22 July 2021

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
54, Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle

Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle, was dedicated in 1896 … today the island has no Church of Ireland parishioners (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This has been a busy week, taking part in this year’s annual conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) from Monday until Wednesday.

Before today becomes a busy day, as I catch up on many postponed and delayed tasks, I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning before the day gets busy to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

This week’s theme of island churches continues this morning, the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene (22 July 2021) with photographs from Holy Trinity Church on Inishbiggle, a small island off Achill Island, Co Mayo.

The pulpit in Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tiny Inishbiggle is squeezed between Achill and the Mayo mainland. It measures only 2.5 km by 1.5 km, with a land area of 2.6 sq km. In recent years, the population has dwindled to about 20, and the school and post office have been closed for some years. The one and only Church of Ireland parishioner on the island died in recent years. Holy Trinity Church, the one and only church on the island, belongs to the Church of Ireland, but its future has been uncertain for many years.

The island school is used by the islanders for Sunday Mass and as a doctor’s clinic. From there, it was a short walk to Holy Trinity Church, where I spoke at the Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend some years ago on the history of the Church of Ireland on Inishbiggle.

Both the church and the island are unique, for Inishbiggle has been the only island with only a Church of Ireland church. Inishbiggle is also a new island, for it has been inhabited continuously for less than two centuries.

The island was once part of the Mayo estates of the Ormond Butlers, whose claims were confirmed to Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond, in 1585, and again by King James I in 1612. The Butler lordship, including Achill and Inishbiggle, continued until 1696, when the Butlers leased their Mayo estates first to Sir Thomas Bingham and then to Thomas Medlycott.

At the end of the 18th century, the estate, including Achill and Inishbiggle, was bought by John Browne, 1st Earl of Altamont, and then in 1785 by Sir Neal O’Donel of Newport House.

But Inishbiggle remained uninhabited until 1834. In 1837, there was no church on either Achill Island or Inishbiggle, and the Rector, Canon Charles Wilson, reported that Sunday services were held in a private house. A few buildings started to appear on Inishbiggle by 1838. When the Revd Caesar Otway visited Inishbiggle in 1839, he suggested it was an ideal island for growing wheat and for a mill, but his proposals came to nothing.

The Revd Edward Nangle saw Inishbiggle as an opportunity to extend the work of his Achill Mission, and by 1841 Inishbiggle had a population of 67. During the Famine, Inishbiggle developed slowly, with the arrival of both Protestant and Catholic tenants from Achill and from mainland Co Mayo, attracted by lower rents and hoping for better living conditions.

The first schoolhouse was built on Inishbiggle in 1848. Nangle and the trustees of the Achill Mission bought Inishbiggle from Sir Richard O’Donel in 1851. The other trustees were the Hon Somerset Richard Maxwell, the Right Hon Joseph Napier and George Alexander Hamilton.

. Although one diocesan history states Holy Trinity Church was built by the Achill Mission, the Achill Mission had long closed by the time the church was built in the 1890s with a generous bequest from Miss Ellen Blair of Sandymount, Dublin.

In 1893, Bishop James O’Sullivan of Tuam, the Rector of Achill, the Revd Michael Fitzgerald, and the diocesan architect, John Gervais Skipton, came to Inishbiggle by boat on a five-mile journey from Achill Sound to select a site for the new church. In 1895, Bishop O’Sullivan, his wife and the rector returned to lay the foundation stone for Holy Trinity Church.

The building work was carried out by local labour. It 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 was completed by 1896, and Bishop O’Sullivan came to Inishbiggle on ‘a sunny day,’ with a large number of people in rowing boats, for the consecration of the new church.

Holy Trinity Church is built of stone with a natural pebble-dash finish, a small tower with a bell and cross. In summer, the church is even prettier as pink rhododendrons surrounding come into bloom, forming an archway. The simple, plain, white-painted interior has a small organ, five rows of wooden pews, a small pulpit, a chancel arch, a sanctuary area and a tall, three-light East Window, with a small vestry off the sanctuary area.

As a mark of gratitude, Patrick O’Malley later built a stone wall around the small churchyard or cemetery. However, the cemetery has not been used for burials for 80 or 90 years.

A school was built in 1870, replacing the first school dating from the 1840s. The teacher’s cottage beyond the church on the edge of the island is now roofless and is falling into ruins.

Successive Bishops of Tuam, including Bishop John Neill and Bishop Richard Henderson, had a generous ecumenical vision for the future of the church, and in 2003 the church was rededicated to serve the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic islanders.

Inishbiggle was always part of the parishes of Achill and Dugort. But it was also served in summer months by visiting clergy and students, who often stayed in the Rectory at Achill Sound or in the Old Rectory in Dugort.

Those summer visitors included Bishop John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942), father of the poet Louis MacNeice. Frederick MacNeice first visited Achill in 1911 and he first brought his son Louis with him in 1927. In 1929, the family stayed at the Old Rectory in Dugort, visiting Keel and climbing Slievemore. He crossed from Bullsmouth to Inishbiggle late in the afternoon, while his family remained at Bullsmouth watching ‘a beautiful sunset behind Slievemore.’

When he returned the following summer, he was a canon of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. He became Bishop of Cashel in 1931, and Bishop of Down and Dromore in 1934.

Louis MacNeice returned to Achill in 1945, and in a poem he wrote afterwards – ‘The Strand’ (1945), published in Holes in the Sky in 1948 – he talks of ‘White Tintoretto clouds beneath my naked feet …’

The church has been without an identifiable use for many years, and reports earlier this year suggested it is about to be sold.

A plaque in Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle, recalls the generosity of Ellen Blair from Sandymount (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 20: 1-2, 11-18 (NRSVA):

1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14 When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”.’ 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

An open door at Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (22 July 2021, Saint Mary Magdalene) invites us to pray:

Let us give thanks for the life and witness of Saint Mary Magdalene. May we follow Christ as obediently as she did, and listen to the voices of women in the Church.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The cemetery wall was built by Patrick Malley as a thank offering after surviving an accident when the church was being built (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Inside Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle … crowded for a history lecture and poetry reading during a Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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