George Whitefield visited Ireland as early as 1738. The Irish Methodists came to be known as 'Swaddlers' following a sermon by John Cennick in Dublin on 'the Babe wrapped in swaddling clouts'. It was, however, John Wesley's 21 visits between 1747 and 1789 that played a vital part in the development of Irish Methodism. He presided over the Conference as often as possible, alternating with Thomas Coke in later years. His Irish tours were generally based on Dublin, where he established the Irish Methodist headquarters at Whitefriar Street. His commitment to Ireland reflected a conviction that her problems - including poverty, moral depravity, political instability and violence - required spiritual solutions. Preachers and people alike experienced considerable hardship from the harsh conditions and fierce opposition. As an early preacher observed, 'No one is fit to be a preacher here who is not ready to die any moment.'
By 1789 Methodist membership exceeded 14,000, representing a 500% increase in 20 years. This total had doubled by 1814, partly as an indirect result of the insurrection of the United Irishmen in 1798. Its leaders included Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians. Methodists generally supported the Government and in Wexford one preacher, Andrew Taylor, narrowly escaped being piked to death by the insurgents. Coke, believing that evangelical conversion was the only preventative, urged the Irish Conference to act and in 1799 it established the General Mission under three Irish-speaking preachers, Charles Graham, James McQuigg and Gideon Ouseley. (Irish speakers and bilinguals were in a majority at that time.) The Mission's aim was 'the subjugation of Irish popery to the faith of Christ' and the renewal of the spiritual life of lapsed Protestants. By 1839, more than 100 missionaries had been appointed and it played a major part in the nineteenth-century growth of Irish Methodism.
The main division within Irish Methodism - between Wesleyans and Primitive Wesleyans - took place in 1816, when limited authority was given to the Irish preachers to administer the sacraments. Those opposed to this development established a separate Primitive Wesleyan Conference in 1818, with Adam Averell as President. The two bodies were reunited in 1878, to form the Methodist Church in Ireland, which remains united despite the political division of the country in 1922. Three of its eight Districts straddle the border. Until 2010 a unique feature was the tradition whereby the British President presided over the Irish Conference, while the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, sat on his right, as Vice-President of the Conference (and might be invited to preside over some sessions).
Through city missions in Belfast, Dublin, Newtownabbey and Londonderry, and by other means, the gospel is related in practical ways to the whole of life. The Church's contribution in the vital area of education is highlighted by Wesley College, Dublin and Methodist College, Belfast, together with Gurteen Agricultural College.
The failure of the potato crop in 1846/47 caused major famine and out of a population of 8 millions about one million died and another million emigrated. Methodist membership, fell from a peak of 44,000 in 1844 to 26,000 in 1855. Five ministers and an unknown number of lay people died of fevers. More than 15,000 members emigrated between 1840 and 1859. In 1997 membership stood at under 18,000, with a total Methodist community of over 57,000. From the start, Irish Methodism had most influence among people from the Established Church and migrant European minorities (e.g. Moravians, Palatines and Huguenots). It also had a strong base within the army. Less impact was made on Roman Catholics and Presbyterians. These factors help to account for its uneven distribution.
Emigrants helped to build the Church in the lands of their adoption. Foremost among Irishmen whose ministry was located largely in Britain were Adam Clarke and William Arthur. Both Robert Strawbridge in Maryland andBarbara Heck and Philip Embury in New York had come from Ireland. More than 200 Irish-born ministers served in Canadian Methodism before 1900. Through involvement in the mission agencies of Methodism in Britain and elsewhere, the Irish also played an important role in the World Church.
The Methodist New Connexion began work in Ireland in 1798. Two preachers in the Lisburn Circuit had been expelled for administering the sacraments and 200 of the members withdrew in support of them. In response to their appeal, the MNC established work there, and later in Dublin, Newtownards and Bangor. In 1824 the MNC Conference launched an Irish Mission which, under the superintendency of William Cooke (1836-1841) spread to other places. Decline during the second half of the century led to the remaining societies being transferred to the Methodist Church in Ireland in 1905.
For a time the Primitive Methodists also had a mission, mainly in Ulster. In 1832 the Shrewsbury Circuit sent William Haslam to Belfast and the Preston Brook Circuit sent Francis N. Jersey to Dublin, from where he moved to Newry. Lisburn and Carrickfergus were also missioned. In 1910, following a period of decline, the remaining PM societies were transferred to the Methodist Church in Ireland.
The Wesleyan Methodist Association's involvement in Ireland was limited to the Carrickfergus and Belfast areas.
See also Junior Ministers' Convention.
'At this time There was a general and deep impression upon the minds of the Preachers in England, that the Irish Preachers were very much alienated from them in affection, and had thoughts of rendering themselves independent. To wipe off this impression as far as possible, the Irish Conferece agreed to draw up an Address to their English brethren, expressive of their affection and their sense of obligation to them, I drew up one for them which they unanimously adopted. It was very graciously received by the English Conference and an answer was returned to the next Irish Conference: and this was the origin of that annual exchange of addresses which has continued ever since.'
Letter from Charles Prest to ThomasJackson; copy in the Frank Baker Collection, Duke Universary