Achill and 1916
Migratory workers from Achill
Click on the link below to hear a fascinating insight into life on Achill for migratory workers, the hardship they endured and the people they left behind. As told by men and women who lived through those times. At the age of 13, you finished school and bacame a worker. They knew more about Scotland than they did about their own country. Recorded in 2005
In their Footsteps.
Sharing our Stories © Vincent English.
As you walk through a village deserted, you can see the land before you and how it has changed yet stayed the same. How the people have left yet still remain. The rivers, streams, stepping stones, potato ridges, stone and sod ditches, memories, hopes and dreams still seem intact. What is it about this place that draws thousands of people every year? What do they see? Does it look just like another pile of stones that have been scattered over one hundred storm enraged winters or does it look as the people have just left, emigrated or simply just moved on to newer, bigger, better built housing with tax free windows.
Window tax was a charge introduced in Ireland in 1696 where the occupier of every inhabited dwelling was charged a flat rate of 2s per year per window. Protests began in 1850 which led to its abolition in 1851. This tax brought about the iconic half door on traditional Irish cottages, where it was a way of adding a window and not having to pay the extra charge as well as keeping your live stock in our out, depending on time of day. It is where the term ‘daylight robbery’ is thought to derive.
‘The DesertedVillage’ as it is known far and wide wasn’t always deserted so wasn’t always referred to by this name, it is known locally as Slievemore pronounced Shlay-More (Irish: Sliabh Mór/Big Mountain) which is made up of 3 separate villages. Tuar Riabhach, is the central village with Tuar to the west and Faiche to the east. The earliest maps available which identify this area and the layout of houses were the maps by William Bald, compiled in 1809 and printed in 1830. These maps are considered to be the finest example of cartography carried out in Ireland prior to the 6” Ordinance Survey maps which followed. Apart from the detailed layout of the buildings and monuments, it also contains countless local place names which could have easily been overlooked and lost forever. When studying these maps all the other villages of Achill are built along the shore lines, close to beaches, rivers and secluded bays which would suggest that there were two lifestyles existing side by side in Achill at that time. This was known as booleying, where an entire village would pack up their belongings and move their cattle to higher pasture land in the spring months. It is known locally and in living memory that the cattle were moved in the month of May and were immediately better off, for the grazing at Slievemore, as it contained something that the cattle thrived on. Within weeks of moving, the thin scrawny dry cattle would soon fill out and start producing milk again. This area also provided better, more fertile soil for the growing of crops which is clearly evident to this day with the remnants of lazy beds that fill the fields and contours of the lower slopes of Slievemore that surround the ruined stone houses. Once the crops were sowed and the cattle fattened the entire village would pack up their belongings and return to their coastal homes for the summer and return again in autumn to harvest the crops and rejuvenate the cattle.
The entire village at first glance or without looking for the detail, looks like a line of cottages all built with locally sourced stone circa. early 19th century, when in fact it is a village like any other on Achill. The nearby village of Dooagh is closely linked to this ancient settlement as most of the land is currently in the possession of the people of Dooagh, so I will use it as a contrast and similarity. If you were to wander through Dooagh as it is today, you will see the older cottages all with their gables facing north but in between these early habitats there are newer houses built on the site of previous dwellings, some keeping the traditional look, others more modern bungalows with very different building techniques, adding boundary walls, gardens, hedges and moving with the times all the while retaining the village community. Slievemore was no different, each house has different features, different building techniques and built at very different times. The older type cottage is built haphazardly, undressed stone, small huts with one door and no windows, built on the footprint of a previously more rounded structure. The more modern house is extremely well constructed, with almost dressed stone, two doors and a west facing window, with better internal features of their time. The village is built on the lower slopes of Slievemore and stretches over 3km east to west. Within 50 metres of each house is a running fresh water stream that cascades down the mountain from springs high above, providing fresh water for cleaning, cooking and drinking. With the support of available records, books published, local accounts, photographs, folklore and logic based on what is visible, I will explain in as much detail as possible what life was like for a typical Achill Islander prior to the village being totally abandoned.
Following extensive archaeological excavations in the area by Achill Archaeological field school, it is confirmed that Achill has a long history of human settlement that dates back to the Stone Age. It is possible there was habitation prior to this but nothing has been found as the types of dwellings used at that time would be of wooden construction and long since disappeared. Further excavations have revealed Bronze Age settlements all within close proximity of Slievemore.
It is unknown when the entire settlement became deserted as a permanent residence as to date no historical records have been recovered. What is known, AchillIsland was owned by Sir Richard O Donnell of Newport House in 1830.
In that same year an outbreak of famine and cholera swept the west coast of Ireland, particularly Mayo. The following year Edward Nangle who was then aged 31, along with his wife Elizabeth, the Rector of Dumes, near Bantry and the Reverend. James Freke, were asked by evangelical friends to accompany the steamer Nottingham from Dublin to Westport with a cargo of Indian meal and to report on conditions along the Mayo coast.
At Westport, Nangle met with and immediately befriended the Rector of Newport, Reverend William Baker Stoney and on Stoney’s direction, Nangle visited Achill, staying overnight at Pollranny. The next day he crossed at low tide and travelled on horseback around the island.
Reverend Stoney had more of a hold on Dugort than he may or may not have mentioned as there is little reference about it anywhere. In 1828 Reverend William B. Stoney was listed as an occupier in Dugort, although not resident there he certainly was farming the land or had it leased out to local farmers. On the tithe returns of that year he is listed as farming 55acres of arable land and pasture as well as 140 acres of bog and mountain land paying a total of 7shillings and 10pence tithe taxes.
Tithe payment or Tithe Tax was an obligation on those working the land to pay 10% of the value of certain types of agricultural produce for the upkeep of the clergy and maintenance of the assets of the Church of England, irrespective of an individual's religious adherence.
Moved by the temporal and spiritual destitution of the people, Nangle returned to Newport to discuss his findings with Stoney and the plan commenced for the Achill Mission. Sir Richard O’Donnell provided land at Dugort on a long lease with a nominal rent and Nangle moved to secure support for his mission plans from his old school-friend Robert Daly, Rector of Powerscourt. O’Donell and Nangle became friends. Like Nangle, O’Donnell had developed a fierce dislike to all things Catholic and is on record as having said that he would not leave a catholic between KnocknablaBridge and the River of Newport. The 130 acres Nangle was interested in renting was already being farmed and made up the third village of Slievemore, Faiche on the eastern end. In ‘The Rise and Fall of a Missionary Community’ by Mealla Ní Ghiobúin, it states, ‘the tenants were determined to maintain their hold on the land’. O Donnell advised Nangle that he would have to convince the tenants to give up their hold on their lands. The names of the tenants who had interests in land in Dugort or Doogurth as it was listed in the Tithe Applotment Books 1823-37 were: Hubert Barrett, John Gavin, Owen O Malley, Thomas McNamara and Rev. W.B. Stoney.
Whatever deal was struck or arrangement made but in 1831, Nangle was successful in acquiring these lands under the Mission Estate. It was in this village of Faiche or Dugort West as it was renamed, that the first school in Achill was built by the protestant missionary, the ruins of which are still visible to this day.
The best way to describe the village of Slievemore in the 19th and early 20th century is by first-hand account of eye witnesses who were there.
William Wilde (Father of Oscar Wilde) described Achill in 1836:
“There are several villages in Achill, particularly those of Keene (Keem) and Keele, where the huts of the inhabitants are all circular or oval, and built for the most part of round, water-washed stones, collected from the beach, and arranged without lime or any other cement, exactly as we have reason to believe that the habitations of the ancient Firbolgs were constructed.
During the spring the entire population of several of the villages we allude to in Achill close their winter dwellings, tie their infant children on their backs, carry with them their loys (spades) and some carry potatoes, with a few pots and cooking-utensils—drive their cattle before them, and migrate into the hills, where they find fresh pastures for their flocks; and there they build rude huts and summer-houses of sods and wattles, called booleys, and then cultivate and sow with corn a few fertile spots in the neighbouring valleys. They thus remain for about two months of the spring and early summer, till the corn is sown; their stock of provisions being exhausted, and the pasture consumed by their cattle, they return to the shore, and eke out a miserable, precarious existence by fishing. No further care is ever taken of the crops: indeed they seldom ever visit them, but return, in autumn, in a manner similar to the spring migration, to reap the corn, and afford sustenance to their half-starved cattle. With these people it need scarcely be wondered that there is annually a partial famine.”
Wilde states: “there they build rude huts and summer-houses of sods and wattles, called booleys” It is obvious the houses of Slievemore are anything but “rude huts of sods and wattles”. Such houses would long have disappeared over time and nothing remains but possibly a hearth.
In the mid 1840’s an American author and philanthropist, Mrs Asenath Nicholson visited Achill and wrote about what she witnessed. She arranged for a guide to take her to Keem, leaving The Mission Colony in Dugort. She writes;
“He took me through an ancient village, with no roads but foot-paths; and the village being large, we were long in making our way through. As we passed on, the whole hamlet was in motion; those not in the way managed to put themselves there. The kind salutations, the desire to know everything about America, and the fear that I was hungry, almost overpowered me. One old woman, who with her fingers told me she was three score and fifteen, whose teeth were all sound, and her cheeks yet red, approached, put her hand upon my stomach, made a sorrowing face, and said in Irish, "She is hungry; the stranger is hungry." We were so delayed that we feared we should be limited in time, and we hurried on a couple of miles to another village of the same description, though not so much inhabited, being used by the inhabitants of the first as a kind of country-seat, common stock of all who assemble their cattle and sheep, to drive them upon the mountain for pasturage, to fatten them at a favourable season of the year. There were but a few now in it; but walking by a number of deserted huts, we came to one where sat an old woman and her two married daughters, by the sunny side of the hut. Asking the old lady her age, she put up her fingers, and counted five score; she asked for a penny, then prayed for me in Irish, and I asked her if she wished to live any longer? "As long as God wishes me," was the answer. "Do you expect to go to heaven?" "By God's grace I do." What could be more consistent, if she understood the import?”
Both accounts are very distinctive and clearly describe the area in detail. As if life on Achill wasn’t hard enough at that time, the poor people of the already impoverished island were about the enter into The Great Famine where they would have to fight for their survival. There is little available account of the hardship they endured, however Aseneth Nicholson did return in 1851 and wrote of her findings in ‘Annals of the Famine in Ireland’, in a chapter entitle ‘AchillIsland, during the famine’.
“I passed the Christmas and New Year's-day in Achill. Mr. Nangle I heard preach again, and as he figured considerably in the first volume of my work, it may be said here that he refused any reconciliation, though good opportunity presented; and when he was expostulated with by a superintendent of his schools, who informed him that I had visited numbers of them, and put clothes upon some of the most destitute, he coolly replied, "If she can do any good I am glad of it."
He had eleven schools scattered through that region, reading the scriptures, and learning Irish; but all through these parts might be seen the fallacy of distributing a little over a great surface. The scanty allowance given to children once a day, and much of this bad food, kept them in lingering want, and many died at last. Mr. Nangle had many men working in his bog, and so scantily were they paid—sometimes but three-pence and three-pence-halfpenny a day—that some at least would have died but for the charity of Mrs. Savage. These men had families to feed, and must work till Saturday, then go nine miles into the colony to procure the Indian meal for the five days' work. This he truly called giving his men "employ."
Another sad evil prevalent in nearly all the relief-shops was damaged Indian meal. And here without any personality, leaving the application where it belongs, having a knowledge of the nature of this article, it is placed on record, that the unground corn that was sent from America, and bought by the Government of England, and carried round the coast and then ground in the mills, which did not take off the hull, much of it having been damaged on the water, became wholly unfit for use, and was a most dangerous article for any stomach. Many of the shops I found where this material was foaming and sputtering in kettles over the fire, as if a handful of soda had been flung in, and sending forth an odour really unpleasant; and when any expostulation was made, the answer was, "They're quite glad to get it," or, "We use such as is put into our hands—the government must see to that." Such meal, a good American farmer would not give to his swine unless for physic, and when the half-starved poor, who had been kept all their life on potatoes, took this sour, mouldy, harsh food, dysentery must be the result”.
In 1881, the Irish Land Commission was founded to establish fair rents. In 1885 the Ashbourne Land Act transformed the commission’s main function from fixing rents to breaking up estates and facilitating tenant purchase of their holdings. Between 1885 and 1920 the commission oversaw the transfer of 13,500,000 acres.
In 1891 The Congested District Board was established. These districts along the Atlantic coast, were 'Congested' not because half a million people lived there, but because too many of them were trying to scratch from bog or stony-mountain-land, a living which was at best precarious and sometimes non-existent.
The C.D.B. had a four-fold purpose:
(1) To promote local industries by subsidies and technical instruction;
(2) To amalgamate uneconomic holdings by land purchase;
(3) To assist migration from impoverished areas to the newly amalgamated holdings;
(4) To improve the quality of agriculture in the congested areas (goldenlangan.com 2015).
One of the big draw-backs of this board was that it lacked the power of compulsory purchase of landlord estates, and it was only with the coming of the Free State in 1922 that such powers were granted to the Land Commission.
To take such steps as it might think proper in aiding and developing agriculture, in forestry, in the breeding of livestock and poultry, in weaving, in spinning, in fishing and industries subservient to fishing including the construction of piers and harbours and in aiding and developing other suitable industries. The Board was authorised to proceed in the execution of these duties either directly or indirectly, and by the application of funds by means of gifts or loans. Decisions made by the Board were to be final and unquestionable even by DublinCastle. All along the coasts of Donegal, Mayo and Galway active steps were taken to provide fishermen with boats and suitable lines and nets, and also with curing stations for cod and ling. However, most of the coast of Mayo and Sligo, consisting of cliffs and long beaches of shingle or strand, were found to be unsuitable for the development of fishing on a large scale.
When the land commission divided the land in Dooagh, it was nothing more than bog, so the people set about fertilizing their respective stripes with seaweed from the shore as well as animal waste and whatever else was available to them to break down the bog and turn it into something that would yield a crop to feed their families. They spent all the day light hours turning the scraw, draining and cultivating each stripe. From what I have learned in my research, the people returned to Slievemore to grow their crops and harvest the hay as well as cutting their turf. It is known that the oldest and youngest generations stayed in Slievemore during the spring and summer months and returned to Dooagh for the winter in the better built homes on their newly striped out land. The old people still had their connection with the village they were born into while the newer generation were building newer bigger cottages closer to the new roads and new piers.
A writer known as John Harris visited Achill and wrote in detail of his findings, this is his description of Dooagh in 1906.
“The majority of rude huts or cabins composing Dooagh lie in a cluster on the right bank of a bubbling trout stream, near its entrance over the rocks into the sea. They seemed at some time, very long ago, to have been promiscuously thrown out of a gigantic pepper-box on the strand, so extraordinary higgledy-piggeldy placed as they are they. Being all of similar singular style of architecture and size, it is not easy to find one’s way about amongst them.
The poorest people of Dooagh live here, and abjectly poor some of them are. One old woman, for instance, of probably ninety at least, lay a huddled-up mass of rags on one side of the hearth on the floor. Neighbours had given her a few pieces of turf for the fire. Rheumatatic swellings the size of lemons on each wrist shewed how the poor soul for years had suffered and become incapable. On a rickety table a few bits of crockery, broken and cracked, without a vestige of food, were eloquent of destitution. Inn her windowless and black, smoke-dried loneliness, without an animal or bird of any kind, the old soul was dependant upon the visits of her neighbours for a drink of water or a few potatoes. In an incessant torrent of mumbling accents she called down blessings from heaven and all the saints upon her visitors who tried to impart a little temporary amelioration into her life. This old woman is known as a “bad case”, a description the neighbours have no scruple in using before her face, and she is in receipt of the magnificent sum of one shilling a week from the parish. We paid her many surprise visits, and hardly ever saw any food in the shanty which a respectable Berkshire pig would not turn his nose up at.
But this “bad case” is not singular. An old man in rags, and a similar hovel, close by, living quite alone, when presented with some clothing, used a form of blessing of a novel character that of Shadrah. Meshach and Abednego. The unexpected magnificent gift must have upset him! The present of an old waistcoat to another native produced the softly repeated expression of evidently genuine delight, “By gum! By gum!”
The readiness to bless upon any little gift being received is not an unpleasant trait in the character of the Achill Islanders. Generally common forms are, “The Lord spare thee, give thee long life, and send thee safe in all thy journeys,”
One evening at Dooagh we went to some out-of-the-way cabins to distribute tea and clothes to a few of the poorest people, and in particular called upon one old, solitary man whom we knew was not too much loaded down with this world’s goods. We found the door of his shanty closed on the outside with latch and padlock, and naturally supposed the occupier was from home. So we took the padlock off the clasp, it not being locked, and opened the door in order to place the little present inside. To our surprise he was in bed and was extremely gratified with the gift we brought, and on our leaving he called out after us to be sure to lock the door on the outside. The old gentleman depended on passers by to lock him in at night and let him out in the morning.
The hovels or cabins are built of rough beach stones, chipped it may be a little on the exterior and the roofs are made of sods, locally called scraws, which, when in position, are dried by blocking up the chimney, or oftener the hole in the roof, and door, and lighting a turf fire inside. These roofs can never be said to be water tight. Many cabins are devoid of windows, and naturally the floor is as mother earth made it, a luxury being a sprinkle of sea sand. The average inside measurement is about 30 by 15 feet, and the height to the beams is 6 feet or less. At one end is the spot on the floor where the turf fire is always kept alight, and the other is a night-abiding place for a mixed collection of animal and bird life, that is, in the cabin of those comparatively wealthy enough to possess them. At one side of the dwelling, on a table or rack, are the few eating utensils, opposite which is the bed (only one), usually covered with home-made blankets. A small loft is sometimes constructed above the heads of the cattle for storing fodder and any tools the family may fortunately possess, and where at night cocks and hens find pleasant roosting. A small potato patch, or none, around their miserable huts, with the few pounds won by the bread-winners’ harvesting in Scotland or the North of England, constitute in the majority of cases the whole means of subsistence. And when the bread winner dies, the family, generally in such cases a large one, is solely dependant upon the charity of the neighbouring huts, which is, however, as I know, singularly and instructively generous. From one small hut of rude beach stones, with turf (“sod”) roof, kept down by hay bands or ropes with slung stones, I have repeatedly seen issue in early morning a dozen geese, several hens, a cow and a calf, a horse and colt, one or two pigs, two or more toddling youngsters, one or two youths or maidens and the father and mother. All had passed the night in a single by no means large room, without window, with a closed shut door, and containing one bed. The animals are then ushered off by the various members of the family to their respective walks on the bog, and the night droppings are brought out by the shovelful by the father or eldest boy or girl and deposited on the heap close to the door.
Some cottagers are too poor to have more than fowls or geese; others, again, have only pigs; some are so poor as to pocess no live stock at all, and so on.
Small hand corn-grinding mills or querns are still to be seen in some of the cabins, but they are now merely mementoes of the days when the oats and rye was ground at home and made into bread. Nowadays, wheat flour is bought and bread made. This “soda-bread” as it is called, is made, without an excess of the carbonate of soda, is exceedingly palatable.
The fire is built up of pieces of turf on the floor, and is never allowed to go out, a pleasant red glow being soon obtained by arranging the pieces in a pyramidal slanting position stooping down and gently blowing with the mouth.
The door is usually built facing the east. Some of the slightly better huts have two doors, one also facing due west. Te doors seldom face seaward, for the prevailing wind is south-west, and Achill is all the year round a very windy place”.
This description could easily be describing any of the houses at Slievemore, its inhabitants and the way of life. The daily routine was spent outdoors and only came in doors to eat and sleep. During these years of land agitation, the villages of Achill underwent massive changes. There is little or no reference to any villages along the shorelines and beaches, which would suggest they were not governed by land law and were excluded from paying rents.
Paul Henry and his wife, Grace, travelled to Achill in the summer of 1910. He was so immediately captivated by the beauty of Achill, he famously tore up his return ticket to London, on the rocks at Gubalennaun in Dooagh. The couple
stayed on and off for the next nine years and the experience fed Paul Henry’s art for almost three decades. Walking west through the deserted village you can instantly recognise at
least 3 of Henry’s paintings, during this time he also developed his interest in peoples portraits as they went about their daily lives, his most famous being, launching of the curragh. The following account is taken from Paul Henry's autobiography 'An
“My first winter in Achill, I had wandered away towards a place called 'Crumphaun' and was going in the direction of Slievemore; I was going nowhere in particular, justwandering in search of anything that might turn up, and I found myself in a part of the island where I had never been before. I walked on and came upon a strange village which struck me as having great possibilities for a drawing. There were no people or animals in sight, not even a cow or a sheep. I found that the rough track led to a little huddle of houses which seemed to be deserted. A little farther on I saw one or two more strange cottages but they also seemed uninhabited.
I wandered up and down the bohereen; I went to the houses one by one to find them all bolted and barred and still no sign of a human being. I visited every house with the same result; it was as if a plague had swept everybody away, although there were signs that the houses had been occupied comparatively recently. It was more deserted, more forlorn than any place I had ever seen. And then realisation came to me - I was in a 'Booley'. A 'Booley' is an old Irish name for a summer dwelling like the 'Saeter' in the Alps, where the people took their cattle in the summer months for a change of pasture. I was in Old Slievemore about a mile from Keel, but as I sat there I was centuries away in my mind. The silence was profound. I could hear far away the muffled boom of the sea thundering on the rocks of Gubelennaun, no other sound, except perhaps my quick breathing because I was excited and entranced with this glimpse into a world hundreds of years old. It was strange, and apart from its loneliness, bizarre; it was troglodyte in its uncouthness, but it had an intimacy, a friendliness, a familiarity, it was the ancestral home of the tribe”.
From the few records available, it would appear that the vilage of Dooagh was originally constructed as the booley village on the shore line. Following the devision of the bogland in Dooagh on the north side of the road by the Irish Land Commission, people began to build bigger 2 roomed houses with 2 windows and later adding another room and window at the bottom of their respective stripes. These houses are instantly recognisable today as the traditional Achill Cottage. The land and houses at Slievemore were continued to be used into the late 1940’s although after this time nobody stayed over night. This turn around took place at some point in the 30 years from 1883 – 1913. There was one house used as a fulltime residence up to the 1950’s, by a family known as Callaghan’s who were the last known full time residents of Tuar.
One thing is for sure that the people who lived in the village at the foot of slievemore were a community united, they knew the meaning of the word ‘Meithal’ (Meh-hal), they used it daily. They helped each other, they helped their community, they worked the land and they worked hard. Another important feature of these cabins or houses of that time was the ‘Cearchall’ (Car-a-chul) which was a beam that spanned the room and hanging from it was the food and important items to support the family within. It was an important feature within the house. The same word would later be used to describe the main support within the family, be it a son, daughter, uncle or aunt. He or she is our ‘Cearchall’.
So maybe when you see this village again, you will not see a village desserted, but a once thriving community who’s decendats still live among us today, for these are not abandoned or deserted houses, but still in private ownership of the families of the people who lived there. “Our ancestral homes”
 buildinghistory.org 03.12.2015
 mayolibrary.ie/en/LocalStudies/MapBrowser/BaldsMapofMayo 03.12.2015
 achill-fieldschool.com/ 03.12.2015
 titheapplotmentbooks.nationalarchives.ie/reels/tab//004239502/004239502_00271.pdf 03.12.2015
 theirishstory.com/2010/11/05/paul-henry-in-achill/#.VoARY7aLTDd 03.12.2015
The Mission Colony
Achill Island is the largest island off Ireland, situated off the coast of Mayo and connected to the mainland by the Michael Davitt Bridge. Although connected by a bridge it still retains an island feel. It has an area of 146 km² with approximately 2,500 people living here permanently, during summer this figure goes up significantly. Although the name of the island is Achill, you enter the parish of Achill just after leaving Mullranny, which takes in the Currane Peninsula. There are many villages dotted throughout the island each with its own identity and character. All these villages look modern in appearance with new houses continually being added, but on closer inspection, you will notice these houses are built within a village that dates back centuries. In fact the history of Achill can be dated back 5,000 years with megalithic tombs to be found on the slopes of Slievemore.
Tourism started in Achill in the late 1830’s with the construction of the Slievemore Hotel in Dugort by the Mission Colony which adds its own historical importance to the island. It began with a long range of slated buildings facing south-east, with a school at one end and an infirmary, mill and dispensary at other. In the centre was the hotel, a printing office and the residence of the chief missionary, Edward Nangle. The lay-out of the mission, with its neatly manicured gardens and adjoining field system, was meant to represent a civilising force in contrast to the wild ruggedness of the island itself. The collective houses were known as the square and each house numbered 1~16. It was constructed on 130 acres of land leased from the then island’s landlord, Sir Richard O’Donnell, of Newport House. It was the vision of Rev. Edward Nangle, a protestant evangelist who moved permanently to the completed colony in 1834, along with his wife Eliza, his family, and his most important supporters.
Prior to 1830, Achill was unknown, unseen and untouched by the outside influence of an ever changing world. People lived simple lives, surviving on the poor cultivated land seldom ever leaving the island. It is said that some people were born, lived and died without ever setting foot on the mainland. At that time the estimated population of Achill was between 6,000 – 7,000, with fewer houses than today but with considerably larger families. In 1809 the first known study was done on the island by William Bald, a Scottish surveyor, cartographer and civil engineer. Bald moved to Ireland by 1809, and at the age of 21 was embarking on his most significant period of work. In 1815, he was describing himself as a Land Surveyor, and was living in Castlebar. It was in Ireland that his principal mapping, surveying and civil engineering works were undertaken, and it is in Ireland that he is chiefly remembered today. He was responsible for the construction and improvement of roads, harbours and railways throughout Ireland. As Director of the Trigonometrical Survey of Mayo he produced a 25-sheet map of the county, completed in 1830, which is regarded as a masterpiece. From these maps it is evident to see the lay of the land and how each village was situated on the many beaches around Achill with larger clusters of villages found further inland on higher ground. These villages are reported to be used as boley villages in the the spring, summer and autumn but logic would suggest that the beaches were the boley villages and the people would move in land in the winter months for shelther which were extremely wet and windy and not a place to be by the seashore. Whichever is the case, Balds maps clearly show extensive settlement on the beaches of Keem, Dooagh, Keel, and Dugort as well as in the east and south of the island. This is the first reference available of Upper and Lower Achill which would suggest that Upper Achill was the name given to the part of the island situated on higher ground as opposed to the northern part of the island.
With the introduction of tourism to Achill in the 1830’s and the establishment of a printing press, it brought the outside world to a forgotten part of Ireland. Many people came to witness the island, wandering from village to village to see for themselves the extreme poverty in which the people lived. Nowhere in Ireland was this existence mirrored. The now infamous Mission Colony was churning out 30,000 words per month in the Achill Herald, an Irish Provincial Newspaper, founded by Rev. Edward Nangle as a means of furthering his Protestant evangelical views in the predominantly Roman Catholic Ireland.
The first issue dated 31 July 1837 contained the statement that the paper would "bear a faithful and uncompromising testimony against the superstition and idolatry of the Church of Rome" and "proclaim the glorious truths of the Gospel”. It was a powerful propagandas tool but it also had a far reaching audience and enticed people to the island such as Charles Boycott and Paul Henry and many more who sought to live in a place so undeveloped, unexplored and offered a way of life, so many yearned for.
In 1845 disaster struck the island in the form of potato blight, a disease that attacked and killed the potato which was the staple diet of the island. This would have been ok and overcome as it wasn’t the first time the islanders witnessed this disease, what made it more severe is that it not only attacked in ’45, it also recurred in ’46 and again the following year which became known as Black ’47. Potato blight is one of the worst diseases you can get while growing potatoes and the moist, humid summer climate in Achill is perfect for spreading it. This famine was a gift from the Gods for Edward Nangle who said it was “Gods punishment for worshipping Popery, the land is smitten, the earth is blighted, famine begins, and is followed by plague, pestilence, blood!” This he must have thought was a way of converting the entire island, a bowl of soup for your soul. It wasn’t all good as the soup was 80% water and offered little nutritional value, he provided corn that some visiting the island at the time said it wouldn’t be sufficient to feed to their animals. He provided employment at the rate of 8s per day which was scarcely enough to feed the worker, let alone his or her family and often resulted in the entire household working to stay alive, building bridges, roads, walls and digging ditches. In 1849 Divine service was being celebrated in Dugort, Achill Sound, Inisbiggle and Mweelan, plans were advanced to open another station for preaching the gospel in Dooagh. Eight Protestant clergymen were employed in Achill.
Following the Great Famine, Sir Richard O Donnell found himself in financial difficulty, his estate was in the Encumbered Estates Court. Edward Nangle saw this as an opportunity to purchase the entire island at a reduced rate. Plans were put in place and money raised but fell short. The balance was made up by three gentlemen, Thomas Brassey, William Pike and Samuel Holme. William Pike would later purchase the land from Brassey and Holme.
The mission was now effectively the major landlord with 23,000 acres of an estate. In a move that was to prove ominous the remaining land was purchased by Archbishop John McHale and his nephew William McCormack. The Catholic ‘counter reformation’ had begun and a battle ensued to win back the hearts and minds of the people who had become lost in times of extreme hardship. By the 1880s the Achill mission colony was dead in all but name, having submitted to the overwhelming forces ranged against it. But even to this day the colony’s buildings and church stand as a legacy to that struggle.
The Monastery at Bunnacurry
On 21st September 1852, five men entered Achill Island. They entered with one single goal. To bring back thousands of converted souls that had changed their religious beliefs in times of extreme hardship during the Great Famine of 1845-1850 with the aid of Protestant Missionaries who had entered the island twenty years earlier.
Their names were Brothers Michael O Neill, Fedelis Laurence, Joseph Tarpy, Joseph McDermot & Boneventure McDermott, all of the Order of St. Francis. They were ordered in by Rev. John McHale, Archbishop of Tuam.
Along with their orders, they were given £40 in cash and 30 acres of barren bogland, but not a house they could call their own. Finally some charitable person lent them a little thatched cottage named Joyce’s old house located near the Bunnacurry Style.
They next built a slated house in Askill, which they used as a school and a temporary residence; they also fenced 30 acres of mountainous bog and sowed a little crop. The walls of that first monastery has long since been removed but the floor still remains, protected for now by the earth that has covered it. They also built a road to the sea, gave employment and taught in the school and chapel. Two years passed quickly and so too did £40 in cash. As you can’t live on the heath alone, they left and went to their former monasteries.
When Dr. Mchale visited Achill in 1855 he found the chapels deserted as they were previously, the people of Achill begged of him to send back the Monks again. So they returned that same year. When the Protestant Missionary, Edward Nangle heard of this. He quickly put pen to paper and wrote in The Achill Herald; ‘Bishop McHale’s Monks hid themselves behind the hills and were afraid to show themselves in public’.
When the parish priest, Rev. Michael Gallagher saw the report, he advised the Monks to leave Askill and come to Bunnacurry where the monastery still stands today.
They were given two small plots which they accustomed to get tilled for themselves. They were also given about 30 acres of bog adjoining these two plots in lieu of what they resigned in Askill at a nominal fee of one shilling per year. It so happened that what Nangle thought would injure them actually served them. Because where the monastery is now situated is the most conspicuous place on the island.
The Monks began work in earnest to provide materials for the building of the monastery, chapel, school and out offices. To get these materials they had to get some stones from Westport bay, Granite from Currane, timber from Westport and Galway. Br. Bonaventure McDermott spent weeks at Currane with a number of labourers, quarrying stones and sending them down to the shore where they were loaded onto Hookers; from there to a small quay at Cashel and from there by cart to Bunnacurry. The foundation stone of the monastery was laid by Rev. Michael Gallagher P.P. on 12th June 1855. The foundation stone of the chapel was laid by His Grace the most Rev. Dr. Mchale on 12th August 1855. His Grace addressed a large crowd who attended to witness the ceremony.
The names of William McCormack, Dublin (who held Currane property at the time), Thomas Higgins, Tuam and the Hon. M. Hansel, Limerick; should never be forgotten in the prayers and masses of the community for their benefactors. The donors contributed so generously that the Brothers were able to erect such a fine monastery in a short space of time.
After building the monastery they set about fencing, draining, shoring, graveling, sea-weeding and liming the bog until they brought it into a state of yielding crops.
Finally it began to look like an oasis in a desert of the surrounding black bog.
While doing these necessary works they gave employment, food and wages to the people of Achill as well as instruction and clothing to the children. By these good offices the people were returning to the Roman Catholic faith in droves.
It is not loss of faith but loss of food that caused them to fall away.
Brother Paul Carney entered the monastery on June 4th 1869 for whom this article would not be possible as he recorded much of what occurred in the monastery and Achill over the years. He took charge of the monastery school in 1872
Father Pat O Connor came to Achill as Parish Priest about 1880; he along with the Monks and a few other prominent men formed a relief committee; got relief works, some food and clothing for the people whenever the potato crop failed.
They also agitated to get the land sold to the Congested District Board. This being done, land was striped, houses built, roads made, rents reduced and security of tenure granted.
The following is a summary of some of the works carried out in Achill.
1885 July 7th. Foundation of the swivel bridge laid by Fr. O Connor
Pat Sweeney and John Curran were appointed contractors. The bridge cost £6,000 which was all raised by the above committee.
1886 Potato crop failed; which was staple food of the islanders. The relief committee collected large sums of money. Chief donor is Mr. Davitt, it being sent to him for relief in Achill.
1887 August 31st. Formal opening of Achill Sound bridge by Mr. Michael Davitt.
1888 June. Actual opening of Sound bridge for traffic.
1890 October 27th. Right Hon. A. Balfour at Achill Sound, members of the committee met with him and requested to open relief works. He promised to extend railway to Achill Sound.
1891 Railway making to Achill Sound commenced, expected to open in 1895.
1891 February 12th. Telegraph to Achill Sound, Extended to Dugort later.
1894 June 14th. 32 Achill people drowned at Westport Bay when the Hooker they were on hit a sand bank, fell on one side and threw the passengers into the water, some drowned in cabin, others entangled in sails and ropes. About 70 were saved by boats which came to the rescue. Br. Paul Carney was present when 32 coffins were brought to the Sound. This being the first train on ne railway which wasn’t fully complete. Committee set to work, appealed in the Press for relief for those who lost their bread earners. They got a generous response and collected £3,000 for the relatives of those drowned. They also erected a large headstone with the names of the drowned.
1894 Lord Mayor of Liverpool with Councillor Linskey in Achill, gave £250 which they had collected for the relatives of the drowned.
Other large donors were; Mr. Balfour, Mr. Davitt and PJ Kelly, Westport.
1895 Monks bought the village of Bunnacurry and made a road to the sea and constructed new quay.
1896 March 16th. Brother Boneventure McDermott died. Brother Boneventure might well be called the founder of the Achill Monastery. He spent about 44 years in Achill from 1852 – 1896. Twenty of which, he was Superior. Omitting a few years he was away questing for funds to support the monastery. Although being about 79 yearsof age, he was superintending a large number of workmen and working with them until evening the very day he took ill and died 6 days later. He was always first at morning and evening prayers, was first and last in the farm with his men. Never complained of fatigue though he very often got just cause. However food was prepared, he seldom found fault but took it as he got it. He was as sparing with his words, though hot tempered. He did much to benefit the poor as regards employment and instruction. Often lending money to men and women in order to enable them to travel to foreign lands to earn a livelihood. He is the only Brother of the 5 who first entered Achill in 1852 to be buried in the small graveyard on the grounds of the monastery.
1905 The monks sold Bunnacurry to the Congested District Board in order to give a good example to the other landlords of the island to do likewise.
The Monks continued to farm their lands at Bunnacurry, reclaiming and cultivating which seen them increase their holding over the years to 73 acres. They rose early, fasted long, worked hard, gave food, clothing, instruction, employment and wages to the people of Achill. They fasted on one meal and a collation each day. All Saint and Advent, all Fridays and Church fasting days in the year and on two meals every other day. No tobacco or whiskey, no holidays, no motor cars, no costly food or clothing. They Brothers who came and went in the monastery over the years loved Achill and were a big part of all that happened in the parish. They spent 120 years dedicating their lives to the people of Achill and in 1971, due to reorganisation in the Franciscan Order the monks left Achill and brought to an end, an era which leaves fond memories for many islanders.
Achill - Westport Railway 1894-1937
Railway Line to Achill
In 1894, the Westport - Newport railway line was extended to Achill Sound. The train station is now a hostel. The train provided a great service to Achill, but it also fulfilled an ancient prophecy. Brian Rua O' Cearbhain had prophesied that 'carts on iron wheels' would carry bodies into Achill on their first and last journey. In 1894, the first train on the Achill railway carried the bodies of victims of the Clew Bay Drowning. This tragedy occurred when a boat overturned in Clew Bay, drowning thirty two young people. They had been going to meet the steamer which would take them to Scotland for potato picking.
The Kirkintilloch Burning Disaster in 1937 fulfilled the second part of the prophecy, when the bodies of ten victims were carried by rail to Achill. These people had died in a fire in a 'bothy'. This term referred to the temporary accommodation provided for those who went to Scotland to pick potatoes. Young people from Achill spent their summers work in Scotland. Nowadays, most of the young people of Achill continue in school until they are 17 or 18, in one of the two post-primary schools and gain employment in modern high tech companies in Ireland and abroad.
Michael Davitt Bridge
The idea of the Achill Sound Bridge connecting Achill Island to the Corraun peninsula was being considered in the early 1880s. There wasn't much concern before this time for the inhabitants of the island. As one William Maxwell, remarked, 'many islanders has lived and died without every seeing a town'.
People used to cross the channel by ferry, which was not very safe, due to the strong currents and winds. When the tide was low people would cross the channel by foot or horseback, through shallow waters, although there were cases of people and horses being killed due to the fast tidal surge.
Mr. Glover, a Mayo County Surveyor had drawn up plans for the bridge, which was approved by Mr J Price, a civil engineer. The official authorization was granted by The Board of Trade in London and in 1883 an administrative body was organised to finance the project and the total cost was priced at £5,000.
In 1886 the construction of the Achill Sound Bridge began, and one year later it was completed. They named the bridge 'The Michael Davitt Bridge'.
The structure of the bridge had deteriorated badly by the 1930s, and by 1939 the Mayo County Council had decided to replace the middle section of the bridge. It had been for 'horse and cart', not the motor cars and this was causing the problems to the bridge. The islanders saw the need for a much bigger and wider bridge so it would be able to cope with the increasing amount of traffic.
In 1947 the bridge was knocked and reconstruction commenced. This work on the bridge was held back for several months due to bad weather conditions. The reconstruction recommenced on September 29th 1948, and was finally completed in January 1949.
Photograph taken on occasion of official opening of the Michael Davitt bridge linking Achiil Island to the mainland, 1948.
In September 2007, construction on the new swing bridge
started, traffic lights placed at each side of the bridge led to traffic delays. The construction of the bridge was originally due to be completed in May 2008 but logistical problems involved in the installation of the underground ducts for cables, and weather
problems, caused a delay in the project, forcing it five months behind schedule.
During the installation of the new bridge, a temporary causeway was constructed adjacent to the bridge with traffic lights at each side. This caused many inconveniences for people at either side of the bridge with traffic congestion a problem throughout the summer. At times, some motorists reported having to wait up to half an hour to pass through the village of Achill Sound.
In November 2008 the final works on the bridge were completed and the traffic lights were removed, allowing a free-flow of traffic entering and exiting the island for the first time in 14 months. The initial cost of the bridge was to be in the region of €5 million but the final cost is believed to be much higher because of the delays.
The bridge was designed by Malachy Walsh & Partners and the design is based on the Spanish Calatrava architectural design.
The Tatie Hokers
Here is a story printed in the Irish Press on Sept. 7th 1948 about The Tatie Hokers in Scotland, by Anna Kelly.
When the 'tatie hokers' have finished their work for the day, there are no lights of home to welcome them, no hearth, no matter how poor, to make a focus for family life.
Instead they come back to the bare cheerless bothy, which is the dormitory and living quarters of the Irish farm labourer in Scotland.
Nothing could be more depressing.
When 10 boys from Achill were burnt to death in a locked bothy in Kirkintilloch eleven years ago, a wave of indignation swept the country.
Terrible stories came to light about the conditions in which the workers were housed. Even the Scots were shocked. People said that something must be done and one gathered vaguely that improvements followed the scandal, but as far as I can see, present conditions are good only on comparison to what went before.
Here is a typical bothy living room which is said to be a good one. It wasn't a stable but a store room. It had a high rafted roof and rough white washed walls. From the middle hung a single electric bulb high up on an electric flex.
Round the walls were wooden tables and at each table a narrow wooden form. There were no cupboards or shelves. Some of the workers had their own trunks and kept their food in them. There was nothing else in the room but the bare necessaries of tables and stools.
The sleeping quarters were cow byres. The beds were laid out in the cattle stalls. There was a window in the roof and I was told it's a good roof - it didn't leak. The beds consisted of piled up potato boxes with straw mattresses and blankets laid on top. As the partitions between the cattle stalls were wide, two people were able to sleep on each mattress.
When you come in from the field especially if you're a picker, the first thing you'll need is a good wash. But in one bothy all I saw in the way of water was a cold tap in the yard for twenty to thirty people.
There was no fireplace or stove of any kind in the draughty living room. The only fire was in a little cooking shed outside and this was needed to boil the potatoes for their dinner and the kettle for tea. There is nowhere to sit at night and relax, no place to dry wet clothes. Not much chance for those handsome young girls to get scraping some of the muck off themselves.
But they consider the money is good, better than they would get at home, they say, and they like the outdoor life. They can save a bit of money.
To many, it is a holiday. Mothers bring their children, boys spend their school holidays here. Relatives in Scotland came themselves or sent their children for the fresh air.
The girls usually cook their own meals and get the rations every Saturday in the nearest town. The meals are rough, mostly plain boiled potatoes with bread and tea. Meat, of course, doesn't last half the week.
Living in stables and camped on the floor, the girls perform miracles in keeping themselves clean and dressed. In the fields, they wear jumpers and slacks or dungarees and heavy boots or wellingtons. They are all tied up against the wind and weather. When they come in they are often muck to the eyebrows and their fingers petrified with cold and picking.
How they manage to make up and dress up and look so good and dance when they get the chance is a tribute to women's eternal triumph over the worst of circumstances.
It is not the work, but the living conditions that seem degrading. All agricultural workers live hard. No farmer lives soft in the way city people do. Life in Achill for instance is no bed of roses, but life in a Scottish bothy is life without humanity.
The system has grown and hardened with the years. The potatoes are auctioned on the stalk to the merchant and it is the merchants business and not the farmers to get them lifted and marketed but it is the farmers responsibility to house the workers.
The farmer will retort and with some reason, that it wouldn't pay him to erect and equip special dwellings to house casual workers for only a week or so in the year.
Whose responsibility is it?
Unity among the workers themselves would help. The workers have the power if they only realised it.
Their labour is essential to the Scottish farmer whose profits in potatoes alone, run into thousands of pounds.
Wherever the responsibility lies in Scotland, one May well ponder the fact that our own people has as yet provided no alternative or satisfactory way of life at home for the boys and girls of Achill.
Achill at War
The first half of the nineteenth century saw a surge in Protestant missionary activity in Ireland. This was largely a reaction to the sense of crisis in Protestant circles following both the Act of Union of 1800, and the attainment of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. There was a strong belief amongst evangelical Protestants that if the Catholic Irish could be brought over to the Protestant faith, then the problems which bedevilled Irish society, such as economic backwardness, lack of respect for the law, and hatred of the Protestant establishment, would be eradicated. (www.historyireland.com 13.04.2015)
From the 1830’s to the 1880’s a great religious war raged between the Catholic and Protestant church’s for the hearts and souls of the poor and hungry of Connaught, nowhere is that more evident than on Achill Island where it divided communities and still to this day the bitter taste of the soup is still fresh in people’s mouths.
It is widely known locally that rather than take the soup from the strangers hand you would sooner die than convert to the other side, if it was not for your children whom you had a necessity to feed and nurture. Rather than Christian charity on the Island at that time, hatred was widespread. Prophets and Priests armed to the nines with the Holy Bible had just one intention, to seek out and claim souls. Lives were threatened by day and members of the religious orders had to be evacuated to safety under the cover of darkness. Where was the evacuation safety net for the children of Achill who had no choice?
This report will investigate and document life in Achill in those years; why there was a need to establish a Franciscan Monastery in Achill, why it was abandoned or even if there was a need for one to begin with. Why in such a small area was there a need to build six catholic churches and six schools? Was the Mission estate so wrong in its willingness to save lives, feed the hungry, nurse the sick, cloth the poor and provide schooling? Building three churches’ one of which is on Inisbiggle Island, establishing a printing press and at a time when there was widespread poverty, they employed over 2,000 people in the mission colony in Dugort.
In 1831 Edward Nangle arrived in Achill. He was so struck be the desolate beauty of the island and the primitive but noble ‘savagery’ of the people, that he decided to found a Protestant colony there, with the aim of bringing Christ and the bible to this forgotten part of Ireland. The land on which the Achill colony was built was leased from the island landlord, Sir Richard O’Donel, and was located near the village of Dugort, under the shadow of Achill’s highest mountain, Slievemore. Sir O'Donel agreed to support the project and give him about 130 acres in a 31 year lease (the only caveat being that he needed to entice the current tenants to release their lease that already existed). A committee of the Achill Mission was formed, the tenants were convinced to release some of their land and development ensued.
Edward Nangle had moved permanently to the completed colony in 1834, along with his wife Eliza, his family, and his most loyal supporters. The missionary settlement consisted of male and female schools, the minister’s house, a church, a hotel and a printing press. (www.historyireland.com 13.04.2015)
In 1837, just 3 years after he took up full time residence in Achill, Edward Nangle wrote in The Achill Herald which shows how the colony had developed in such a short space of time.
‘The Missionary Settlement has since grown into a village – the sides of a once barren mountain are now adorned with cultivated fields and gardens and the stillness of desolation which once reigned is now broken by the hum of the school and the sound of the church-going bell.’ (Edward Nangle. 1837)
In 1848 there were more than 3,000 people working for the mission, clearing land, building roads and walls, etc. In July 1847 it was estimated that out of Achill’s total population of 7,000 people, 5,000 were receiving daily relief from the mission. The mission also planted twenty-one tons of blight-free foreign potatoes. The colony was now the recognised centre for food distribution on the island. In November 1848, the barque William Kennedy, freighted with 220 tons of Indian meal, arrived in Achill from Philadelphia. It had enough supplies to feed 2,000 people and cost £2,200 paid for out of mission funds. There can be little doubt that Nangle and his mission saved Achill during the famine, and that without them thousands would probably have starved. Hopes were expressed that Achill might soon become a Protestant island. This was the zenith of the mission’s fortunes. (www.historyireland.com 15.04.2015)
About 15 years into the lease, the committee became concerned that upon the lease's expiration, the success of the settlement might trigger an increase in their rents upon renewal. When Sir Richard O'Donels estates ended up in the Encumbered Estates Court due to financial difficulties, a move was made by the Achill Mission to purchase the land. A decision was made to try to purchase all of Achill Island; funds were raised but fell short. Three gentlemen made up the shortfall: Thomas Brassey, William Pike and Samuel Holme.
The Achill Mission Trustees purchased Achill Island in 1851. In this transaction each of the gentlemen acquired small parcels of land on Achill Island. As a point of comparison, the Achill Mission acquired over 23,000 acres at a cost of 10,500 pounds and each gentleman paid less than 2400 Pounds for their parcels. (www.rootsweb.ancestry.com 15.04.2015)
The Trustees of the Achill Mission were the predominant Landlords in Achill Civil Parish and also represented three islands in Kilcommon-Erris when the Griffith's Valuation was conducted around 1855. They were documented in the following Townlands of Achill Civil Parish in 1855: Bal of Dookinelly-Calvy, Bellanasally, Cashel, Dugort, Dugort East, Dugort West, Dooinkelly (Thulis) Gubalennaun-beg, Inishgalloon, Keel West, Mweelin, Pollranny (Lynchaghan), Pollranny (Sweeny) and Slievemore (including the village of Dooagh within Slievemore). In the Civil Parish of Kicommon-Erris, the Trustees of Achill Mission were the primary landlords on the Islands of Glassillan, Illanbory and Inishbiggle. (landedestates.nuigalway.ie 13.04.2015)
John McHale was among the first Irish bishops since the Reformation to have been educated in Ireland. As a fearless critic of British mismanagement of Ireland during the Great Famine, he was attacked by the British press but loved by the Irish people. It was for raising his voice in publicly defending his people that Daniel O’Connell christened McHale ‘the Lion of St Jarlath’s’ a variant of the Scriptural phrase ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah’. Another variant of this descriptive phrase is ‘the Lion of the West’, which he soon became known. Coincidently the same year Rev. Edward Nangle was ordained, John McHale became Archbishop of Tuam in 1834. (www.catholicireland.net 13.04.2015)
The Catholic Church was soon reminded of its neglect of the West of Ireland, and the early successes of the mission spurred it into action. The turning point came in 1837 when the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, John McHale, visited the Island and stirred up the populace against what he called ‘these venomous fanatics’. The Achill Herald recounts an incident during McHale’s visit to neighbouring Clare Island when a scripture reader and a schoolmaster from the mission were beaten and pursued ‘almost to the death’ by the locals, and had to flee the island by night to save their lives. The arrival of Father John Dwyer, appointed by John McHale, as parish priest of Achill, heralded a sustained attack on the colony, its staff and supporters. Caesar Otway’s biased but evocative description of these early attacks on the mission give us a feel for the passions aroused on both sides. In A Tour in Connaught (1839), he relates a sermon preached against the mission by Fr Dwyer: (www.historyireland.com 13.04.2015)
‘Have nothing to do with these heretics—curse them, hoot at them, spit in their faces—cut the sign of the cross in the air when you meet them, as you would against devils—throw stones at them—pitch them, when you have opportunity, into the bog holes—nay more than that, do injury to yourselves in order to injure them—don’t work for them, though they pay in ready money—nay, don’t take any medicine from their heretic doctor [Neason Adams], rather die first’.
John McHale, who had been appointed Archbishop of Tuam in 1834, reacted to the Nangle Mission by sending the Franciscan Monks to Achill in 1852 to found a monastery at Bunacurry. They were to provide a Catholic education to the boys of Achill and generally to counter the influence of Nangle in the area. The passion with which Archbishop McHale opposed the Nangle Mission is evident in his letter published in the Freeman’s Journal on 8 January 1852, where he thanked those benefactors who contributed ‘to counteract the mischievous efforts of the mercenary speculators, who, more than twenty years ago, bought a farm in Achill, and planted themselves there to drive a lucrative trade on English credulity’. The Archbishop went on to refer to the preparations for the arrival of the Franciscan monks to Achill when he complained that ‘some of those colonists had violently and illegally seized heaps of stones, which were purchased for the purposes of erecting a monastery and schools for the young’. Towards the end of the long, angry letter, Archbishop McHale suggests that the ‘imposters’ ‘confine themselves to the physical wants of their tenants, enabling them to live, and leaving the care of their souls to their legitimate pastors’. (Teller of Tales. Patricia Byrne)
It is known locally that initially the monastery was going to be built near the junction of the Askill and Valley road but because of its isolation, stones were taken at night and walls knocked, it soon became known as ‘The Battle of the stones’. Fr. Michael Gallagher, a native parish priest, was evicted from his house at Cashel by the Mission’s landlords. The stones from the knocked house were carried to the monastery which was well under construction. One night a group from the Dugort Colony came and knocked what was built of the monastery at the time. They carried the stones back to Mission territory. Soon the news spread throughout the island.
On an appointed day, men, women and children gathered from all parts of the island determined to fight if necessary for possession of the stones. Currane, having the only catholic landlord at the time, by the name of Mr. MacCormac, sent a little army of around 100 able bodied men, led by a Mr. Ryan, a friend of the landlord. The protestant party were frightened. The police could not protect them. The Catholic numbers were so great. And the stones were carried back in the morning. The remaining stones to complete the monastery building in Bunnacurry were boated across from Currane. (www.ouririshheritage 16.04.2015)
Bishop McHale spoke to the people in secret and public, by night and by day, on the highways and in places of public resort, calling up the memories of the past, denouncing the wrongs of the present, and promising imperishable rewards to those who should die in the struggle for their faith.
He called on the Government to remember how the Union was carried by Mr. Pitt on the distinct assurance and implied promise that Catholic Emancipation, which had been denied by the Irish Parliament, should be granted by the Parliament of the Empire.
Dr. McHale, fighting for relief of the poor and the education of youth, condemned the Poor Law and the system of National Schools and Queen's Colleges as devised by the Government. He founded his own schools, entrusting boys' classes to the Christian Brothers and Franciscan monks, while Sisters of Mercy and Presentation Nuns taught girls. When costs restricted their spread. The schools had to be supplemented later by the National Board with amendments to the bill. (www.mchale.com 15.04.2015)
By the late 1850s the Achill Mission had entered a period of decline, yet when Brother Paul Carney, the young Franciscan monk, reached Achill in 1869, he described (in the third person narration) his work in terms of redressing the influence of the Nangle Mission. His zeal was chiefly devoted to the conversion of fallen Catholics or Jumpers as they were called who in Famine years had fallen away from the Faith. But with instruction and charity around 95% returned in due course to the true faith. In the years of the famine, the Protestant Mission, Dublin, bought most of the island. Then as the landlords they had the whip hand over the poor, starving ignorant tenants, equipped as they were with bags of bibles and purses of gold as bribes. (Teller of Tales Patricia Byrne)
In the evening of November 7, 1881, following a brief illness, John McHale, Archbishop of Tuam, died peacefully in his own home. . He was ninety years of age and he had been a bishop for fifty six of those years and is buried in Tuam Cathedral.
The Monastery remained strong and steadfast all through the early 1900’s working hard, cultivating the 73 acres of grounds, providing employment and education to the local community. Changing times and culture saw the demise of the monastery; ironically the same institution that first brought the Franciscan Monks to Achill also played a part in their departure with the construction of the first stand-alone Catholic Church on the island being built in Achill Sound in 1910. For the next sixty years the monks continued to toil in the fields and preach the gospel from the little church. When the Franciscan brothers left Achill it in 1971 the buildings and grounds were sold as an agricultural co-op with 750 people becoming shareholders. After initial success, the co-op collapsed in the 1980s. A committee has been working since 1998 to find an alternative use for the monastery.
By the 1880s the Achill mission colony was dead in all but name, having submitted to the overwhelming forces ranged against it. But even to this day the colony’s buildings and church stand as a legacy to that struggle. The demise of the mission was a cause of great sorrow to its founder Edward Nangle, who died largely forgotten in 1883. For over fifty years Nangle had given his all to the mission, and not just in sweat and ink. During his Achill struggles he buried his first wife and no less than ten of his children, who died in childbirth or in childhood, and innumerable more of his friends and supporters. More than a century on, the legacy of Edward Nangle and the Achill Island mission should not be seen in terms of success or failure at conversions, but in terms of what it did for Achill Island. We have already mentioned the thousands saved from starvation during the Famine. But the legacy of the mission can also be seen in the modernisation of the island which it started, and which accounts for the schools, churches, roads, piers, and even the Catholic church itself! There is no doubt that Edward Nangle caused controversy and strife on the island, and that his methods were often questionable. But the good he did should be equally obvious. (www.historyireland.com 15.04.2015)
Edward Nangle returned to Achill briefly in 1879 when he must have surveyed with disappointment the decline of the settlement he had built with such zeal.
‘As I have now completed my 80th year, and am very infirm, I am unable to work for our dear people in Achill as I did for upwards of 40 years of my life.’
In early 1879 he put pen to paper to write The Tourist’s Guide to Achill, published in the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, revealing an intimate knowledge of the ‘romantic district’ which he had known for a half-century. A poignant 1880 advertisement for a Dugort bathing lodge in The Irish Church Advocate signalled the approaching end of his association with what had become known as The Colony under the shadows of Slievemore.
"Just over one hundred and thirty years ago, on Sunday morning 9th September, 1883, the controversial churchman Rev Edward Nangle breathed his last at his home at 23 Morehampton Road, Dublin where he had lain unconscious for two days. ‘Mr Nangle ought to have been buried in Achill’, wrote his biographer Rev Henry Seddall the following year, but the Nangle family decided against this for financial reasons, and his remains were interred in Deans Grange Cemetery, Monkstown" (www.theirishstory.com 16.04.2015).