A Story of Irish Quakers, the Famine and Pennsylvania

The Quakers - also known as "The Society of Friends" had a little-known point of origin in Ireland. Read on to find out more.

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A Story of Irish Quakers, the Famine and Pennsylvania

I looked up the letters from this time last year (to see if the sun actually shone anytime in the past), and I came across a letter titled: – Religion in Ireland, A Methodical Approach – it got me thinking about religion in Ireland.

One of our readers, Noni Morrison, was on sharing the story of one of her Mahoney ancestors:

I don’t think I mentioned my husband’s line of Mahoney’s when I first joined. They left from Dublin around 1800.  Next place I remember that they were was in Tennessee, working in the lumber industry. Within a few generations at least they were Quaker and intermarrying with  other Quaker families form Ireland.

I am wondering if perhaps being Quakers  had something to do with the immigrant Mahoney?  This was in the time that  the Quaker religion was very strong here, but within another generation or so they mostly became Methodists, following the rise and fall of interest in religion across America’s frontiers. Anything more you can tell us about this would be of great interest.

The first thing I can say, Noni, is that your Mahoney/O’Mahony ancestor may have left from Dublin – but at one stage, they were certainly living in County Cork where O’Mahony is one of the major names.

Across the other side of County Cork – on the east side, you will also find an area associated with this religious movement known as the “Religious Society of Friends”, but mostly known to us today as “The Quakers”. How about the rest of our readers – do any of your ancestors have ties to The Quakers? Do leave a comment below and let me know.

While your ancestors may not have been associated with the Quakers, I know that many of them left Ireland in the aftermath of the Great Famine of the 1840s. The authorities of the day dithered in their reaction to the crop failures and starvation, first denying – then insisting, that starving and weakened people take part in labour projects to “earn” their food. All decisions with catastrophic consequences.

The Quakers of east Cork and west Waterford had a more pragmatic approach – they felt that a starving person needed food, and quickly at that. They set up a number of soup stations, keeping whole families alive. They had no agenda, no expectations in return – merely doing what they felt was their moral duty, to help another fellow human in distress. As a result, there are many commemorative plaques recalling the support of the “Society of Friends” in this part of the country.

Blog Waterford Quakers

Commemorative Plaque in Ring, County Waterford.

The Religious Society of Friends (later known as the Quakers), were founded in England about 1647AD, and established a power base in the north of that country. They arrived over to the north of Ireland about 1654 AD, and spread to various parts of the country – often attracting disaffected English soldiers and their families who inhabited the various barracks across the island.

One Quaker You May Be Familiar With. 

And now we travel back to County Cork. If you go to the small village of Shanagarry in East Cork today, you will find the fine ruins of Shanagarry Castle. A certain young gentleman by the name of William Penn was schooled in this house by a Quaker tutor of the name John Loe. He was fifteen at the time, and Loe apparently left a large impression on the man who went on to found the colony of Pennsylvania.

blog shanagarry

The Remains of Shanagarry Castle Today.

When his father, Admiral William Penn, later became ill –  young William Penn returned to Ireland to manage the family estate. While there, he started to attend Quaker meetings and finally joined the Quakers in Cork at the age of 22. His family were furious at this decision, and he was disinherited of land and title.

However, over the next number of years – Penn’s father had a change of heart as he witnessed his son’s moral stand and resoluteness through his missionary work – as well as a series of arrests and imprisonments. While close to death, William Penn senior managed to get the Crown agree to protect young William, in return for his own dedicated service down through the decades.

In the late 1670s, William Penn junior proposed a mass emigration of Quakers from England to a “Quaker region” in the colonies of North America. The Quakers, under the leadership of Penn, purchased, and were granted about 45,000 square miles of land in the colony of West Jersey. The region was renamed first to “New Wales”, but then was changed by King Charles II to the name “Pennsylvania”, in honour of William Penn senior. And so began Penn’s “Holy Experiment” in the new province of Pennsylvania.

Penn went about “selling” the new colony to prospective settlers, and attracted many from many of the persecuted minorities across the countries of Europe – Mennonites, Catholics, Huguenots, Jews and Lutherans. He aimed to set up an ethical society that was built on a solid legal framework.

I won’t write much more on the history of this new province – as I am sure there are many readers here who would do a better job!

But, let’s go back to Noni’s Mahoney ancestor from the top of this letter. When her ancestor arrived in the USA in the late 1700s, he may have been without family and kin, but he also had the societal pressures of home lifted for the first time in his life. As he moved to the frontier territory, the message of the Quakers – with their emphasis on self-determination, religious tolerance and non-hierarchy – must have held an attraction to so many of these frontiers-men.


O’Mahony is a well known Cork Name

My guess is that he converted to Quakerism sometimes after arrival in the US. Also, as she says, many of these early Quakers changed to Methodism over time – a religion that offered a very similar philosophy to that of William Penn and his fellow colonists. And, it seems that Methodism “won out” over time – with over seven million Methodists in the USA today against 150,000 Quakers. However, the good deeds of these members of the “Religious Society of Friends” during the Famine is still remembered across Ireland in commemoration plaques across the land.

We hope you have a great week. Do feel free to leave a comment below if you want to share a story, a surname, ask a question – or just want to say hello!

Slán for this week,
Mike and Carina.

  • Mary Ellen Trego says:

    My father’s ancestors were Quakers from way back..at least 1600’s from Cornwall, England…and were over 80 % of the population until about 1800. Seems about our Revolutionary War upset the applecart. They had severe rules about marrying out of unity and marching in the military manner. i.e. Marrying a non Quaker or marching with a gun …in the records I have searched , those two items were the most common reasons for expulsion

  • dale says:

    There was a heenan in southwest penn,listed a original settler. Originally from Ulster. No other original address. His Ancesters Dorothy write a book on heenan.not many heenans listed from North as most from South ireland.

  • Diane riordan Clark says:

    My great great grandfather was Jeremiah riordan from county cork and he married Julia oconner from same
    They married in 1896 in Murray county georgia USA

    They had son John Jeremiah riordan who married Hannah mcspadden
    Looking for info Irish connection

    • Theresa Miller Hagan says:

      Just wondering if we are related as my maternal great great grandfather was Jeremiah Reardon (spelled O’ Riordan) born around 1835 in Currow, Kerry County and married Johanna Quill O’Riordan born around 1841 in Ballyvourney, Cork.

  • Doug says:

    My paternal grandfather was a Quaker from somewhere in Pennsylvania.

  • cfmfan1 says:

    I lived near a colony of present day Quakers when I was in Pennsylvania and two of the children I had charge of went to their school, even though they were Jews. Very nice place to live!

  • Laura says:

    My irish reletives landed in Dubuque Iowa? On my mothers (hayes) and fathers side mulgrew?

  • Shelly says:

    My ancestors were from County Cork. The original name was O’Callaghan I believe. If you could get me any info, I would deeply appreciate it. William Michael O’Callaghan got changed to Callahan here.

    • patty callahan says:

      My family is from County Cork also. Our name is Callahan. I think it originally had a g in it but was lost when they arrived in America. My great great grandfather was Daniel B Callaghan who had two sons John, my great grandfather and Joseph. I don’t know if were are related somehow but it nice to know another Callahan from Cork!

      • Carla E Behrens says:

        I have a Daniel Callahan from County Cork in my family too but he had 4 sons. His wife’s name was Rebecca

    • Carla E Behrens says:

      Hello! I am from a line of Callahan’s from County Cork too. Is this your william ? “When William Callahan was born on March 26, 1788, his father, Daniel, was 33 and his mother, Rebecca, was 26. He had two sons with Elizabeth English between 1827 and 1834. He died on January 27, 1842, at the age of 53, and was buried in Lycoming, Pennsylvania.”

  • Nancy Morgan says:

    My grandmother was named Eleanor Healy and she was from County cork. She had two sisters. They emigrated to Erie, PA. But they all ended up in Philadelphia, PA.

  • Joe Quinn Arganbright says:

    My family name is Quinn and the first from Cork came in the early 1700’s just in time to be conscripted into the British army to fight in the French and Indian War. Late in life he and his sons fought in the Ameeican Revolution to thank the British for trapping in their war with the French.

    I have the genealogy from his father to me and my children and grandchildren and possess a 275 page genealogy of his descendants in America. Joe Quinn Arganbright

  • Marion Crawford says:

    From all accounts handed down about my Grandfather Patrick Clarke that he was born in County Cork Ireland. On his Intentions to marry application form in New Zealand it stated he was the son of the late Patrick Clarke of County Cork Ireland. The earliest information found for my Grandfather was when he was found in a destitute state 1882 at the age of eight and a half in Wellington New Zealand. From there he was committed to the Nelson Industrial School/St Mary’s Orphanage, I have researched my Grandfather as much as I could, but only have two references to his Mother. One with her being named on Patricks death Certificate with her name recorded as Elizabeth Clarke nee Naylor, and two where she was named in his case when he was sent to the Orphanage. All my research in New Zealand looking for Elizabeth has not been fruitful. All research I have carried out shows that there are many people in Ireland with the name of Patrick Clarke. Any guidance would be appreciated.
    Marion Crawford nee Steele

  • Charles Wayne Hennessy says:

    This has to be a real clue for me. My mom told me our line of Hennessy was Pennsylvania Dutch, and my grandfather Hennessy was a Methodist Minister. That’s as far back as I can go, so far.

  • Becky (Coon) Herr says:

    This is the first letter from Ireland I have received as I have just joined in and luckily the topic follows part of the Family History on my Mother’s side. Her Maiden Name was Mills and we were from Daviess County Kentucky. Stories had it that Daviess County was originally settled by Irish from the William Penn stories. Never have been able to verify this but this story is very interesting. Thank you. My Dads last name was Coon which is also supposed to have Irish roots.

  • Anna May Breadner says:

    The names Breadner and Kenny are two of the Irish names that are in my family. I have limited knowledge of each and would like to know more.

  • Becky Herr says:

    I found this very interesting. I currently live in Pa. In Lancaster County. However I was born and raised in Daviess County Ky. Until the age of 15. I have been told but am not sure that our area was settled by People who came there from William Penn. my Mother’s Maiden Name was Mills and my Father’s name was Coon. I was raised Catholic which was my Mother’s Faith. My Dad’s Family’s Faith was ami ky Baptist. Thank you for these letters. They are very interesting.

  • I just discovered letters about my grandmother’s family. My great grandmother Laura Pricilla Alexander’s father fought in the Civil War. His father was a Quaker from Ireland who settled in Pennysylvania, but the letters say he became a Methodist circuit rider at some point. I’m confused about when the pacifism was lost and the Methodism acquired.

  • […] Many different creeds and peoples feature in Irish history – here is one such group and a surprising link with County Cork. Click here to read the letter. […]

  • Vicki Starr Knepp says:

    We have documented that my many times great grandfather James Starr from County Meath immigrated to Pennsylvania around 1715 and was one of the founders of the New Garden Meeting.

  • […] Letter 2: A Story of County Cork, Quakers, Famine and the state of Pennsylvania. […]

  • Shirley Smith says:

    I also have Irish ancestors who were Quakers. As some of them later fought in the Revolutionary War, I can only assume they decided to fight for America’s independence and went against the Quaker’s stance of not fighting in wars. It was either fight for your country or remain a Quaker. Some of them were later Baptists in Kentucky.