Sunday, 5 May 2013

A morning on a tiny island

Crossing from Achill to Inishbiggle … with the poet James Harpur

Patrick Comerford

About 80 or more people made the crossing from Bullsmouth on Achill Island to the tiny island of Inishbiggle this morning.

The channel between Bullsmouth and Inishbiggle has one of the strongest and most treacherous currents in Europe. Those currents are so unpredictable, often making the island inaccessible, that even last night there were some doubts about whether we would go ahead with this morning’s crossing.

We crossed over in relays on currachs and a launch staffed by the Irish Coast Guards for part of the programme of the ninth Annual Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend, which is taking place throughout the weekend on Achill Island.

Inishbiggle is a tiny island, squeezed between the Co Mayo mainland and Achill Island and has a tiny population of no more than 20, and the island’s school and post office have been closed for some years. The island measures 2.5 km by 1.5 km, and covers an area of 2.6 sq km.

Walking across Inishbiggle on a rainy Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Sheila McHugh led a guided walk across the island, and the island school opened to welcome us with morning coffee and tea.

From there, it was a short walk on to the eastern end of the island, where I spoke in Holy Trinity Church on ‘The History of the Church of Ireland on Inishbiggle.’

Later, Mechtild Manus, Director of the Goethe-Institut Irland, introduced poetry readings by Paddy Bushe, Eva Bourke and Jan Wagner.

This is a small, beautiful church, but only one Church of Ireland parishioner is left on the island.

Later, we returned to the school for lunch, provided by Gray’s Guest House in Dugort, where we are staying.

Over lunch, an interesting conversation began on the possibility of finding a new future for Holy Trinity Church as a centre for spirituality and the arts, But this is going to need the kind of visionary but practical approach that has transformed the Heinrich Böll Cottage in Dugort into a writers’ and artists’ centre and that has inspired the Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend each year.

Making the crossing back from Inishbiggle to Achill Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The currach crossing earlier in the morning took about ten minutes. The crossing back with the Coast Guard took less than half that time. Sea spray and salt water left most of us in need of a change of clothes, and this afternoon’s programme has been put back until tomorrow morning.

A history of the Church of Ireland on Inishbiggle

Looking across to Inishbiggle from Bullsmouth ... the Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend includes a lecture on the history of the Church of Ireland on the island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

This island is unique in Ireland. While other islands, such as Valentia in Co Kerry may have both Catholic and Church of Ireland churches, Inishbiggle is the only island with only a Church of Ireland church. In addition, Holy Trinity Church, on the eastern side of this island, is the oldest and probably the only truly historical building on the island, and perhaps also its most beautiful building.

We can say that Inishbiggle is an island off an island, but we could also call it a new island, for it has been inhabited continuously for less than two centuries.

At the time of the Tudor Reformation in Ireland, Inishbiggle was part of the larger Co Mayo estates claimed by the Butler Earls of Ormond as heirs to the Butlers of Mayo, and those claims were confirmed to Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond, at the Composition of Connaught in 1585, and again in a grant from King James I in 1612.

The Ormond Butlers’ loyalty to the Tudor and Stuart monarchies made them key figures in implementing the Anglican Reformation in Ireland. The Butler Lordship of Achill included Inishbiggle, and continued until 1696, when the Butlers leased their Mayo estates first to Sir Thomas Bingham and then to Thomas Medlycott. Later in the 18th century, the Medlycott family was facing financial difficulties and sold the estate to John Browne of Westport House, 1st Earl of Altamont, in 1774. He sold it back to the Medlycotts but the estates, including Achill Island and Inishbiggle, were bought by Sir Neal O’Donel of Newport House in 1785 – for £33,598 19s 4d.

Although the O’Donel family built the Church of Ireland parish church at Burrishole for Newport, and despite continuous ownership of Achill and Inishbiggle by leading members of the Church of Ireland since the Reformation, no Church of Ireland churches were built on these islands until the mid-19th century.

And, despite this continuous record of ownership for many centuries, the history of Inishbiggle as an inhabited island is recent, modern history, for the island remained uninhabited until 1834.

Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort ... the centre of Edward Nangle’s mission work on Achill and Inishbiggle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In 1837, there was no church on either Achill Island or Inishbiggle, and the Rector, Canon Charles Wilson, reported that Sunday services held were held in a private house. That year, the Achill Mission approached the O’Donel estate about leasing Inishbiggle. Sir Richard O’Donel himself admitted at one stage that his Achill estates had provided him with little income, and he certainly was unwilling to invest any of his dwindling fortune into helping his tenants.

A year later, by 1838, a few buildings had started to appear on the island, and in 1839 a prominent Church of Ireland author and clergyman of the day, the Revd Caesar Otway (1780-1842), known for his advocacy on behalf of the poor, visited Inishbiggle.

Otway had earned a reputation for studying and seeking to improve the conditions of the poor in the west of Ireland. At the time of his visit to Inishbiggle, he was the assistant chaplain at the Magdalen Asylum in Dublin, and his writings, expressing his concerns for the poorest people in Ireland, include Sketches in Ireland (1827), A Tour in Connaught (1839), and Sketches in Erris (1841). Otway suggested Inishbiggle as ideal place for growing wheat and proposed building a mill on the island, but his proposals were never followed through.

Otway might have been the most important 19th century Church of Ireland clergyman to visit Inishbiggle but for the arrival of the Revd Edward Nangle as part of his endeavours to extend the work and scope of the Achill Mission.

In 1841, Inishbiggle had a population of 67 living in 12 houses.

During the difficult Famine years immediately after the death of Caesar Otway, Inishbiggle developed slowly, with the arrival of both Protestants and Catholics from Achill Island and from mainland Co Mayo, settling on Inishbiggle to take advantage of lower rents and in the hope of finding better living conditions.

The Revd Canon Edward Nangle (1800-1883) ... a portrait in Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In March 1848, hundreds of people from Dooniver, Bullsmouth and Ballycroy approved a declaration of thanks to Canon Nangle for supplying them with potatoes and turnips from one of the mission farms in Inishbiggle. Without the food, they said, they would have starved. As Anne Falvey writes, “Despite the criticisms heaped upon him, we can only surmise how much more tragic the situation would have been but for the charitable efforts of Nangle and hundreds of generous donors.”

The first schoolhouse was built on Inishbiggle that year. But by 1851, the population had dropped to 61 people, living in ten houses. A year later, Edward Nagle and the Trustees of the Achill Mission at Dugort bought Inishbiggle from Sir Richard O’Donel of Newport in 1852. The trustees of the mission were the Hon Somerset Richard Maxwell, the Right Hon Joseph Napier, George Alexander Hamilton, and Edward Nangle. Apart from Nangle, the other three trustees came from families with strong church associations.

The Radisson Blu Farnham Estate Hotel ... Farnham House had once been the home of Somerset Maxwell, a trustee of the Achill Mission (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

1, Somerset Maxwell (1803-1884), who had briefly been the Tory MP for Co Cavan (1839-1840), was a grandson of Henry Maxwell, Bishop of Meath, and the son of the Revd Henry Maxwell (1774-1838), 6th Lord Farnham. Bishop Maxwell had built Saint Mary’s Church of Ireland parish church in Bunclody, Co Wexford, then known as Newtownbarry after the Maxwell-Barry family – of interest to us this morning as we are honouring John F Deane this weekend on his 70th birthday, and his father, like my Comerford ancestors, came from Bunclody.

Somerset Maxwell eventually succeeded his brother Henry Maxwell in 1868 as the 8th Lord Farnham, but, while he inherited the Farnham estate in Co Cavan, by then the Farnham or Maxwell-Barry estate in Newtownbarry had been sold as an encumbered estate. It may have been through the influence of Somerset Maxwell and his family that a number of Cavan Protestant families came to Achill, such as the Sherridan family.

2, Joseph Napier (1804-1882), later Sir Joseph Napier, was MP for Dublin University (1848-1858), Attorney General for Ireland (1852), and Lord Chancellor of Ireland (1858-1859). However, he was not a member of the same Napier family that I recently identified as the Irish ancestors of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Justin Welby.

George Alexander Hamilton's memorial in Saint George's Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

3, George Alexander Hamilton (1802-1871) was an MP for Dublin City (1835-1837) and then for Dublin University (1843-1859), and a clergyman’s son too – he was the son of the Revd George Hamilton of Hampton Hall, Balbriggan, Co Dublin, and he contributed generously to the building of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, where he is buried.

But, despite the wealth, power and privilege of these trustees and their strong clerical family links with the Church of Ireland, Inishbiggle long remained without a church and Holy Trinity Church was not built until the end of the 19th century.

Griffith’s Valuation shows there were 18 families living on this island in 1855: their family names were Cafferky (2), Campbell (1), Cooney (1), Fallon (2), Henery (i.e., Henry) (1), Landrum (1), McDermott (1), McManmon (1). Mealley (i.e., Malley or O’Malley) (4), Molly (or Molloy) (1), Nevin (1), Reaf (1) and Sweeny (1).

By 1861, Inishbiggle had 32 houses and a population of 145. By 1871, there were 30 houses with 154 people. By 1881, there were 171 people in 29 houses.

But by the 1880s, emigration was taking its toll from the Church of Ireland community on both Achill and Inishbiggle. The Rector of Achill, the Revd Michael Fitzgerald, gave some idea of the scale of that emigration when he wrote: “During the months of April and May 1883, and within the last ten days, I have lost by the rapid tide of free emigration to Canada, the United States of America, and Australia, forty-two members of my flock, thirty-six of whom belong to Achill Sound, and six to the island of Inishbiggle.”

It was a very steep fall indeed. By 1891, the population had fallen by 36 to 135, living in 24 houses – a population figure and a figure for housing units that were both lower than they had been a generation earlier in 1861.

In 1901, the census shows the population was still 135 people living in 25 houses on the island. Of these, 39 people or 29 per cent of the population were members of the Church of Ireland. The following Church of Ireland members were living in 11 households on this island:

● Michael Henry (62); his wife Anne Henry (60); son James Henry (25); daughter Margaret K Miller (30); and father-in-law Patrick Gallagher (88). (Numbers, 5).

● John Henry (70) and his two Roman Catholic daughters, Mary Henry (30) and Margaret Henry (17). (Numbers, 1).

● Patt Malley (55), one of the workers who built this church; his wife Catherine Malley (50), and their five children Ellen (16), Honor (14), Patt (12), Celia (10) and Sarah (6). (Numbers, 7).

● Edward Calvey (60) and his Roman Catholic wife Anne Calvey (60), and their five children, of whom one was a Roman Catholic and four were members of the Church of Ireland: John (33), Roman Catholic; Edward (29), Church of Ireland; Peter (23), Church of Ireland; Michael (19), Church of Ireland; and Timothy (12), Church of Ireland. (Numbers, 5).

● Patrick McManmon (60); his wife Mary (60); and their seven children Mary (27), Frank (25), Ellen (23), Bridget (20), Patrick (16), Kate (15), and James (12). (Numbers, 9).

● James McManmon (74), his two Roman Catholic sisters, Mary McManmon (72) and Bridget Doran (57), and his two Roman Catholic nieces, Ellen Doran (25) and Kate O’Boyle (34). (Numbers, 1).

● James Sheerin (69), his wife Martha Sheerin (69), their daughter, Kate Sydney Sheerin (30) and a Roman Catholic servant, Anne Cafferkey (20).(Numbers, 3).

● Matilda Brice (66), a widow who lived alone. (Numbers, 1.)

● John Gallagher (42), his wife Mary Gallagher (50) and their sons Edward (14) and Francis (13). (Numbers, 4.)

● Francis Gallagher (84), who lived alone. (Numbers, 1.)

● John McManmon (65), his Roman Catholic wife Catherine McManmon (62), and their two sons, one Church of Ireland, Frank (24) and one Roman Catholic, Martin (21). (Numbers, 2.)

Martha Sheerin (1834-1917) was a daughter of George Lendrum (1799-1871), a Scripture Reader who moved to Dugort with Edward Nangle in 1834. She was born in Dugort in 1834, and is an interesting example for this morning’s study, for through her father’s family she is related to many families on Inishbiggle and Achill. The Lendrum family was intermarried with the Egan, Geraghty, McDowell, McHale, McNamara, Patton and Sherridan families. Within a few generations, these families became related not only to most of the Church of Ireland families on these islands, but to many of the other families too.

Ten years later, the 1911 census shows the Church of Ireland inhabitants had dropped in number to 36, living in ten households, while the general population of the island had risen to 149 people living in 29 houses or units. The Church of Ireland population was now 24 per cent. In other words, the island’s population was rising, but the Church of Ireland population was dropping, and the fall in numbers would have been greater but for the arrival of a school teacher and his family.

The Church of Ireland people on the island were:

● James McManmon (82) (the rest of his family, two sisters, two nieces and a grand nephew, are all Roman Catholics). (Numbers, 1.)

● Edward Calvey (73), his wife Ann Calvey (69), one Roman Catholic son, John Calvey (48), and four Church of Ireland sons: Edward (46), Peter (44), Michael (39), and Timothy (33). (Numbers, 6.)

● Patrick McManmon (74), his wife Mary (70), and their four children Mary (41), Ellen (38), Patrick (30), James (26). (Numbers, 6.)

● James Henry (35), his mother Ann Henry (70), and his Roman Catholic niece, Margaret Henry (16). (Numbers, 2.)

● John Gallagher (59) and his son Francis Gallagher (23). (Numbers, 2.)

● Pat O’Malley (70), his wife Catherine O’Malley (60), and their three daughters, Honor (24), Celia (19) and Sarah (16). (Numbers, 5.)

● Michael Gallagher (44), his wife Mary Gallagher (31) and their four children Margaret (8), John (7), Mary (5), and Ellen (3). (Numbers, 6.)

● Martha Sheerin (77), by now a widow, her daughter, Kate Sydney Sheerin (40), and a Roman Catholic servant, Julia Cafferkey (17). (Numbers, 2.)

● John Tydd Freer (42), his wife Annie (39) and their two daughters and one son, Olive May (13), Dorothy Margaret (9) and Charles Crawford Freer (5). He was a teacher, born in Queen’s Co, she was born in Co Galway, the first two children were born in Dublin, and their son was born in Co Mayo. (Numbers, 5.).

● Matilda Bryce (73), who was living alone. (Numbers, 1.)

As we are paying tribute to John F Deane this weekend, it is worth remembering how the arrival of a teacher-family can have a major impact on the life of an island. Without the arrival of the Freer family on Inishbiggle, the decline in the Church of Ireland population would have been steeper. So, despite the recent building of Holy Trinity Church, there was never the potential or realistic hope for a sustainable Church of Ireland parish on Inishbiggle.

There are variations in the spellings and ages given at each census, but these are easily reconciled.

In 1912, a Mr Fenton wrote to the Department of Education, saying there were 16 families on the island, of whom 14 were Roman Catholic and two were part of the Church of Ireland.

A list of school-going children attending the mission school on the island that year shows there were 41 Roman Catholic children and six Church of Ireland children on the island: Margaret (8) John (6) and Mary (5) Gallagher, and Harold (11), Dorothy (9) and Charles (5) Freer; 34 Roman Catholic children and five Church of Ireland children were attending the Church of Ireland-run school, which was still known as the Mission School.

What these returns and statistics tell us is that the Church of Ireland community on Inishbiggle was never large enough to give hope to a sustainable parish developing on the island, and that by the beginning of the second decade of the last century, the community was in decline, with numbers falling as the original settlers on the island reached old age and died.

Nevertheless, they lived in more prosperous conditions, albeit marginally so, and they show a higher standard of literacy and education. Indeed, this higher standard of education made it easier for their children to emigrate, because their job prospects were higher than those of their neighbours.

Their family names also indicate that, by and large, the members of the Church of Ireland on the island shared the ethnic or social backgrounds of their neighbours: Calvey, Gallagher, Henry, MacManmon, Malley or O’Malley, Sheerin, and so on. We can also see from the patterns of family membership that there is an interesting degree of inter-marriage between Protestant and Catholic families, despite the negative attitudes that would have been prevalent in both communities at the time.

Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

By 1971, Charles Crawford Freer, by then Press Officer for the Church of Ireland, reported that the Church of Ireland population of Inishbiggle had fallen from 15 to five.

When I visited Holy Trinity Church and Inishbiggle in 1990, there were three members of the Church of Ireland on the island. The last surviving members of the Church of Ireland congregation were James Gallagher, grandson of Patrick O’Malley, who built this church in the 1890s, and his sister Ellen. When Ellen Gallagher died in 1995, she was buried in Achill Sound Cemetery. Her brother James continued to look after the Church which he opened frequently during the summer for services led by visiting clergy on holiday.

Although one diocesan history states this church was built by the Achill Mission, the Achill Mission had long closed by the time the church was built in the 1890s not with mission funds but through an initial generous donation of £600 from a Miss Ellen Blair of Sandymount, Dublin.

In 1893, the Bishop of Tuam, the Right Revd James O’Sullivan (1834-1915), and the Diocesan Architect, John G Skipton (1861-1921), came to Inishbiggle by boat on a five-mile journey from Achill Sound to select a site for the new church. They were accompanied by the Revd Michael Fitzgerald, Rector of Achill, and the Revd R O’Connell.

On “a fine day” in 1895, Bishop O’Sullivan, his wife and the Rector returned to lay the foundation stone for Holy Trinity Church. It was reported at the time that the local people were “joyful” at the prospect of having a church of their own.

The contractors were Berry and Curran, and the work was carried out by local labourers. The story is told that during this building work a heavy piece of wood crashed to the ground, just missing Patrick O’Malley, who was rescued thanks to the hasty intervention of Patrick Nevin.

The building work was completed by 1896. Bishop O’Sullivan came from Achill Island to Inishbiggle, this time on “a sunny day,” with a large number of people in rowing boats for the consecration of the new church. The consecration was followed by a celebration of the Holy Communion.

The church is built of stone with a natural pebble-dash finish, a small tower with a bell and cross and a wrought-iron gate. In summertime, this church is even prettier as the pink rhododendrons surrounding it come into bloom and form an archway.

Inside Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle (Photograph: Dan MacCarthy, 2012)

With its white walls and intimate size, Holy Trinity Church has a simple, plain interior that lends itself to quiet prayer and contemplation. Beyond the vestibule, the old carved organ is inscribed: “Washington, New York, USA.’’ The organists at Holy Trinity have included: Mrs Margaret Brown, Mrs Cynthia Blair and the teacher’s wife, Mrs Annie Hughes Freer.

Beyond the organ, the aisle leads to the five rows of wooden pews. There is a small pulpit at the north side of the chancel arch. The altar in the sanctuary area stands in front of a lofty ceiling and a tall, three-light East Window. There is a small vestry off the sanctuary area.

During the years that followed the building of the church, many Protestants left the island for one reason or another. But the clergy of Achill and Dugort parish continued to serve the church and the few members of the Church of Ireland who lived on this island.

To mark the arrival of electricity on the island a decade or two ago, a special joint service for members of the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland was held in Holy Trinity Church.

As far as I can find out, no weddings or funerals were held in the church. But successive bishops of Tuam, including Bishop John Neill and Bishop Richard Henderson, had a generous vision for the use of the church, and in 2003, Inishbiggle set an ecumenical landmark when the church was rededicated to serve both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic communities.

There is a small churchyard or cemetery beside the church. As a mark of gratitude, Patrick O’Malley later had a stone wall built around the cemetery, replacing the original sod wall. However, the cemetery has not been used for burials for 80 or 90 years.

A school, predating the church, was standing on this same site in 1870, replacing the first school dating from the 1840s. The teacher lived in the now roofless cottage beyond the church on the edge of the island facing Annagh and the mainland. The cottage was later abandoned, has become roofless, and is falling into ruins.

Donna Allen, in her essay in Cathar na Mart, relies on local memory for recalling some of the Church of Ireland clergy who served on this island: Fitzgerald; Boland; Horn; Abernethy – who left about 1939 to serve in World War II; Marshall, who returned to his native England; Sidebottom; Plowman; and Friess, who was then living in retirement with his wife in Mulranny.

However, as Inishbiggle was always part of the parishes of Achill and Dugort, the Tuam Diocesan Records make it possible to put together a list of all the clergy who served Holy Trinity Church and the Church of Ireland parishioners on the island.

The first recorded rector of Burrishoole and Achill was the Revd John [Horsley] de la Poer Beresford (1773-1855), but he may have never visited either Achill or Inishbiggle. He was born in 1773, and he was a barrister prior to his ordination in 1803. Once he was ordained, he was immediately appointed to this parish by his father, the Archishop of Tuam, William Beresford, 1st Lord Decies. But Archbishop Beresford was not averse to finding sinecures for his sons: another son, George Beresford, was Provost of Tuam, while a third, Canon William Beresford, was Prebendary of Lackagh.

Beresford’s successor, Canon Thomas Mahon (1786/7-1825), was from Co Leitrim, and like most of the rectors he was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin.

The parishes of Achill and Dugort were sometimes united and sometimes separate parishes. But, as some critics suggest, these were not places to send clergy who were difficult or who found it difficult to find appointments to other parishes. Nor were the clergy outsiders who came in with little experience of or sympathy for the people. Mahon’s successor, Canon John Galbraith (1786-1850), was born in Co Galway, a first cousin of the 1st Earl of Clancarty, and he later became Provost of Tuam (1844-1850).

He was succeeded as Provost of Tuam by Canon Charles Henry Seymour (1813-1879), who was born in Co Mayo, and his father, grandfather, brother and nephew were all priests of the Church of Ireland. He moved from Achill to become Vicar, Provost and then Dean of Tuam, dying there on 14 April 1879, aged 65.

Nor was their interest in mission on Achill and Inishbiggle isolated from the wider mission of the Church. For example, John Galbraith’s daughter, Eileen, translated the New Testament into the Mori language of South Sudann. Canon Thomas Stanley Treanor (ca 1836-1910) was a chaplain with the Mission to Seamen (1878-1910) after leaving Achill in 1878, and wrote about those experiences in Cry from the Sea (1906).

The Revd John Hoffe, curate of Achill (1870-1872) and then Rector of Dugort (1872-1878), left these islands to become curate of Sandford Parish (1878-1879) in Dublin, where his rector was the Revd Thomas Good, who had been a missionary in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in the 1860s and 1870s, and where a previous rector, Canon (later Bishop) William Pakenham Walsh, had worked for the Church Mission Society for ten years.

George Abraham Heather (1830/1-1907), who came to Dugort in 1871, had been secretary of the Church Mission Society Ireland (1863-1867).

Nor should their interest in Irish be dismissed as seeing it as another tool in proselytism or evangelism. Thomas de Vere Coneys, who was curate in Achill (1837-1840), left to become Professor of Irish in Trinity College Dublin in 1840. William Kilbride, curate from 1852-1853, had been the Bedell Scholar in Irish in Trinity College, Dublin (1847), and spent almost half a century as Rector of the Arran Islands from 1855 to 1898. Robert O’Callaghan, curate of Achill from 1857-1861, was also a Bedell Scholar in Irish (1855).

The calibre of the clergy who served these islands is typified by men such as William Skipton (1832/3-1903), who was in Dugort (1861-1867) after Nangle, and later became Dean of Killala (1885-1903). His successor, George Abraham Heather, who was in Dugort from 1867 to 1871, later became Archdeacon of Achonry (1895) and Dean of Achonry (1895-1907).

Their tenacity and commitment is typified by men such as the Revd Michael Fitzgerald (ca 1831-1897), who was so worried about the toll emigration was taking on his parishioners on Inishbiggle. He remained rector of this parish for 15 years until he died at Achill Rectory on 15 July 1897 at the age of 65.

The plaque commemorating Canon Thomas Boland at the west end of Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

His successor, Canon Thomas Boland (ca 1857-1939), who is remembered in a plaque at the west end of Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort, had been involved in mission work in Galway for 11 years before coming to Achill and worked here for 40 years. Canon Olaf Vernon Marshall (1907-1978) worked in children’s homes and schools as a chaplain and a superintendent until coming here as Rector of Achill and Dugort (1964-1968). When he moved it was to Omey, the Church of Ireland parish in Clifden, Co Galway.

The Revd Walter Mervyn Abernethy left not to move to England but to become an army chaplain in World War II. When the war ended, he then remained in England, working in parishes mainly in the Dioceses of Norwich and Lichfield.

Bishop John Coote Duggan (1918-2000), who was the rector for only a very brief time (1969-1970), was Archdeacon of Tuam at the same time before becoming Bishop of Tuam (1970-1985).

After becoming bishop, he appointed his curate, the Revd Louis Dundas Plowman (1917-1976) as Bishop’s Curate of Achill and Dugort, and he lived in Achill Rectory. He was a Dublin Corporation official before his ordination in 1969 in his 50s. Canon Plowman later became Rector of Killala and died in Crossmolina Rectory in 1976.

The grave of Dean Herbert Friess and his wife Hildegard Wilhelmina Margarita near the main door of Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

More recently, the Very Revd Herbert Friedrich Friess (1909-1997), was Rector of Achill and Dugort (1973-1979) and he had an interesting life story. He was born in Germany in 1909, and studied theology at the University of Leipzig (BD 1934). He became a wartime refugee in England, where he served as a German pastor before being ordained deacon and priest by the Church of England Bishop of Sheffield in 1942. After almost a quarter century in parish work in England, he came to Ireland in 1964 as Rector of Crossmolina (1964-1973) and then Dean of Killala (1968-1973). In what must have seemed like a straight swop with Canon Plowman, he became Bishop’s Curate of Achill and Dugort (1973-1979), and lived in the Rectory at Achill Sound.

Dean Friess continued to take Sunday services in Dugort, Achill Sound and Inishbiggle regularly after his retirement, and many people still remember him with affection. He died on 3 April 1997; his wife Hildegard Wilhelmina Margarita (1907-1997) died a few weeks later on 1 May 1997; they are buried together in Saint Thomas’s Churchyard in Dugort.

From 1979, the churches on Achill and Inishbiggle were served by the Rectors of Castlebar and Westport. They have included the Revd William John (‘Jack’) Heaslip (1991-1995), better known today as the chaplain to U2, and Archdeacon Gary Hastings (1995-2009), who has his own take on Irish music.

Looking from Bullsmouth across to Inishbiggle ... Frederick MacNeice left his family at Bullsmouth watching the sunset while he took the Sunday afternoon service in Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But apart from the resident rectors and curates, Inishbiggle was also served by visiting clergy and students, who often stayed during the summer months either at the Rectory at Achill Sound, or at the Old Rectory in Dugort.

Perhaps one of the most interesting of those holidaying clergy was Bishop John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942), father of the poet Louis MacNeice.

Frederick MacNeice first visited Achill in 1911 and ever since had a “special love” for these islands, and he first brought his son Louis with him here in 1927. In 1929, the family stayed at the Old Rectory in Dugort, visiting Keel, climbing Slievemore, and he took services in Dugort, crossing over from Bullsmouth in the late afternoon to take “the Island service” in Inishbiggle, while his family remained at Bullsmouth watching “a beautiful sunset behind Slievemore.”

Frederick returned the following summer (1930), this time without Louis. By then he was a canon of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin; a year later he became Bishop of Cashel (1931), and in 1934 he became Bishop of Down and Dromore.

Three years after his father died, Louis MacNeice returned to Achill in 1945, re-enacting a fraught family holiday 16 years earlier in 1929. One of the poems he wrote afterwards is ‘The Strand’ (1945), published in Holes in the Sky in 1948:

The Strand (1945) by Louis MacNeice

White Tintoretto clouds beneath my naked feet,
This mirror of wet sand imputes a lasting mood
To island truancies; my steps repeat

Someone’s who now has left such strands for good
Carrying his boots and paddling like a child,
A square black figure whom the horizon understood –

My father. Who for all his responsibly compiled
Account books of a devout, precise routine
Kept something in him solitary and wild,

So loved the western sea and no tree’s green
Fulfilled him like these contours of Slievemore
Menaun and Croaghaun and the bogs between.

Sixty-odd years behind him and twelve before,
Eyeing the flange of steel in the turning belt of brine
It was sixteen years ago he walked this shore

And the mirror caught his shape which catches mine
But then as now the floor-mop of the foam
Blotted the bright reflections – and no sign

Remains of face or feet when visitors have gone home.

In conclusion, how can I summarise the history of the Church of Ireland on this island? I could summarise it in the following points:

1, The history of Church of Ireland people on the island is intimately tied in with the first efforts to populate Inishbiggle in the middle decades of the 19th century.

2, Many of them inter-related ... but perhaps to no greater degree than they were inter-related with the other families on these islands.

3, The family names of the Church of Ireland families on Inishbiggle indicate they were from very similar backgrounds to their Catholic neighbours.

4, There was a high degree of intermarriage between members of the Church of Ireland and Catholic families, despite official opposition to intermarriage which intensified after the Ne Temere decree was promulgated in 1908.

5, The higher educational standards among Church of Ireland islanders, no matter how marginal, made it more possible for them to find employment off the island, and so education, ironically, contributed not to improved fortunes for the members of the Church of Ireland, but to their eventual numerical decline.

6, The figures for the Church of Ireland population were always low, and never offered the hope of a sustainable parish on this island.

7, The decline in numbers in the Church of Ireland population on Inishbiggle began in the 1880s, as the Revd Michael Fitzgerald noted in 1883.

8, The clergy who served the Church of Ireland people on Inishbiggle were often fluent in the Irish language, not in a functional way but because they had a genuine cultural and academic interest in the language.

9, Those clergy, residents and visitors like Bishop Frederick MacNeice, often came to these islands with a wider and more compassionate interest in children’s rights, the plight of the poor and the oppressed, and with a genuine interest in education, land reform and culture.

10, The story of the Church of Ireland on this island is not the story of a minority that has slowly faded away, but is a story that can be claimed by everyone who loves these islands, because it is part of what made Achill and Inishbiggle and their people what and who they are today.



Rectors and Vicars of Burrishoole, Kilmeena and Achill

1803-1809: John [Horsley] de la Poer Beresford
1809-1825: Thomas Mahon
1825-1830: John Galbraith

Rector and Vicars of Achill:

1803-1809: John [Horsley] de la Poer Beresford
1809-1825: Thomas Mahon
1825-1830: John Galbraith
1830-1847: Charles Wilson
1847-1850: Charles Henry Seymour
1850-1852: Edward Nangle
1852-1872: Joseph Barker
1872-1878: Thomas Stanley Treanor
1878-1879: Edward Browne Dennehy
1879-1881: Charles le Poer Trench Heaslop
1882-1897: Michael Fitzgerald
1898-1938: Thomas Boland
1938-1939: Patrick Kevin O’Horan
1939-1942: Walter Mervyn Abernethy
1942-1945: Frederick Rudolph Mitchell
1945-1953: George Harold Kidd
1953-1956: William Fitzroy Hamilton Garstin
1956-1960: George Sidebottom
1964-1969: Olaf Vernon Marshall

1969: Achill grouped with Westport Union

1969-1970: John Coote Duggan (rector).
1969-1971: Louis Dundas Plowman, curate, resident in Achill Rectory.
1970-1972: John Barnhill Smith McGinley (Rector).
1972-1973: Louis Jack Dundas Plowman, bishop’s curate
1973-1979: Herbert Friedrich Friess

1979-1982: Achill served by the Rector of Wesport, the Revd Noel Charles Francis, and the Vicar of Castlebar (1981-1984), the Revd GR Vaughan.

1984-1991: Henry Gilmore, Rector of Castlebar
1991-1995: William John Heaslip
1995-2009: Gary Hastings
2009-present: Val Rogers

Perpetual Curates, Incumbents, of Dugort, Saint Thomas’s

1851: Edward Nangle
18??-1861: Nassau Cathcart
1861-1867: William Skipton
1867-1871: George Abraham Heather
1872-1878: John Hoffe
1879-1886: John Bolton Greer
1886-1890: Vacant
1890-1914: Robert Lauder Hayes
1914-1924: Bertram Cosser Wells

1924: Joined to Achill

Curates of Achill:

1834-1851: Edward Nangle
ca 1837: Joseph Baylee
1837-1840: Thomas de Vere Coneys
1842-1852: Edward Lowe (also curate of Dugort 1852).
1844: John French
1852: Joseph Barker
ca 1852: James Rodgers
1852-1853: William Kilbride
1857-1861: Robert O’Callaghan
1861-1863: Abel Woodroofe
1867: George Abraham Heather
1870-1872: John Hoffe
1873-1876: Robert Benjamin Rowan
1877: Charles Cooney
1879: John Bolton Greer
1910-1912: James O’Connor
1969-1972: Louis Jack Dundas Plowman

Curates of Dugort:

1852: Edward Lowe

This lecture in Holy Trinity Church. Inishbiggle Island, on Sunday 6 May 2013, was part of a guided walk on Inishbiggle Island led by Sheila McHugh during the ninth Annual Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend 2013. It was followed by poetry readings by Paddy Bushe, Eva Bourke and Jan Wagner, introduced by Mechtild Manus, Director Goethe-Institut Irland.