Quakers may keep a low profile, but their contribution to the shape of modern Ireland shouldn't be underestimated. And this group, like so many others, is using the Gathering to celebrate their remarkable history.

The Society of Friends or Quakers made a crucial contribution to business and economic development in this country. In the early part of the 19th century over 8,000 people were employed in Quaker-owned industries in the town of Mountmellick, Co Laois in brewing, milling, textiles, tanning and engineering. Indeed, the town became known as the 'Manchester of Ireland'. This link with the Irish business sector remains strong and many Quaker names are still prominent in trading circles, including such stalwarts of the scene as Jacobs, Odlum, Pim, Goodbody and Bewley. 

Even more important is the peace and reconciliation work done by the Quakers in the North from the beginning of the Troubles, and before that the heroic relief work undertaken during the Great Famine. 

At the height of the Famine in 1846, Quakers were instrumental in setting up soup kitchens, providing seeds for planting and promoting the fishing industry. Irish Friends set up a Central Relief Committee in Dublin, with members from Belfast, Waterford, and Limerick distributing clothing and over 36,000lbs of seeds to sow 10,000 acres along with tools for farming and fishing. 

By 1852 the Quakers had helped 40,000 people and handled £100,000 in aid, the equivalent of €10million in today's money. Some of the money was used to help emigration to Canada and America. In the North the Quakers were among the earliest activists in pursuit of peace and reconciliation. After the introduction of internment the Ulster Quaker Service Committee set up the Visitors' Centre in the Maze prison. 

The service included a minibus to help families of prisoners with transport difficulties. In 1980 'Quaker Cottage' was opened on a site in Black Mountain, west of Belfast and developed into a cross-community support group working with mothers and children up to 11 years of age from mixed communities. 

In 1982 Quaker House was opened in Belfast as a joint project of British and Irish Friends to provide an informal, relaxed atmosphere where men and women with differing viewpoints could listen to one another. According to Christopher Moriarty, the work of the Quakers in the North was their most important work in Ireland in the 20th Century, "We will never know how many lives we saved," he said. 

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