Recently, I visited the Dublin Castle exhibition Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger – the world’s largest collection of Famine-related art on loan from the Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, Connecticut. The works of Irish and Irish-American artists on exhibit span 170 years, all grappling with the enormity of what happened in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century. Inevitably, given my writer obsession with Achill Island stories, I was drawn to several Achill images: Alexander Williams’ ‘Cottage, Achill Island’, Grace Henry’s ‘Lady of the West’, Alanna O’Kelly’s potato lazy beds, and Geraldine O’Reilly’s haunting pictures of the Deserted Village. Lurking in the background of all these images, it seemed to me, was the iconic mountain, Slievemore, described by John F Deane in his exhibition poem, ‘Slievemore: The Abandoned Village’, as the ‘ravenous mountain of grief’. In a moment of luminous insight I understood that this mountain with its Deserted Village, desolate graveyards, and remains of what was once the Achill Mission Colony, had fired my imagination and sustained the writing of my Achill narrative over several years.
The Achill Story
My book, The Preacher & the Prelate: The Achill Mission Colony and the Battle for Souls in Famine Ireland, tells the gripping story of Edward Nangle and his Achill Colony that aimed to civilise and convert an island people through education, medical care and land reclamation. All very laudable, one might say, except that in the years of the Great Famine the Achill Mission practice of feeding the island children in the mission’s evangelising schools, drew furious charges of ‘souperism’ – of bribing the people to abandon their faith in return for food and material benefits. At the heart of the story is the question: Did Edward Nangle and the Achill Mission Colony save hundreds in Achill from certain famine death, or did they shamefully exploit a vulnerable people for religious conversion?
My writing genre is narrative nonfiction: this demands that I scrupulously research the story while attempting to engage the reader emotively in the narrative in the manner of a novel. One of the techniques I used at the outset, was to establish a tension between those who view Edward Nangle and his mountainside colony as mostly beneficial to Achill, and those who see their legacy as negative and shameful. Several years ago, when I attended a presentation on the Achill Mission as part of an Achill arts weekend, I was riveted when an acrimonious debate about the Achill Colony legacy erupted. I dramatize the heated exchanges at the start of my book. Edward Nangle’s legacy is one of modernisation, enterprise, education and advancement, argued one. Not so, shouted another, the Achill Mission was a sectarian, ugly and obnoxious venture. The tension between these opposing views permeates my book.
Two larger than life male figures, Edward Nangle and his fierce opponent John MacHale, Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, roar their invective and polemics at one another through pen and pulpit across the mid decades of the nineteenth century. Against the backdrop of their aggressive diatribe, I seek out the inevitable human fragility that will humanise the story. I find it, first of all in Edward Nangle’s own demons: he suffers from acute manic depression, what would nowadays be termed bi-polar disorder. He escapes from Achill for lengthy periods on fundraising and speaking engagements, leaving behind his fragile wife, Eliza, and their young children. Eliza’s story turns out to be tragic. She dies while still a young woman, having lost five infant children. Several times, I visited their grave on the slopes of Slievemore where an adult daughter, Tilly, who died suddenly two years after her mother is also buried. It is a haunting resting place.
At the heart of my story is the Achill experience of the Great Famine. Its ravages are starkly visible in the Deserted Village, on the western slopes of Slievemore, with its lines of cottage ruins and its remnants of potato lazy beds stretching uphill. I often stood there, in a place that the Nobel laurate Heinrich Böll described as ‘this skeleton of a human habitation’. Wind, rain and Atlantic spray have not obliterated the ridges. I visualise the work of potato cultivation: hands heaping soil from the ridge trenches, laying on seaweed fertiliser, setting the seed potatoes on top, covering with mountain soil and waiting for new growth. All this endeavour and then, the calamity of potato crop failure. The mountain landscape became a powerful imaginative stimulus in writing my Achill story.
A Past that Affected Me
When I finished writing my book, I took a breather, knowing that I needed to reflect and add an Epilogue that articulated what the story I had researched and written meant to me. Its personal impact and resonance. In the summer of 2017, I took myself off to Achill once more, determined to climb to the top of Slievemore for the very first time. I ascended along the mountain ridge, in an east-west direction, on a clear, cloudless August afternoon. The expanse of Achill Island was visible from the summit. I imagined the imprint of history on the mountain, the ghosts of those who lived and died on its slopes, whose blood ran along the veins of its earth. I understood that the great Irish nineteenth-century conflicts around education, religion imperialism and land were fought out on this island; that the narrative of my book was at the heart of these events – a microcosm of a bitter history. I had a sense that, having immersed myself in the dramatic charge of Achill Island’s history, I had walked though my own past.
(c) Patricia Byrne
Patricia Byrne is captivated by Achill Island Her book The Veiled Woman of Achill: Island Outrage and a Playboy Drama was published by The Collins Press in 2012. It tells the story of an 1894 Achill atrocity and features James Lynchehaun who was one of the influences on John Millington Synge in constructing the character of Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World. Her memoir essay ‘Milk Bottles in Limerick’ was named one of the Notable Essays of the Year in Best American Essays 2017. Her work has featured in New Hibernia Review, the Irish Times (Irishwoman’s Diary), RTE Sunday Miscellany and The Irish Story among other outlets. A graduate of the NUI Galway writer programme, she lives in Limerick, Ireland.
About The Preacher and the Prelate:
This is the extraordinary story of an audacious fight for souls on famine-ravaged Achill Island off Ireland’s Atlantic coast during the nineteenth century. Religious ferment swept across Ireland in the early part of the 1900s, and Protestant clergyman Edward Nangle’s Mission Colony was to lift the destitute people of Achill out of degradation and idolatry and into salvation. The fury of the island elements, the devastation of famine, Nangle’s own volatile temperament, and the unbearable suffering of his wife Eliza and her children all threatened the projects survival. In the years of the Great Famine the ugly charge of ‘souperism’, offering food and material benefits in return for religious conversion, tainted the Mission’s work. John MacHale, powerful Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, spearheaded the Catholic Church’s fight back against Nangle’s colony, with the two clergymen unleashing fierce passions, with vitriol and polemic spewing out from pen and pulpit. Did Edward Nangle and the Achill Mission Colony save hundreds from certain death, or did they shamefully exploit a vulnerable people to religious conversion? This dramatic tale of the Achill Mission Colony spectacularly exposes the fault-lines of religion, society and politics in nineteenth-century Ireland, and continues to excite controversy and division to this day.
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