Our Friend Denis Barritt

Our Friend Denis Barritt

[Chapter 2 of Joyce Neillís biography Denis Barritt: Cheerful Saint]

Denis was a birthright Friend or cradle Quaker and that fact influenced all he did. For all I know it was reflected in the way he played cricket - I wouldn't know - but it certainly showed in his gardening, for instance, for he, and other Quakers, brooded over compost heaps long before TV programmes made that the 'in' thing. But to be more serious: if you have absorbed with your mother's milk the central emphasis of Quakerism that there is in each one of us that 'divine spark, the Light of Christ, that of God, the Holy Spirit' or whatever other phrases are acceptable for this potential, then you look for ways of encouraging its growth in yourself and all you meet and violence and killing become impossibilities. I have observed this almost automatic reaction in other birthright Friends who have continued as active members of the Society. Some of us newer types may react to situations with at least temporary anger, annoyance etc. but these Friends of whom I speak seem to move straig ht to constructive thoughts; Why is this happening? What could be done to ease the situation? How can we help the hurt and distress in both oppressor and oppressed? Someone who had worked with Denis in one of the many projects he undertook said that "...you couldn't rile him" and he had a knack of putting forward positive comments and suggestions when he disagreed with an opposite opinion.

His pacifism was thus firmly rooted in his faith. I do not think he was interested in the minutiae of doctrine but he followed and tried to live by the teaching of Christ. He did not often speak in Meeting for Worship, though when he did it was always witty and to the point. (However, after Meeting he often augmented the Clerk's notices with a whole string of activities of the other organisations with which he was interested.) He came very regularly unless he was away or ill and he and Monica were very much involved in South Belfast Meeting from its beginnings in 1957 and after it moved into its own premises ten years later. But Denis took an active part in the Religious Society of Friends at all levels.

The Society, like most religious denominations in Ireland, was not divided administratively by the Border, but Ulster Friends in Ulster Quarterly Meeting (UQM), had been greatly influenced by revival movements in the previous century and a legacy of evangelicalism and interest in personal salvation remained amongst some. I think it would be fair to say that this led to some degree of tension between this group and some other Friends, often with connections with Quakers in Britain, or indeed the Republic, who used different religious language sometimes and who advocated more actively the Peace Testimony and action resulting from it. In this situation Denis was always careful not to hurt sensibilities and to try to find positive and non-confrontational approaches. But he did not sweep things under the carpet either. He had grown up in the original Belfast meeting in Frederick St. but then experienced meetings in York and Manchester so he could understand both points of view. A small exam ple of this is when the text of what is known as the General Christian Counsel and Queries was discussed some time ago (it has since been revised). I think Denis was as keen as any to modernise its content and language, but he knew it was familiar and loved by some so he drew attention to its apparent assumption that we all still had large households with several servants; this was plainly untrue now so therefore the text did indeed need revision.

Denis served on the UQM Peace Committee and tried hard, with other members, to get more support from the QM. They visited country meetings to talk of their work and objectives but never felt very successful in this. But it did mean that the two groups came to know and respect one another; perhaps the priorities of their religious witness differed but they did try to know one another in the things that are eternal. There was also a Yearly Meeting (YM) Peace Committee which Denis convened for some time. He kept all the minutes, annual reports and a wealth of detailed correspondence with visiting speakers offering hospitality, travel arrangements , ferrying to or from airports etc, all indicating his meticulous attention to detail. He also acted as Assistant Clerk of Ireland YM from 1957 to 1960 and as Clerk from 1960 to 1963. This latter appointment is the equivalent of Moderator of the Presbyterian Assembly or President of the Methodist Conference but is for three years an d deals with the interests of the Society of Friends throughout Ireland. The clerk of a Quaker business meeting is a cross between chairman and secretary and minutes are made during the meeting with the agreement of those present. So he was well versed in Quaker ways and in their method of decision taking which he brought with him to other organisations with which he worked. Quakers do not make decisions by taking a vote. They try to reach agreement by a form of consensus, by what seems the right thing to do, or in religious language, by seeking to do the will of God. This puts quite a heavy responsibility on the skill of the Clerk and is time-consuming, but when finally agreed there is no dissatisfied minority left feeling ignored.

A lot of the business of YM is fairly routine - reception and consideration of reports of the various committees and interests of the YM - but sometimes some special subject will be presented for discussion. During Denis's tenure as Clerk there appeared in England in 1963 a booklet entitled Towards a Quaker View of Sex. This was the result of discussions by a group of Quakers, men and women, teachers, doctors, psychologists, marriage counsellors etc, who met together for about five years. Its origins lay in problems brought by Young Friends faced with homosexual difficulties who came to older Friends for help and guidance. The group soon found that the study of homosexuality and its moral problems could not be divorced from a survey of the whole field of sexual activity: social codes had moved away from ethical and religious codes of conduct. Christianity, they said, is about relationships with God and our fellow human beings; the latter include sexual relationship s but for most of Christian history sex has been equated with sin. Quakers have recognised the real equality of men and women in the life of the Society and we are advised to be open to new Light from whatever quarter it may come, so perhaps this group was in a good position to do just that. The booklet still reads as relevant today but when it came out Ulster QM was deeply distressed by it or their perceptions of it. They read the indefinite as the definite article and did not really hear 'towards'. The whole matter was discussed at IYM with considerable pain and difficulty, not least to the Clerk. In the end it was decided that those Friends who felt so deeply about this should produce an Irish Quaker view and this was in fact done. It was, however, a distressing experience and the fact that it finally was to an extent resolved owes much to Denis's 'clerking'.

There are two other Quaker-inspired projects with which Denis was connected in Ireland that might be mentioned now. One was as long ago as 1942, shortly before the onset of his illness. During the war Friends in Britain had organised various sorts of relief work including hostels for people made homeless by air-raids. In summer 194I Belfast suffered severely and early in 1942 Friends in Northern Ireland and the Ministry of Home Affairs there invited the Quaker relief organisation in Britain to advise on a hostel for old people bombed from their homes. Killeaton House in Dunmurry was set up with help from Young Friends from both sides of the Border, of whom Denis was one, and from pupils and staff from the Friends School in Lisburn. The hostel was run by a Quaker couple and housed some twenty old people, men and women, Catholic and Protestant, over the next four years after which the project was discontinued.

The second group with which Denis was involved occurred much later, in 1972. Two groups, one from the North led by Denis and one from the South led by Victor Bewley met a number of times half way between Belfast and Dublin at an hotel outside Dundalk. The groups consisted of some Quakers but also others, Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and Nationalist, but all wanting to listen to one another's viewpoint and to seek possible ways of helping in the worsening situation in the North. It was the non-Quakers who suggested that Friends should set up a centre where people from different backgrounds could meet in privacy and confidentially in what was seen as Quaker neutrality. This group was partially responsible for the eventual project at Frederick Street and later at Quaker House in Belfast.

Denis had connections with Friends much further afield than Ireland. Sometimes this was because he was representing Ireland YM, e.g. on the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA) which was a non-governmental organisation (NGO) mission in Brussels to watch the proceedings of the EEC. The committee met in Brussels a couple of times a year and, amongst other things, had some success in influencing legislation on conscientious objection to military service in member countries. He also served for some time on the Peace Committee of Quaker Peace and Service (QPS) in London.

The various Yearly Meetings of Quakers in different countries all over the world are autonomous but there exists an organisation called The Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) which was set up just for that, i.e. to consult and to keep in touch and to share matters of interest, problems and differences. There are of course a number of these last for Quakerism has developed differently in different cultures. The YMs send representatives to international conferences and every third year a big one is held, the venue changing. I need hardly say that Denis served as an Irish representative for a number of years. This was an excellent appointment, being mutually rewarding. Denis was well-informed on so many relevant subjects and learned still more from the many contacts he made. He made use of these in several other areas of Quaker service. He had three short spells at the Quaker United Nations Office in New York where Friends had a non governmental organisation (NGO) pos ition at the United Nations(UN) similar to the one in Brussels. In 1959 and 1967 he was part of the Quaker team observing the UN General Assembly. In 1982 he was present similarly for the second special session on disarmament.

One further spell with Quakers was spent with Monica at Pendle Hill, the Quaker college in Pennsylvania, a foundation similar to its earlier counterpart of Woodbrooke in Birmingham, England. They were there in the autumn term of 1987 as 'Friends in Residence' defined in the prospectus as 'seasoned Quakers with long experience of the Society' and adding to the Quaker dimension. The students are of all faiths or none and from all backgrounds and there are courses offered in Bible and Quaker studies, social concerns, literature and the arts. All residents are expected to do at least eight hours, domestic work of some kind each week in addition to their studies. Denis gave several public lectures and a series of talks on Northern Ireland. Monica talked on penal matters from her experience in Northern Ireland and relaxed in courses on pottery, art and gardening. An American Friend, Bernard Haviland, who was dean of students while they were there, writes that he was deeply grateful to both of them for their generous participation in the life of Pendle Hill. "Denis ... spoke persuasively and compassionately of his experiences in connection with the UN. Monica was most helpful to me as dean in helping to set up the consultant program in the life of the student group. Denis was part of all the activities of the term and showed us by his living presence why his life was so valued and cherished by all his many friends in Ireland. His was a gracious presence".

It is easy to see from this account of Denis's many activities in and for the Religious Society of Friends how closely interwoven they were with his activities in the wider world of work and voluntary organisations which are yet to be described. He knew and had visited Friends in many parts of the world, he had seen their work in international affairs and in social concerns and peace activities and there was much cross-pollination between his two lives; each augmented the other.

[Denis Barritt: Cheerful Saint (ISBN 1 900259 45 1) is obtainable from Curlew Productions, Thirlestane House, Kelso, Borders, Scotland, UK, TD5 8PD; at Stg. £7.00 incl. p&p.]