Sunday, 12 July 2009

When Achill is like an Aegean island in the sun

Dugort beach ... Achill on a summer’s day is like an Aegean island in the sun (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Achill Island was one of my favourite boltholes for many years. I often retreated there, promising myself I was going to use the time to write and to be creative. In winter, without a dial telephone on the island, I was inaccessible. In summer, as the island basked in sunshine and I looked at the whitewashed cottages, the golden beaches, the blue skies and the blue seas, I could imagine I was on an Aegean island in Greece.

I first visited the island in 1974, and I was a regular visitor from 1980 on. Over the years, I made many friends there, sometimes finding myself on Achill five or six times a year. Saint Thomas’s, the small Church of Ireland parish church (right) in Dugort, was always open, providing a welcome place for prayer and contemplation.

But the lure of Greece was captivating, and I hadn’t been back for five or six years. Then an old friend died in a tragic accident earlier this summer. Without much thought or planning, I was back on Achill on one of the sunniest and hottest days of this summer.

The welcome was as warm as ever. After Tommy’s funeral in Bunacurry, I headed back to the Strand Hotel, where I had stayed over the years. Once again, as I stared out over the long beach below, it was tempting to forget time and responsibilities and to linger a little longer.

Largest off-shore island

At 148 sq km (57 square miles), Achill Island is Ireland’s largest off-shore island, although a bridge across Achill Sound has linked Achill Island and the Curraun Peninsula since 1887. Today, the island has a population of 2,700, but at the end of the Neolithic Period, Achill had a population of 500–1,000 people around 4000 BC, and the settlement of people increased during the Iron Age.

Achill Island lies in the Barony of Burrishoole, in the territory of ancient Umhall (Umhall Uactarach and Umhall Ioctarach, or Upper Umhall and Lower Umhall), that originally embraced an area extending from the Galway/Mayo border to Achill Head. The O’Malleys were hereditary chieftains of Umhall from the ninth century. After the Anglo-Norman invasion of Connacht, Umhall passed to the Butlers, and in the late 14th century Thomas le Botiller was recorded as being in possession of Akkyll and Owyll. Later, the de Burgo family owned the island.

The migration of people to Achill from other parts of Ireland, particularly from Ulster, stepped up in the 17th and 18th centuries, due to political and religious turmoils. But it was religious and social unrest in the 19th century that made Canon Edward Nangle synonymous with Achill Island.

Nangle’s Social Gospel

Canon Edward Nangle’s portrait in Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Nangle’s name has been shrouded in controversy for the past century and a half. He has been accused of sectarian bigotry, of “souperism” – the worst sort of proselytism – during the Great Famine, and of dealing a deathly blow to the Gaelic culture of the indigenous inhabitants of Achill.

But back in 1996, Scoil Acla, the Achill Summer School, invited me to present a paper reassessing Nangle’s contribution to the development of the island.

Canon Edward Nangle (1799-1883) was born in Dublin into a prominent Roman Catholic family from Co Meath, whose members included Edmund Nagle, regarded by many as a saint after his death in the 17th century. Edward’s widowed father sent him to the Cavan Royal School, where his contemporaries included Thomas Fowell Buxton, the great Liberal reformer and campaigner against slavery, and Robert Daly, the celebrated evangelical Bishop of Cashel.

Nangle’s first choice of career was medicine. After ordination he failed miserably as a curate at first in Athboy (Meath), where he stayed for only a few months, and then in Monkstown (Dublin), where he stayed for a mere fortnight.

He first came to the West in 1831 on the steamer Nottingham with a cargo of Indian meal after famine and cholera swept through Mayo and Sligo. He stayed overnight at Achill Sound, before crossing on foot to the island while the tide was out, and then made his way on horseback to Bullsmouth, Dugort and Keel. Moved by the temporal and spiritual destitution of the people, he set about laying the foundations for his Achill Mission. Land at Dugort was leased at a nominal rent from Sir Richard O’Donel of Newport, more lands were bought, and the Nangle family settled in Dugort in 1834.

For the next 18 years, Nangle worked ceaselessly and selflessly on the island. Schools were opened at Dugort, Slievemore, Cashel and Keel, new churches were built at Dugort, Achill Sound and on Inishbiggle, the leased land was bought out and redistributed, a clinic provided medical care as good as the hospitals of the day, crop rotation was introduced, the Irish language was promoted popularly, a printing press published a weekly newspaper and printed prayer books and Bibles in Irish, and new-built piers optimised the fishermen’s catches.

Nangle has been accused of sectarian and bigoted polemic. His language was undoubtedly strong, and we would all be embarrassed to hear it today. But then, no-one can be proud of the rhetoric deployed in all the Churches at the time. On the Roman Catholic side, Archbishop McHale was quick to stoop to denigratory terms such as “the demon of fanaticism and religious rancour,” “fanatic,” and “spiritual poison,” or to claim that the mission was funded by money coming from the “credulous dupes of imposture,” and to pillory Nangle’s new parishioners as people “who worship a stone for their god.”

Other Roman Catholics were kinder to Nangle: the Parish Priest of Belmullet, Dean John Patrick Lyons, praised Nangle as “an excellent man, and he is doing a great deal of good to the poor people of Achill, among whom, with a most praiseworthy philanthropy, he has buried himself.”

A surprising consequence of Nangle’s mission was the Roman Catholic awakening to the neglect of the island people. Resident priests were introduced for the first time, a monastery was built at Bunacurry, and schools were founded.

The Achill Mission was also responsible for introducing tourism to Achill: the first hotel, the Slievemore Hotel, opened in 1839. Nor should it be forgotten that Nangle was a man of culture too: Mrs Violet McDowell reminded me once that he could play the violin with virtuosity, knew his Haydn and Mozart, painted in watercolours and loved to quote from Byron’s poetry. His legacy rests not with the polemic of the past but in his social application of the Gospel which continues to benefit the islanders and Achill’s economy.

A haven for writers

Dugort Strand ... Achill has inspired generations of writers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I should have been at home that weekend, writing this column on the Ryan report on child abuse in institutional homes and the collapse of credibility and respectability for the religious orders, or writing about the current economic and political meltdown, and the loss of savings and investments by pension funds and ordinary people. But then, ever since Nangle began publishing his Achill Missionary Herald and Western Witness in 1837, Achill has been a retreat and safe refuge for artists and writers.

The Belfast-born artist Paul Henry (1876-1958) stayed on Achill Island for a number of years in the early 1900s and some of his most famous paintings are of the island’s dramatic landscape. The American realist painter Robert Henri (1865-1929) came to Achill on a regular basis in the early 20th century, and is reputed to have painted portraits of almost all the children in Dooagh village. More recently, Achill has inspired artists and painters such as Camille Souter and Cyril Gray.

Tragic events in the Valley House inspired John Millington Synge as he wrote The Playboy of the Western World (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John Millington Synge based his play The Playboy of the Western World (1907) partly on the story of James Lynchehaun, who was born at Achill Sound about 1860 and was educated in the monastery at Bunacurry. After being sacked as a teacher, Lynchehaun worked as an agent for Agnes MacDonnell on her estate at the Valley on Achill Island, which had been bought from the Earl of Cavan in late 19th century. When MacDonnell sacked Lynchehaun, a bitter dispute ensued over his cottage, and in 1894 the MacDonnell home, the Valley House, was set on fire and she was savagely attacked and left for dead. Although she survived, she was severely disfigured for the rest of her life. Lynchehaun gave Synge the character of Christy Mahon, the “playboy” who gives his play its title.

The German Nobel Prize-winning author, Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), wrote of his time on Achill in his Irish Journal (Irisches Tagebuch). His cottage near Dugort became an artists’ residence in 2001.

Other writers who lived on Achill include the late English travel writer Honor Tracey, whose supposed affair with Sir John Betjeman was at the heart of a literary hoax played on the writer A.N. Wilson. The novelist Graham Greene was introduced to Achill Island in 1947 by Catherine Walston and wrote parts of the novels The Heart of the Matter and The Fallen Idol in Dooagh. Achill is also said to have inspired some of Greene’s best poetry, but his cottage has since been demolished.

The poet and composer Raymond Deane was born on Achill, and more recently the Dublin-born poet Paul Durcan, who has family roots in Westport, Co Mayo, has built a home on the island close to Saint Thomas’s Church and the former missionary colony.

Parting and returning

Before I left Achill, it was a pleasure once again to call in to Gray’s Guesthouse in the former missionary colony at the foot of Slievemore and to visit Violet McDowell. Her brother, the late Cyril Gray, taught art in Newtown School, Waterford, for many years, while another brother, Bertie, was a vicar in Cornwall. Over the decades, Vi has got to know the majority of clergy in the Church of Ireland, and has played host to many of them.

Saint Thomas’s ... needs at least €45,000 for essential repairs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After a drive across to Keel, I returned to Slievemore and Dugort, and visited Saint Thomas’s Church. Today, the church is the spiritual home to a small congregation that is swollen in numbers in the summer months. After more than 150 years, the church is beginning to show its age. Essential work that is needed to keep it open includes the electrics, the internal roof and the windows, and parishioners say this work will cost at least €45,000.

After a final walk on the beach at Dugort, and a visit to Agnes McDonnell’s former home, the Valley House, it was time to head home. A balmy, dusky, summer evening was turning to night. But I can’t imagine it will be long before those Aegean charms call me back to Achill during these summer days.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the July editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).

Donations to the Restoration of Saint Thomas’s can be sent to: St Thomas Restoration Fund, c/o T.H. Stevenson (Treasurer), Dugort, Achill Island, Co Mayo.