Dog Days & Frank McCourt: “Threaten Them with the Quakers!”

Today (August 19) is Frank McCourt’s birthday. McCourt was the great memoirist best known for his book, Angela’s Ashes, which won just about every prize it could get, sold boatloads, and kicked off the rush to write memoirs, which I confess I have even joined in myself a couple of times.

I was reminded of the date by Garrison Keillor, in his Writer’s Almanac, which I get by email.  But Garrison did not remind me of my favorite passage from McCourt’s masterwork; I found that myself some while ago, and have kept it handy for just such an occasion as this.

Without further ado, here it is, and I think l my affection for it is self-explanatory . . .

A door opens at the end of the hall and a man appears. Are any of ye waiting for children’s boots?
Women raise their hands, I am. I am.
Well, the boots are all gone. Ye’ll have to come back next month.
But my Mikey needs boots for school.
They’re all gone, I told you.
But ’tis freezin’ abroad, Mr. Quinlivan.
The boots are all gone. Nothing I can do. What’s this? Who’s smoking?
Nora waves her cigarette. I am, she says, and enjoying it down to the last ash.
Every puff you take, he starts.
I know, she says, I’m taking food out of the mouths of my children.
You’re insolent, woman. You’ll get no charity here.
Is that a fact? Well, Mr. Quinlivan, if I don’t get it here I know where I will.
What are you talking about?
I’ll go to the Quakers. They’ll give me the charity.
Mr. Quinlivan steps toward Nora and points a finger.
Do you know what we have here? We have a souper in our midst. We had the soupers in the Famine. The Protestants went round telling good Catholics that if they gave up their faith and turned Protestant they’d get more soup than their bellies could hold and, God help us, some Catholics took the soup, and were ever after known as soupers and lost their immortal souls doomed to the deepest part of hell. And you, woman, if you go to the Quakers you’ll lose your immortal soul and the souls of your children.
Then, Mr. Quinlivan, you’ll have to save us, won’t you?
He stares at her and she stares back at him. His eyes wander to the other women. One puts her hand to her mouth to smother a laugh.
What are you tittering about? he barks.
Oh, nothing, Mr. Quinlivan. Honest to God.
I’m telling ye once more, no boots. And he slams the door behind him.
One by one the women are called into the room. When Nora comes out she’s smiling and waving a piece of paper.
Boots, she says. Three pairs I’m gettin’ for my children. Threaten the men in there with the Quakers and they’ll give you the drawers off their arses.

A pedestrian footnote, to defend what Friends were quick to call the Reputation of Truth: Quakers did operate charity feeding and relief programs during the famine years in Ireland, and like others were often derided as “soupers” by Catholic authorities. But records also show that they never urged the hungry Catholic Irish to convert in order to get food or other help.

Even that standard authority, Wikipedia (which should win every prize around for free worldwide online encyclopedias, if there are any) testifies to this fact:

Souperism was a phenomenon of the Irish Potato Famine. Protestant Bible societies set up schools in which starving children were fed, on the condition of receiving Protestant religious instruction at the same time. Its practitioners were reviled by the Catholic families who had to choose between Protestantism and starvation. People who converted for food were known as soupers, a derogatory epithet that continued to be applied and featured in the press well into the 1870s. In the words of their peers, they “took the soup”.

However, souperism was rarely that simple, and not all non-Catholics made being subject to proselytisation a condition of food aid. Several Anglicans, including the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, decried the practice; many Anglicans set up soup kitchens that did no proselytising; and the Quakers, whose soup kitchens were concerned solely with charitable work, were never associated with the practice (which causes them to be held in high regard in Ireland even today, with many Irish remembering the Quakers with the remark “They fed us in the famine.”). [Emphasis added.]

Souperist practices, reported at the time, included serving meat soups on Fridays – which Catholics were forbidden by their faith from consuming, and by the fact that they could not afford meat in the first place.

Soupers were frequently ostracised by their own community, and were strongly denounced from the pulpit by the Catholic priesthood. On occasion, soupers had to be protected by British soldiers from other Catholics.

And if you’re looking for a laugh-til-ye-cry book for these fading days of summer, ye could do scarcely any better than to pick up one by Frank McCourt, god rest his impudent soul.

Frank McCourt, 2007


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