08 July 2023

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (41) 8 July 2023

Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle, off Achill Island, Co Mayo, was dedicated in 1896 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and tomorrow is the Fifth Sunday after Trinity (9 July 2023).

Before this becomes a busy day, I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection.

Over these weeks after Trinity Sunday, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at relevant images or stained glass window in a church, chapel or cathedral I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

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

Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle, Co Mayo:

It is ten years since I was invited to take part in leading a guided tour of the tiny island of Inishbiggle as part of the Annual Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend on Achill Island, and to speak in Holy Trinity Church.

The channel between Bullsmouth, on the eastern shores of Achill Island, and Inishbiggle has one of the strongest and most treacherous currents in Europe. Those currents are unpredictable, often making Inishbiggle inaccessible. Yet, against all expectations, 80 or more people made the morning crossing that morning in relays on currachs and with Coast Guard volunteers.

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 only church on the island, Holy Trinity Church, belongs to the Church of Ireland.

Sheila McHugh led the guided walk, and we were offered morning coffee and tea in the island school, now used for Sunday Mass and as a doctor’s clinic. From there, it was a short walk to Holy Trinity Church, where I spoke on the history of the Church of Ireland on Inishbiggle.

Both the church and the island are unique, for Inishbiggle is 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 they 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 – for £33,598 19s 4d.

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. By 1838, a few buildings had started to appear on Inishbiggle, and in 1839 the Revd Caesar Otway visited Inishbiggle. 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.

In March 1848, hundreds of people from Dooniver, Bullsmouth and Ballycroy approved a declaration thanking Nangle for supplying them with potatoes and turnips from a mission farm on Inishbiggle. Without the food, they said, they would have starved.

The first schoolhouse was built on Inishbiggle that year. But by 1851, the population had dropped to 61. A year later, Nangle and the trustees of the Achill Mission bought Inishbiggle from Sir Richard O’Donel. The other trustees were the Hon Somerset Richard Maxwell, the Right Hon Joseph Napier and George Alexander Hamilton.

Somerset Maxwell, who had briefly been the Tory MP for Co Cavan (1839-1840), was a grandson of Henry Maxwell, Bishop of Meath, who built Saint Mary’s Church, Newtownbarry (Bunclody), Co Wexford, and a son of the Revd Henry Maxwell, 6th Lord Farnham. Somerset Maxwell eventually succeeded as the 8th Lord Farnham. His influence may have brought a number of Cavan Protestant families to Achill, including the Sherridan family. George Alexander Hamilton MP was a son of the Revd George Hamilton of Hampton Hall, Balbriggan, Co Dublin. But, despite the trustees’ strong Church links, Inishbiggle remained without a church until the end of the 19th century.

There were 18 families living on Inishbiggle in 1855: their family names were Cafferky, Campbell, Cooney, Fallon, Henery (Henry), Landrum, McDermott, McManmon, Mealley (Malley or O’Malley), Molly (Molloy), Nevin, Reaf and Sweeny. By 1861, Inishbiggle had a population of 145. By 1871, there were 154 people, and by 1881, 171 people.

But by the 1880s, emigration was taking its toll on the Church of Ireland community. The Rector of Achill, the Revd Michael Fitzgerald, 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 steep decline. By 1891, the population of Inishbiggle had fallen to 135. In 1901, it was still 135. Of these, 39 (29 per cent) were members of the Church of Ireland. Their family names were Brice, Calvey, Gallagher, Henry, McManmon, Malley, Miller, McManmon and Sheerin,

Ten years later, in 1911, the Church of Ireland islanders on Inishbiggle had dropped in number to 36, while the general population of the island had risen to 149. The Church of Ireland population was now 24 per cent – the island’s population was rising, but the Church of Ireland population was dropping, and that decline would have been greater but for the arrival of John Tydd Freer, a school teacher, and his family.

The family names of the Church of Ireland islanders were: Bryce, Calvey, Freer, Gallagher, Henry, McManmon, O’Malley and Sheerin. These names indicate that the members of the Church of Ireland on the island shared the social backgrounds of their neighbours, and there was an interesting degree of inter-marriage between Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic families.

By the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, the community was in decline. A higher standard of literacy and education made it easier for their children to emigrate, because they had higher job prospects.

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. The Church of Ireland community on Inishbiggle was never large enough to give hope to a sustainable parish developing on the island. When I visited in 2013, the number had fallen to one. Now there are none.

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 G 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. But the church was later returned to the Church of Ireland.

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)

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 former 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 …’

My currach crossing from Bullsmouth that Sunday morning 10 years ago took about 10 minutes. The crossing back with the Coast Guard took half that time. Sea spray and salt water left most of us in need of a change of clothes.

Later, an interesting conversation began with Sheila McHugh and the Achill-born poet, John F Deane, on finding a new future for Holy Trinity Church, perhaps as a centre for spirituality and the arts.

But this would need a combination of the visionary and practical approaches that transformed the Heinrich Böll Cottage in Dugort into a writers’ and artists’ centre and that inspire the Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend each year.

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

Matthew 9: 14-17 (NRSVA):

14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’ 15 And Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.’

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

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has beeen ‘FeAST – Fellowship of Anglican Scholars of Theology.’ This theme was introduced last Sunday by the Revd Canon Dr Peniel Rajkumar of USPG.

Find out more HERE.

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (8 July 2023) invites us to pray:

We pray for all who have a desire and passion for theology that they may be given the opportunities to study and learn more and that they are able to share their knowledge with the wider communion.


O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide
we may so pass through things temporal
that we lose not our hold on things eternal;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Eternal God,
comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken,
you have fed us at the table of life and hope:
teach us the ways of gentleness and peace,
that all the world may acknowledge
the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

An open door and a welcome in Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Is there a future for Holy Trinity Church, Inishbiggle? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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