Achill is Ireland’ s largest island, about 20 kilometres in each direction. It’ s linked to the mainland by a 226 metre long bridge, opened six years ago and named in honour of Michael Davitt, the great 19th century land reformer. Getting to Achill these days is easy. About two thirds of Achill is made up of bogland, but the island has some stunning mountains, especially Slievemore, with the deserted village of 80 ruined houses on its slopes, and Croghan. The Minaun cliffs on the southern edge of the island are among the highest in Europe. And the skies over Achill are as stunning as the landscapes. Achill is also renowned for its beaches, half a dozen of which have Blue Flag status. It’ s a surfer’s paradise.
Two small islands lie off Achill, Achillbeg to the south- west, which was abandoned half a century ago after an islander drowned trying to make the narrow crossing between Achill and his native island. The other island, Inishbiggle, is just off the north coast of Achill and is still inhabited- just. Various attempts to make this island more accessible over the years have foundered, including a plan to build a cable car link.
All this spectacular scenery and ever changing light has inspired many painters and writers, from Paul Henry to Graham Greene, but scenery doesn’ t feed hungry mouths and Achill has had a long tradition not just of eviction, but of social deprivation, while emigration has been the traditional means of escape.
The first people to plunder the island were the Anglo- Normans, who started their conquests in the early 13th century. At that stage, Achill was renowned for its eagles and indeed its name derives from eccuil, or eagle island. But the last eagle was seen on Achill just over 100 years ago, in 1912. Neither of course can we forget the exploits of the 16th century pirate sea queen of the west, Grace O’ Malley or Granuaile.
In the 18th century, the island had another reputation; many French sailors putting into ports along the west coast bought socks knitted by women on Achill, the first recorded example of home working on the island. The following century, the 19th. , brought absolute disaster in the shape of the famine, which in turn brought bitterly divisive relief in the shape of the Protestant colony. A Protestant churchman called Edward Nagle, born in Dublin, had come to the island in 1831 and he set up a mission that in due course, paid £11, 000 for two- thirds of the island.
This Protestant settlement was centred on the village of Dugort, which soon became known as the Colony. Nagle started a series of enterprises, including a hotel and even a weekly newspaper, the Achill Missionary Herald and Western Witness, which began in 1837 and lasted until 1869. By the summer of 1848, at the height of the famine, 5, 000 people on the island were dependent on the mission for survival and over 2, 000 children were attending its schools. But the notion of accepting soup in return for converting to Protestantism left a deep and harsh legacy. Retaliation by the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, John McHale, was hard hitting and among the legacies he left was the Franciscan monastery at Bunacurry. Eventually, the Protestant settlement petered out, ending three years after the death of Nagle in 1886. But memories of it lingered on for generations afterwards.
But even before Nagle had arrived, families on Achill were seeking the traditional way out, emigration. In the 1800s, Achill men built the Erie canal that links Lake Erie to the Hudson River in New York state and even today, something like 30, 000 people in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, claim Achill ancestry.
The much more traditional place for Achill men to emigrate to was Scotland, where they found seasonal farm work. The women of Achill emigrated to find domestic work in England, America and Australia. In 1894, two boats carrying emigrants to Scotland overturned in Westport harbour. This tragedy gave substance to a remarkable prophecy from a 17th century Belmullet man, Brian Rua O’ Cearbhain, who said that fire carriages on iron wheels would one day come to Achill and that the first and last of them would carry the dead. He was exactly right; the first train to Achill carried home the victims of that 1894 disaster, while after the 1937 bothy fire at Kirkintilloch in Scotland, the dead were brought home to Achill on what was almost the last train on the line.
This pattern of emigration from Achill has continued right up to the present day and no substantial industries have ever been developed on the island. Today, only around 2, 500 people live on the island all year round, although that number doubles during the summer tourism season. Despite such a bleak economic history, the island has proved magical and inspirational to generations of artists. The first to make the discovery of Achill was Paul Henry, the son of a Protestant minister in Belfast. Paul had settled in London with his first wife Grace and he was making a solid living as a painter and illustrator. But in 1909, they set out for a holiday on Achill. The story goes that when they arrived in Achill, he was so smitten by the beauty of its landscapes that he tore up their return railway ticket. The first people that the Henrys lodged with were John and Eliza Barrett, who ran the post office at Keel, on the southside of the island. The Henrys had a wandering existence on Achill and quite frequently changed their lodgings. Altogether, they spent a decade on Achill, until in 1919, they left for the last time. For Grace Henry in particular, the bright lights of Dublin and London were too much of a draw.
Today, Paul Henry paintings sell for stellar sums of money, and his paintings of Achill landscapes are immediately recognisable. While he valued the solitary landscapes of Achill so much, ironically, no- one has done more in the past century to popularise Achill as a tourist destination. It’ s even more ironic that when the Henrys had their first exhibition inDublin in 1912, showing the first of their Achill paintings, the Dublin critics were far from impressed and were utterly scornful of their work. How times change! It’s a pity that they couldn’ t have been at some recent sales of works by Paul Henry in Adams’ auction rooms on St Stephen’ s Green in Dublin!
Subsequently, other noted Irish painters found their niche in Achill. Charles Lamb, another Northern painter, enjoyed Achill, as did another painter from a similar background, Desmond Turner. Letitia Mary Hamilton, of the same era as Paul Henry, was, with him, one of the founders of the Society of Dublin Painters in 1920. Percy French, a great water colourist, also had a profound grá for Achill.
And who could forget the work of Camille Souter, who first lived on Achill in 1958. Four years later, she moved to Calary Bog in Co Wicklow, but eventually, Camille, as much known for her beret as for the work that has brought her many exhibitions and awards, returned to live on Achill. The island has that effect; once hooked, it’s impossible to get the longing induced by the island out of one’ s system.
Achill also attracted Derek Hill, the English painter who did so much to create recognition of the primitive painters of Tory Island off Co Donegal. A noted American painter, Robert Henri, not to be confused with Paul Henry, took a great shine to Achill in the 1920s. Every summer, from 1924 to 1928, he spent every summer on Achill, living at Corrymore House,which had once been home to the notorious Captain Boycott, whose surname gave rise to a word that has passed into the English language around the world and whose roots are in Achill. While he was staying on Achill, Henri painted many portraits of Achill people, especially children. Yet another international painter who was smitten with Achill was Marie Howet, the Belgian expressionist painter, who did much work on the island during the 1920s.
One of the earliest writers to draw inspiration from Achill was John Millington Synge and it all came from a very gruesome but true story. Agnes McDonnell was a wealthy and eccentric Englishwoman who lived on Achill, running her own estate, while her barrister husband lived in London and rarely visited. Agnes took on a local man called James Lynchehaun as her land agent, but eventually, they fell out. In 1894, he set fire to Agnes’ home, Valley House near Dugort. She was badly burned, losing an eye and her nose. But she had the house rebuilt and lived there until her death in 1923; she wore a silver plate to cover up the hole where her nose had been and always wore a veil. Lynchehaun escaped to America and was never brought to trial. He eventually ended up living in Scotland, where he died in 1937. And it was Lynchehaun who was Synge’ s inspiration for the character of Christy Mahon in the Playboy of the Western World.
In terms of writing, Ernie O’ Malley, a native of Westport, who had been very active in the independence movement, also had close connections with Achill and it was to the island that he first returned when he came home from the US in 1935. The following year, his book, On Another Man’ s Wounds, a classic of revolutionary literature, was published. O’ Malley went on to have an affair with Catherine Walston, the American wife of a wealthy British political figure. She had a cottage at Dooagh on the southern side of the island.
It was to that cottage that she brought another, later, lover, the English novelist, Graham Greene. The cottage stood in stark contrast to the other places where they carried on their affair, including the Ritz Hotel in Paris, the island of Capri and on board the yacht of film director Alexander Korda. Walston’ s Achill cottage, in total contrast, had a corrugated iron roof, no electricity and an outside tap for water. Achill island was where Greene wrote part of his novel, The Heart of the Matter, and the island also inspired some of his best poetry. Yet typically, the cottage where Greene stayed has long since been demolished.
Another renowned writer also found much inspiration in Achill, Heinrich Boll, from Germany, who spent much of the 1950s and 1960s living on the island. In his travelogue, Irish Journal, he recounted lovingly his impressions of Achill and the local people he met there. He recorded the many customs and absurdities, from the popularity of tea drinking and ice cream licking to the priest who wore safety pins, all in a fine style. One of those traditions still persists, that of the Achill strawmen, who still appear at weddings on the island, Achill’ s answer to the Wren Boys.
Boll’ s sense of humour was never far distant. On one occasion in Dublin, he was nearly run down by a van belonging to the old Swastika laundry. When he recovered from the shock and looked up to see gigantic swastikas on the van, he observed, ” Mein Gott, the Abwehr have a branch office in Dublin! ” Boll died in 1985, but his son Rene, who writes and paints, continues the Achill connection, producing many paintings of the island that are regularly exhibited locally. He lives in Cologne, but still visits the island for a week or two every year. And the cottage where Heinrich Boll once lived, at Dugort, has been used as a residency for artists and writers since 1992. It provides a safe and private environment for artists and writers to create their work, all the while enhancing the reputation of Boll, a Nobel Prize winner for literature.
While the impact on the island of such revered creative people cannot be under- estimated, the work of two local women has also been highly influential during the past century, Eva O’ Flaherty and Emily Weddall. Eva was a remarkable woman. She grew up in the Georgian splendour of Lisdonagh House, built in 1720 on the shores of Lough Hacket in Caherlistrane, not far from Tuam, Co Galway.That house has been well preserved and is now an excellent upmarket b & b run by John and Finola Cooke. I can testify to the excellence of Finola’s cooking, so the place is strongly recommended.
Eva was educated in Dublin, at Mount Anville and Alexandra College. By the start of the 20th century, she was modelling clothes in Paris for a new fangled hobby called “ motoring”. From Paris, she went to London to pursue her interest in fashion design, especially millinery.
She then came to Achill and settled there; no- one is quite sure why, but some have speculated that it was because of a broken love affair. By 1912, however, she had set up the St Colman’s Knitting Industry in Dooagh, which for many years gave employment for many women on the island. Eva of course had strong opinions of her own on many subjects and once she said that women needed an hour’ s more sleep per night than men!
But the quality of the products created by the Knitting Industry soon found a ready market among better- off women. The garments made in Achill, such as suits and twinsets, were sold in such department stores in Dublin as Brown Thomas, Switzers and Arnotts. The Industry’s annual stand at the RDS Spring Show was a regular event for many years. Eva also built up a very strong export trade for those knitted products.
Hers was one of the earliest attempts to set up commercial enterprise on Achill. In the 19th century, a Scotsman called Alexander Hector came to Achill in 1855 and diligently set up fishing stations around the island, followed by a canning factory and then other ventures, such as an hotel. Shark fishing was a busy occupation in the 1940s and 1950s; shark oil was much prized as a lubricant, including for the aviation industry, but at the end of the 1950s, the sharks simply shifted away and never returned to Achill waters.
But to return to Eva, not only did she run a thriving knitting industry on the island, but she knew all the movers and shakers of her time. Over the years, many well- known people came to visit her house and her lamp- lit soirées there became legendary. Some of those famous people were already well- known to Achill, such as Graham Greene and Paul Henry. Others had less direct connections with Achill but nevertheless made the long journey there to socialise with Eva, including the Pearse brothers, Willie and Padraig, Constance Marckiewicz, Eamon de Valera and Cardinal Dalton. Over the years, the guest list at her home on Achill was as good as if she had been a society hostess in the heart of Ballsbridge.
As always, all good things come to an end and Eva’ s knitting industry was overtaken by changes in fashions. She died in 1963 and was buried in the family vault at Caherlistrane, where she had grown up.
Hers is a fascinating tale and it was well recounted in a biography published three years ago by a good friend of mine from Co Galway, Mary J. Murphy. It’s well worth while getting hold of a copy of Achill’ s Eva O’Flaherty: forgotten island heroine, for many insights into this remarkable devotee of the island.
The setting up of the St Colman’ s Knitting Industry by Eva O’Flaherty brings us to another equally remarkable woman, Emily Weddall. She was born into a Church of Ireland family in Edenderry, Co Offaly; her father was a cleric with a living in a small village church nearby. She became strongly Republican in her sympathies and like her good friend Eva O’ Flaherty did much for the people of Achill.
Emily, whose surname was often pronounced ‘ Waddle’ by local people, to her intense annoyance, had married a sea captain called Edward Weddall, who was 20 years older than her. When her husband retired, the couple moved to Achill, buying a house that was originally a Protestant mission school in Keel.
Her first move in Achill was setting up the Lower Achill branch of the Gaelic League. She was fluent in both written and spoken Irish. Then in 1910, she had the hall built at Dooagh, where Scoil Acla had its beginnings. Today, it is still going strong, the oldest summer school in Ireland. When Eva started her knitting industry in 1912, it was in this hall in Dooagh that Emily had had built.
She was on very familiar terms with many nationalists and Republicans, at local, county and national level, including of course those closely connected with Achill, including Darrell Figgis, Claud Chavasse and Anita McMahon. She was also a lifelong friend of Dr Kathleen Lynn, a fellow member of the Church of Ireland, who was a political activist, a medical doctor and founder of St Ultan’ s infants’ hospital in Dublin.
Emily’ s husband died in 1908, just three years after they were married. But she was independently wealthy, which helped her survive on Achill. But much of her money was tied up in Russian stocks and shares, which meant that when the Russian revolution happened in 1917, she lost practically everything. She sold the house at Rockfield and built another, on the Sandy Banks in Keel. After the worldwide outbreak of influenza, which killed as many people as the Great War, Emily went back to work as a nurse, working at the old Meath Hospital in Dublin. But in the early 1930s, she returned to live in Achill and stayed there until ill health in the late 1940s forced her to take up residence at St Mary’s Home at Pembroke Park in Ballsbridge. She died there in 1952 and is buried next to the Republican plot in Glasnevin, close to Cathal Brugha, Maud Gonne and other noted Republican figures of her era.
Her long time contribution to Achill included her part in founding Scoil Acla and she also, with Paul Henry, helped put the island on the map. Another good friend of mine, Maria Gillen, who lives in Athlone but who has strong connections with Achill, has spent much time over the past few years researching the life and times of Emily and her intention is to put as much material as possible online, so that it’ s readily accessible. Her new website went live recently, at: http: // emilymweddall.com
Someone else I should mention in connection with Achill is John ‘twin’ McNamara, to distinguish him from his twin brother. John lives in Dooagh and is a retired national school principal. He also has an incredible interest in Irish music and has composed many pieces, as well as performing them. For many years now, he has been one of the stalwarts of Scoil Acla. He is also the greatest living expert on Achill’ s history, and in my own writings about Achill, I have been much dependent on his expertise. He is a wonderful man, musician and historian, a true present day champion of Achill.
Achill is an amazing island with an extraordinary history, somewhere that has attracted some of the greatest creative names in the arts over the past century. There is just so much to Achill that I’ve only been able to allude briefly to its history; believe me, once you get involved in Achill history, it’ s a wonderfully never ending story. One of the other ways in which Achill tradition is preserved in the Yawl festival, which runs from June to September every year and honours the traditional Achill yawl sailing boats.
Achill has also always been amazingly rich in characters, if I could mention just two more. Vi McDowell ran one of the island’ s best-known guesthouses for many years, at Dugort. She died six years ago, at the age of 99. Much more recently, Achillman Joe McNamara has come to public notice. He owns one of the hotels on Achill, but was also involved in the construction business and worked as a developer.
He achieved much notoriety for driving a cement truck through the gates of Leinster House, in protest at the actions of Nama, nearly five years ago. Then in November, 2011, he did something even more surprising. Almost overnight, he built his modern concrete replica of Stonehenge. The fame of Achillhenge spread far and wide, seen by many as a symbol of the gritty iconoclastic determination of Achill islanders. It has defied many official attempts at demolition and is still there today. Very recently, he put up a stainless steel creation in London, facing the Tower of London, to depict his contempt for all politicians, but it was quickly removed. Some islanders say that his next escapade is going to be in New York.
What a remarkable island,one that has somehow managed to survive the most incredible adversity, yet, as you will agree, the cultural heritage of Achill and its ability to survive against all odds are truly remarkable. If by any chance anyone reading this hasn’t yet been to Achill, don’t on any account miss a truly unforgettable experience.