07 July 2013
‘White Tintoretto clouds’ and a tiny church
on the small island of Inishbiggle
It was the May bank holiday weekend, and it was supposedly the first holiday weekend of the summer. But the rain was heavy, and thick clouds enveloped Achill Island. I had been invited to take part in leading a guided tour of the tiny island of Inishbiggle as part of the ninth Annual Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend, 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 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. There is only one Church of Ireland parishioner on the island, and the only church, 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.
A recently populated island
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.
Population rise and fall
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. Today, the number has fallen to one.
Building a church
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 has since returned to the Church of Ireland.
A poet’s visit
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 …”
Seeking a vision for the future
My currach crossing from Bullsmouth in May 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.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay was first published in July 2013 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory)
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I recently discovered that the church on Inis Bigle may be sold. Your article suggested that it could become a centre for spirituality and culture. I would hope that any future sale might consider a covenant to ensure that the building continues as a centre of Christian expression.
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