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Meeting the Unlikely Amish-Mennonites of Rural Ireland

Members of the religious group settled in County Waterford in the early-90s, and now number around 70 men, women and children.
Hew Gregory-Smith standing outside the family home

"One of the main roads to Mosul went right past the front of our house."

Regina, a young Amish-Mennonite woman, was telling me about her recent trip to Northern Iraq, where she worked alongside other Amish-Mennonite people to rebuild houses in Bashiqa, a town not far from Mosul. While she was there, ISIS fighters occupying the city were making their last stand against coalition forces, before losing their former stronghold in early July.


An active war zone in Northern Iraq is one of the last places I'd expect an Amish person to spend their summer holidays. Mind you, the place I was talking to Regina – Dunmore East, a village in County Waterford, Ireland – was equally incongruous with what I knew of the Amish-Mennonite community from shows like Breaking Amish. Regina has spent her life living between Ireland and wherever her outreach work takes her, and was telling me her story in the sitting room of the Gregory-Smith family, who are also members of Dunmore East's small Amish-Mennonite community.

Hew, patriarch of the Gregory-Smith family

As of 2015 there are roughly 2.1 million Mennonites worldwide, according to the Mennonite World Conference, ranging from "plain people" – those who wear old-timey clothing and separate themselves from the modern world – through the relatively more progressive, like the Amish-Mennonites of Dunmore East, up to Mennonites who dress and live their lives like the majority of people you know. You'll find Mennonites scattered all over the world, but the Dunmore East community is the first and only in Ireland, established in 1991 by William McGrath, an Irish-American Amish-Mennonite convert who decided to settle in the country of his ancestors.

Before meeting Regina I'd spoken to the second eldest Gregory-Smith son, Henry, outside the local Amish-Mennonite chapel, having just attended their two hour-long Sunday service. Inside, Henry had addressed the congregation about the dangers of technology.


"We would still be very careful with how much we use and take onboard, because it's a massive snare, technology," he told me, in a conspicuously British accent, unlike all the American voices I'd heard thus far. "There's a lot of bad things that come through a phone or a computer." Despite its potential pitfalls, however, the Amish-Mennonites in Dunmore East seem comfortable using technology when it suits them. Many drive cars, the community has its own website and one of the pastors sitting beside me during the service was preparing his sermon on an iPad.

The Amish-Mennonites' willingness to embrace a small amount of modern technology helps them spread the good word in the local community – but Henry was keen to stress that they take a genuine interest in the people they proselytise to, rather than just spamming them with scripture. "We don't do a lot of handing out tracts," he explained. "I think, as you evangelise, it should be emphasised that you're not just handing a piece of paper to a person, but that you're actually interested in them as a person."

"Evangelise" is a relative term in this case; you won't find the Amish-Mennonites of Dunmore East knocking on your door, asking if you've heard the good news about our Lord and saviour. "We have a market stall that goes into Waterford once a week," said Henry, explaining how often they interact with the wider community. "So that's an opportunity we have for outreach there. We also go in and sing there every so often."


By and large, though, the community keeps to itself; all the children are homeschooled or educated in the local Amish school, topping up their social skills in the church's youth group.

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Henry was homeschooled for a few years, then attended the Amish school from the age of 14. Currently, that school has "16 or 17" pupils, down from "about 20" after a family of seven Amish-Mennonites left to live elsewhere – a fact that was mentioned several times during the church service as a great loss to the community. Given the isolation and small number of Amish-Mennonites living in Dunmore East – around 70 – I suggested to Henry that it must be tricky finding a spouse, an important factor when you're living such a traditional, family-based way of life.

"That's part of the purpose of the [church] youth group," he said. "You get to know people better from within the youth group, and you go from there. Generally, we would marry someone from within our community, or similarly minded." He added that there's also the possibility of travelling to the States to find a spouse, or meeting someone on one of the Amish-Mennonites' many outreach programmes, like the trip Regina recently made to Iraq.

"I see [Dunmore East] as a place where young people can be sent out to other areas," Regina explained. "It's a kind of base, a safe community for children and teenagers to grow up and learn about principles of charity, unselfishness and community living."


Those principles of charity are reflected in the work Henry does, at an Amish-Mennonite-run retreat centre for disadvantaged youths in the nearby Comeragh Mountains.

"Some of [the kids who attend the retreat] are kind of enthralled with the whole idea of Amish-Mennonites," said Henry. "We've had a boy return several times, and he's interested in what we do and why we do it; we can reach out to him and talk to him. We also emphasise bringing across Christianity to them while they're there – we have a devotion in the morning, we pray for the food. We also have a chapel service if they were there over a Sunday. That can potentially be hard, but for the most part it hasn't been a problem: they're ready to accept that because that's what we advertise as."

Although a devout Amish-Mennonite now, Henry began life as the son of a Welsh Anglican preacher named Hew. It was Hew's decision to convert from Anglicanism to Amish-Mennonite, and to move from Wales to Waterford. Henry explained that "through discussion and through talking to these people, we began to change the way we live and the way we think". And so, one by one, the whole family followed in Hew's footsteps and became Amish-Mennonites

Hew Gregory-Smith and his daughter outside Jaybee's

While I was interviewing Henry at the Amish-Mennonite chapel, Hew came over and invited me to have lunch with his family. The Gregory-Smith family home is a short distance from the chapel, and near Jaybee's, the Amish-Mennonite-run bakery and furniture shop where Hew works. Some bad news: in recent years, furniture sales at Jaybee's have declined, which is slightly worrying for the members of the community who rely on the shop for employment and income. Some good news: the bakery has become increasingly popular. Some more bad news – for me, at least: it's not open on Sundays, so I didn't get to sample its delicious baked wares.


Members of the local Amish-Mennonite community generally grow much of the food they eat themselves, and like many others Hew supplements his income from Jaybee's by selling some of the vegetables he grows. The most striking feature of Gregory-Smith home, in fact, is its enormous garden – a great source of joy to Hew, and packed to the brim with vegetables, geese and chickens. Inside, the house looks much like any other rural British home: a cluttered yet organised kitchen, jam jars and pickled goods lining the shelves.

For Sunday lunch we had some delicious homemade pasta, served with an Italian sausage sauce, followed by fresh fruit topped with cream for dessert. Afterwards, it was suggested that we play a card game I'd never heard of before: Dutch Blitz. The table was quickly cleared, and kitsch, ornate playing cards with effigies of Amish people drawn on the back were fetched.

A game of Dutch Blitz in action

Dutch Blitz, it turns out, is a favourite card game of the Amish-Mennonite people. It uses four decks totalling 160 cards. Each deck contains ten red, ten blue, ten yellow and ten green cards. Each colour set is numbered one to ten. The cards are divided out equally among the players. The object of the game is for each player to place their cards sequentially upon the matching coloured piles until they have run out. It is essentially an Amish-Mennonite take on Snap.

Unfortunately, I never quite mastered the rules. The family asked me if I was colourblind and I told them I was not. That was where their mercy ended. What followed was the most ruthless game of cards I have ever witnessed. Years of playing have honed the Amish-Mennonites' hand-eye coordination, and I was left gasping for breath, adrift in a swirl of limbs and primary colours. Earlier in the day, Hew had told me that the Amish-Mennonites practice the doctrine of non-resistance; they refuse to bear arms or press charges. I found out too late that this pacifist attitude does not extend to card games. By the fourth round of Dutch Blitz I was shellshocked and visibly sweating. Luckily for me, Regina had to leave early, bringing everything to a close.


I took the cue to call for my ride back to Dublin, and Hew escorted me to Jaybee's, where my cab was waiting for me. As I pulled away and waved goodbye to Hew, I laid back in my seat and caught my breath. I'd come to Dunmore East for some real-life Breaking Amish, but after four games of Dutch Blitz it was the Amish who'd broken me.

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