Fr Kevin Hegarty
THE refugee crisis continues to dominate the headlines and rightly so, as Europe faces its greatest moral crisis since the end of the Second World War. As German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said recently: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal human rights will be destroyed.”
One of the architects of what is now the European Union, Robert Schumann asserted that its central ideal was of ‘a community of peoples deeply rooted in Christian basic values’. A central imperative of the christian message is that words and rituals have to be actualised in compassionate ministry for those who are poor, vulnerable and dispossessed. So, today, if our Christianity is not to be mere words, we are called to welcome refugees and provide for them. They in turn, can enrich our society. Lets have a look at the Huguenots who came to Ireland in the eighteenth century. They were followers of the Protestant reformer, John Calvin.
They experienced severe religious persecution in seventeenth century France. It is reckoned that over 600,000 left in desperation and that about 10,000 came to Ireland.
For many the journey was hazardous, not unlike that experienced by refugees today. One woman, who later settled in Portarlington, wrote in her journal that she escaped with her family in three empty wine casks and was tossed about for eight days in a Bay of Biscay storm.
The Huguenots were welcomed to Ireland and soon began to play a substantial role in our social, economic and cultural life. They settled mainly in Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Lisburn and Portarlington.
The largest community was in Dublin. It included weavers, silk workers and goldsmiths. They also got involved in finance. David La Touche opened a private bank in 1725. It became the bank of choice for the Irish gentry, having, it was claimed at one stage, the entire wealth of the country on its books. When the Irish Parliament established the Bank of Ireland in 1783, one of the family was appointed its first governor.
Huguenots also were to the fore in the commercial life of Waterford. Their greatest contribution was in the evolution of the linen industry under the leadership of Louis Crommelin. He arrived in Lisburn with 70 families in 1698.
Prior to the arrival the export of linen from Ireland was paltry. In 1683 it amounted to about 300,000 yards. By 1796 it had reached 47,000,000 yards. In 1707 Parliament passed a resolution commending his work. Philip Skelton, a rector in Monaghan summed up this achievement: “The man who planted this trade among us, in the space of half a century, has turned our wilderness into a garden.”
Their achievements in education and culture were also noteworthy. They founded fine schools, most notably in Dublin and Portarlington. One of their members, the Reverend JP Droz edited the first literary journal in Ireland in 1744. He also ran book shops in College Green and D’Olier St in Dublin. Jean Bernard Logier, an innovative musician, was organist in Westport before becoming bandmaster of the Kilkenny militia in 1807. Among their artists was Gabriel Beranger who travelled throughout the land sketching antiquarian remains. Peter Harbison, some years ago, edited a book of illustrations he made while touring Connacht in 1778/79.
So there you have a flavour of the Huguenot contribution to Ireland. It shows what can happen when refugees are welcomed and given opportunity.
The nineteenth Century novelist, Lady Morgan, put it well: “The dispersion of the French Huguenots, who settled in great numbers in Ireland, was one of the greatest boons conferred by the misgovernment of other countries upon our own.”