13 April 2018

A new book on Nangle
and fond memories of
debates on Achill Island

Patrick Comerford

It is always a compliment to be acknowledged in a new book and to be referenced in both the footnotes and in the bibliography. In addition, I have also been asked to speak at one of the launches of a new book.

Patricia Byrne’s new book, The Preacher and the Prelate: The Achill Mission Colony and the Battle for Souls in Famine Ireland, was published earlier this week, and arrived in the post yesterday.

We first met some years in succession at the annual Heinrich Böll Weekend on Achill Island, when I was giving papers on Edward Nangle and the work of the Achill Mission in Inisbiggle (2013), the work of the Achill Mission in Mweelin (2014), and in Dugort on the Trustees of the Achill Mission (2015).

I can recognise some of the events at one of those weekends in her prologue to this book, although I remain unnamed in the description of the controversy I seem to have stirred that year.

The Preacher and the Prelate tells the extraordinary story of an audacious fight for souls on famine-ravaged Achill Island in the 19th century. Religious ferment was sweeping Ireland when the Revd Edward Nangle sets out to lift the destitute people of Achill out of degradation and idolatry through his Achill Mission Colony.

A settlement grew up on the slopes of Slievemore with cultivated fields, schools, a printing press and hospital. The Achill Mission colony attracted attention and visitors from far afield.

During the Great Famine, the ugly charge of ‘souperism’ or offering food and material benefits in return for religious conversion tainted the work of the Achill Mission. Archbishop John MacHale of Tuam spearheaded the Catholic Church’s fight back against Nangle’s mission and colony, with preacher and prelate unleashed fierce passions while spewing out vitriol and polemic from pen and pulpit.

In the aftermath of the famine, the Achill Mission became one of the main landlords on the island, leading to further controversy. The fury of the island elements, the devastation of famine, and Nangle’s own volatile temperament all threatened the survival of the project.

Did Edward Nangle and the Achill Mission Colony save hundreds from certain death? Or did they shamefully exploit a vulnerable people for religious conversion? This dramatic new telling of the tale of the Achill Mission Colony brings the reader to the fault-lines of religion, society and politics in 19th century Ireland, talk – as I found myself in a heated discussion in Lavelle’s bar in Dooega after my lecture in Mweelin in 2014, and as Patricia recalls gently in this book – it is a story that continues to excite controversy and division to this day.

I have also spoken at the Heinrich Böll Weekend on Achill on ‘The poet as theologian, the theologian as poet … a theologian’s engagement with John F Deane’ (2013) and on ‘TS Eliot (1888-1965): the Nobel poet and his Irish connections’ (2015).

In her acknowledgements, she thanks me for reading her manuscript as it was going to publication. She writes: ‘Patrick Comerford cast a forensic eye over my draft manuscript and I acknowledge and appreciate his insightful and gracious comments.’

Patricia Byrne was born in Co Mayo, is a graduate of NUI Galway and lives in Limerick. She says she is ‘captivated by Achill Island.’ She is the author of The Veiled Woman of Achill: Island Outrage & a Playboy Drama (2012). She has contributed The Irish Times (‘Irishwoman's Diary’), New Hibernia Review, The Irish Story, RTE’s Sunday Miscellany, and a range of other publications. Her memoir ‘Milk Bottles in Limerick’ was listed last year among the ‘notable essays of the year’ in Best American Essays.

Her new book will be launched next month, appropriately, at the Heinrich Böll Weekend on Achill Island. This is the 15th annual literary and walking festival, and it takes place on Achill from 4 to 6 May. On the Friday evening [4 May], The Preacher and the Prelate will be launched in the Cyril Gray Hall in Dugort by local historian Sheila McHugh with a response to the book by Hilary Tulloch and a reading by the author.

I have been invited by the author to speak at the launch of her book in O’Mahony’s Book Shop, Limerick, later next month, on 24 May.

The Preacher and the Prelate: The Achill Mission Colony and the Battle for Souls in Famine Ireland, 272 pp, Dublin: Merrion Press (2018), ISBN-10: 178537172X, ISBN-13: 978-1785371721.

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