Quaker legacy remembered in Letterfrack


Letterfrack may be synonymous in some minds with the controversial industrial school for boys, which is still the subject of a Garda investigation. For others, it is best known now as a model for rural and community development. However, the Connemara village owes its origins to a Quaker couple from the north of England who made it their home.

They were James and Mary Ellis, and their decision to move to a country crossroads during the Great Famine is the subject of a book published today. It is written by Joan Johnson, a member of the Friends' Historical Committee. The Tanaiste , Ms Harney, has been invited to mark the publication this evening in Letterfrack.

As Ms Johnston writes in her preface, it was during family holidays in Errislannan, near Clifden, that she first became aware of the Ellis famine work in Letterfrack.

A Dublin-born physiotherapist and honorary archivist at Newtown School in Waterford, she began her research, with encouragement from Connemara West, the local community and development association.

She discovered how, after a life spent running a successful worsted manufacturing business in Bradford, the Quaker couple decided to buy a lease on a Letterfrack estate in an effort to provide employment and alleviate appalling suffering and poverty. That was in 1849, and three years before, collective Quaker relief work had been established in Dublin. Ellis, who was married a second time to Mary, built his new home on a rocky hillside, and he also put up a schoolhouse and employed a school master.

The couple built a dispensary and began reclaiming land. "Very badly as we do anything, I do not think we are out of our places here," Mary Ellis wrote in June 1850 after a year in Connemara. "We feel at the close of each day that we have done nothing in it that can tell for anything; yet we still fancy our presence rather stems the tide of evil.

"The dissoluteness of the `upper classes' is the ruin of this part of the land," she continued. "Far more, we think, than Popery and Episcopalianism wants to lord itself over all, and over us too; and we have had to wage a stiff battle just now against our clergyman taking possession of our schoolroom to deliver in it his controversial lectures, which we think have little tendency to promote real Christianity . . ." Mr Kieran O'Donohue, director of Connemara West, has paid tribute to Ms Johnson's history, which shows how the Ellis legacy has lived on - sowing "the early seeds for the success of many community and development initiatives" which have been the hallmark of the area. Among those attending today's function at the Connemara West centre in the Ellis Hall in Letterfrack will be direct descendants of the couple, including a great-great-grandson, Mr Stephen Ellis Williamson from Canterbury, and Mr Ben Russell, a great-great-great-grand-nephew from Co Cork.

Mr Ross Chapman, clerk of the Friends' Historical Committee in Ireland, which published the book, is also expected, along with many other members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Ireland. James and Mary Ellis: Background and Quaker Famine Relief in Letterfrack by Joan Johnson is available from Connemara West at (095) 41047 or fax (095) 41112; and from the Friends' Historical Library, Swanbrook House, Morehampton Road, Dublin 4. The price is £6.99, and mail orders should include an extra £1 for post and packaging.