This paper analyses the demographic transition of four relatively wealthy rural Quaker families from the Newgarden/Carlow Meeting, Ireland. The analysis was conducted in the context of changing socio-economic and political environments deploying the technique of family reconstitution to derive the data. The families were of similar socio-economic status, first joining Friends in the late seventeenth century and continuing an association through descendants into the 19th century. In the broadest historical sense the families experienced these events in a series of transitions: a period that was characterized by the rejection of the established church and the recruitment into and adoption of Quakerism, followed by one of consolidation and development synonymous with an increasing tendency of members to reject the faith and return to the established church.
The initial expectations, in the absence of detailed historical information, were that the demographic profiles would provide some kind of fingerprint for these changes or transitions and that the profiles would be similar. Indeed, they do have characteristics in common. Some follow patterns identified for the wider Quaker population of Ireland and for the combined population of the Meeting itself. Again temporal changes are evident in the demographic patterns that are probably reflections of the way the families used their wealth and dealt with the challenges of ongoing socio-economic, political and social events. These include an increase in the average age of males at first marriage, a reduction in family size and increasing lifespan for both males and females over time. However, when it comes down to the finer details, there is considerable evidence for variation between families, particularly in their choice of marriage and birth strategies. For example, all four families adopted reproductive strategies in what has been termed the neo-Malthusian tradition, including spacing and stopping, breast-feeding and most probably wet nursing, but these varied over time and between families. In other words, at least for these families, it is unlikely that there was a common ‘Quaker’ strategy that dictated how members planned their families and responded to challenging situations. There is no evidence of parity-specific fertility limitation although there are suggestions that it was on the way.
Overall the results of the analysis of the data for the four families when compared with those for the Meeting as a whole suggested, first, that their relative wealth may have given them a positive advantage in respect of mortality and reproductive manipulation; and secondly that the averaging or ‘fingerprinting’ process used to analyze Meeting and the National data is likely to have masked demographic events, some of which may be significant. This is not an argument for discarding the averaging approach; it does however lead one to emphasize that profiles constructed in this way are engineered and consequently need to be interpreted with caution.