When Quakers opened soup kitchens to feed Famine victims, they faced a number of obstacles – logistics, financing and a London government philosophically opposed to providing outright aid. But the most heart-breaking challenge they faced was from the starving themselves, for Irish Catholics were suspicious of well-meaning Protestants. And for good cause.
Souperism – the giving of food by well-heeled Protestants to poor Catholics provided the latter abandoned their faith or at least pretended to – had a long history in Ireland. Although the VAST majority of Famine-era Protestant clergy abhorred and excoriated this practice, a vocal minority did embrace it. One infamous example is that of Reverend Edward Nangle, a Protestant evangelist who viewed the Famine as G-d’s judgment upon the Catholics whom he saw as guilty of idolatry given their belief in transubstantiation (bread and wine becoming the Eucharist). From his base in Dugort, Achill Island (County Mayo) Nangle did all he could to exploit the tragedy and further his own agenda, sending forth his minions to condemn and convert Famine victims. Although his name lives in infamy, the damage done by Nangle was long ago eclipsed by the good affected by Quakers and Church of Ireland clergy who worked side by side with their Catholic counterparts to defeat the scourge of hunger.
Offering aid with strings attached, whether the proselytism advances a religion (as during the Irish Famine) or a political system (as today when the needy of ‘good’ countries who embrace democracy are rewarded while others are not) is nothing new. But it bears remembering that missionary zeal in any form is an affront to decency for self-interest, however enlightened it may appear to be, has no place in the politics of aid.