04 November 2019

Exploring the ruins of
an 800-year-old
church in Robertstown

The ruins of the mediaeval church in Robertstown, Co Limerick, close to the banks of the Shannon Estuary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I have written in the past about Saint Senan’s Church in Robertstown, Co Limerick, which was built in 1830 and which is part of the Roman Catholic parish grouping of Foynes, Shanagolden and Robertstown.

But on my way back to Askeaton from Tarbert early on Sunday afternoon [3 November 2019], I noticed the ruins of a much earlier, mediaeval church, north of the present church, close to the banks of the Shannon Estuary.

These ruins of the mediaeval church in Robertstown are near Churchfield, with a graveyard that continued to be used for burials until recent years.

The ruins of the mediaeval church in Robertstown are near Churchfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This part of Co Limerick is mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters, which record that King Mahon of Munster defeated the Norsemen of Limerick and Waterford at Sengualainn (Shanagolden) in a ‘red slaughter’ in 968.

Turlogh O’Connor gathered a fleet together in 1124 to cross the Shannon and plunder the lands of the Uí Conaill at Foynes Island.

Bishop Donat O’Brien of Limerick gave control of the church at Shanagolden to M O’Melinus, Chantor, in 1207.

It is believed that the original church for the Robertstown area may have been in the townland of Ardineer, although there is no trace of a church there today.

Robert de Guer probably founded the church in the early 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Westropp states that Robert de Guer probably founded the church in the early part of the 13th century, and this is the Robert who is believed to have given his name to Robertstown, also known in mediaeval times as Castle Robert. Throughout the Middle Ages, the church at Robertstown or Castle Robert was served by its own vicar.

Gerald de Geraldinis took control of both churches at Robertstown and Shanagolden in 1480. A century later, after the defeat of the Munster Geraldines, Shanagolden village was laid out during the 1580s as a plantation village.

The churchyard at Robertstown continued to be used for burials until recently (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The churchyard at Robertstown and the grounds of the church ruins continued to be used for burials until recent years. The oldest headstone is said to be that of Joanna O’Brien and is said to date from November 1788. The ruins have been partially rebuilt in recent years.

There are two Holy Wells in the parish where tradition and devotions are continued. In the Robertstown part of the parish, Borrigone Well is situated in the townland of Craggs. I did not get to see it yesterday, but I am told this enclosed well is beside an inlet of the Shannon River. The parish council laid down a concrete walkway in the 1960s, and a covered altar has been built beside the well.

Today, in the Roman Catholic Church, Robertstown, Shanagolden and Foynes comprise one parish district, including the villages of Shanagolden on the R521.

Robertstown is beside an inlet of the Shannon River (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Achill I know is
an island that welcomes
tourists and strangers

The beach at Dugort on Achill Island … I have known Achill for 45 years as a place that welcomes the stranger and the foreigner (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It is a few years since I have been back to Achill island. But for many years I was a regular visitor, staying at least three or four times a year in Dugort, beneath the slopes of Slievemore and looking out onto the long sandy beach in Dugort.

Throughout those years, it became a place of retreat, to get away to, even in the off-season, long after the tourists had packed up and gone home.

In summer when the sun is shining, with its white-washed cottages, blue skies and blue seas, Achill can be like a Greek Aegean island in the sun. In winter, especially, it was a quiet place that inspired my thinking and my writing.

In case recent protests and ugly scenes give anyone the wrong impression of Achill, I have always received a warm welcome, from local residents, in bars, hotel, shops and restaurants, and in Saint Thomas’s Church, the church once associated with Edward Nangle’s mission.

The image of Achill as an unwelcoming, insular island that may have been projected by last week’s protests outside the Achill Head Hotel in Pollagh are in stark contrast to the Achill I know since I first visited the island 45 years ago in November 1974.

The economy of Achill has always depended on visitors and tourists. Without the outsider, Achill would be like the Blasket Islands today: romanticised, a footnote in literature, but abandoned and forgotten except for the occasional television documentary or footnote in a schoolbook.

Tourism in Achill began in the late 1830s, when the Slievemore Hotel was built in Dugort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tourism in Achill began in the late 1830s, when the Slievemore Hotel was built in Dugort as part of Nangle’s ‘Mission Colony,’ alongside a school, infirmary, mill, dispensary, printing office, church and some houses.

Before the 1830s, Achill was unknown, unseen and untouched by the outside influence of an ever-changing world, abandoned by all, including the churches and its landlords. But the introduction of tourism in the 1830s and the establishment of a printing press brought the outside world to a forgotten part of Ireland.

The interest of tourists in this offshore island was first awakened in the mid-1840s, when Mrs Asenath Hatch Nicholson (1792-1855), an American author and philanthropist, visited Achill and wrote about what she witnessed.

She arranged for a guide to take her to Dugort and Keem, where she saw at first-hand the appalling living conditions of the islanders as she distributed Bibles, food and clothing.

She was born Asenath Hatch in Vermont into a Congregationalist family with strong evangelical values who named her after Asenath in the Book of Genesis, the wife of Joseph and the mother of his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

She was a successful teacher before she married, and the Nicholsons then opened vegetarian guest houses.

She first arrived in Ireland in 1844, and walked around the country visiting 31 of the 32 counties. She returned in 1846 during the Famine, which she described in her reports for the New York Tribune and The Emancipator.

Asenath Nicholson was highly critical of Edward Nangle, writing she was ‘appalled at the converts holding in their hands Protestant prayer books which they were unable to read.’ Her criticism stung as Nangle and his family had suffered greatly during the Famine.

But Nicholson’s reports were the first foreign inspiration for tourism in Achill, and the hotel at Dugort prospered after her visit.

Canon Edward Nangle returned to Achill briefly in 1879: ‘As I have now completed my 80th year, and am very infirm, I am unable to work for our dear people in Achill as I did for upwards of 40 years of my life.’

That year, he wrote ‘The Tourist’s Guide to Achill,’ which was published in the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, now the Church of Ireland Gazette. A poignant advertisement for a Dugort bathing lodge in The Irish Church Advocate in 1880 signalled the approaching end of his association with Achill; he died in 1883.

The Achill Sound Bridge was built in 1886-1887, and when it was completed it was named ‘The Michael Davitt Bridge.’ The Westport-Newport railway line was extended to Achill Sound in 1894. The train station is now a hostel.

Achill was no longer isolated from the rest of Ireland, and accessibility was no longer dependent on the weather. While other off-shore islands declined, tourism ensured that Achill survived in the 20th century.

Paul Henry (1876-1958), the Belfast-born artist, was welcomed to Achill and made the island, its people and its landscape known to a wider audience, beyond Ireland in the early 20th century.

Heinrich Böll’s cottage near Dugort on Achill Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford,)

The other ‘outsider’ who can be credited with enticing European tourists to Achill, especially Germans, is Heinrich Böll (1917-1985). He was one of Germany’s foremost writers in the aftermath of World War II and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. Many of his experiences in Achill are recalled in his book, Irisches Tagebuch (Irish Journal), which describes in loving detail his journey to Achill and his observations of island life.

Böll was a leader of the German writers who tried to come to grips with the memory of World War II, the Nazis, and the Holocaust, and the guilt that came with them. He lived with his wife in Cologne, but they also spent time on Achill in the 1950s and 1960s. His cottage in Dugort is now used as a guesthouse for international and Irish artists.

Böll first arrived to Achill Island in the early 1950s, travelling by train from Dublin to Westport with his family. The details of this visit, along with his observations of Irish ways and customs – from tea drinking to priests wearing safety pins to the popularity of ice cream – are recorded with humorous detail in his Irish Journal.

Life on Achill in the 1950s gave him plenty of material to indulge his penchant for the absurd and the incongruous, not least the casual relationship with time. His first book was The Train Was On Time – and that first train from Dublin arrived in Westport right on time.

Böll was soon introduced to the Irish saying: ‘When God made time, he made plenty of it.’ Achill Island, with its ‘classless society’ and its casual attitude to time, was welcoming and appealing.

In the mid-1950s, Böll wrote in his Irish Journal: ‘Of the eighty children at Mass on Sundays, only forty-five will still be living here in forty years; but these forty-five will have so many children that eighty children will again be kneeling in church.’ Sixty years later, I wonder whether 80 people were kneeling at Mass in the same church in Achill on Sunday morning, and whether they prayed for Syrian refugee women who should have arrived on Achill at the weekend.

Heinrich Böll and his family continued to travel to Achill during the 1950s and 1960s, living in a cottage in Dugort, close to Saint Thomas’s Church. He died on 16 July 1985. Thanks to his family, the Böll Stiftung in Cologne, and Mayo County Council, his cottage is now an artists’ residence, providing a short-term retreat for writers, poets and artists.

The cultural life of Achill has always benefitted from the stimuli provided by the outsider: the brothers John F Deane poet, Raymond Deane composer and the late Declan Deane, Jesuit priest, theologian and ecumenist, are a unique example of the cultural and intellectual contribution Achill has made to life in modern Ireland.

But they too are examples of the contribution the stranger and the outsider has made to the life of Achill: their father was a teacher from Bunclody (Newtownbarry), Co Wexford, who moved to Achill.

I have often spoken in Achill, at summer schools and in public lectures, in schools, churches, galleries and hotels, on the legacy of Edward Nangle, the history of Inishbiggle, the poetry of John F Deane and TS Eliot, and the interplay between theology and poetry. I have been honoured, on many occasions, to be a guest speaker at the Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekends. I have come back from Achill regularly with signed books and ideas for writing and for projects engaging poets, theologians and historians with the work of each other.

What has been happening in Achill in recent days is not representative of the Achill I know, the Achill that opens its doors to poets and priests, historians and theologians, writers and composers, the Achill that welcomes not just tourists, but strangers and foreigners too.

Hopefully, when the protesters come to their senses, Syrian refugee women can receive the same warm welcome I have received for the past four decades.

The Achill I know is an island that welcomes poets and writers, composers and tourists, strangers and foreigners (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)