‘A Shaking of the Dry Bones’ - Achill Island in the 1830s

On the eve of the Great Famine there was a terrible scandal in Kinvara, Co Galway. William Burke, who had served as a Catholic priest for 13 years, announced to his congregation that he was leaving the church and becoming Protestant. The people were so angry that about 2,000 pursued his carriage and hurled abuse at him. Two other clergymen and police protection were required to keep him safe.

Things were just about to get a little calmer when it was discovered that Burke had already married his wife Catherine while still priest, leading to his prosecution for ‘tendering an illegal oath’. A sensational court appearance ensued, and the case was dismissed.

But all hell broke lose once the poor man came out of court. He told the aftermath himself: ‘We were scarcely beyond the portals of the courthouse when we were assaulted by yelling and hooting mob…as we entered the square near my lodgings, stones were thrown by the justice-loving Popish rabble of Galway’, Burke was advised by the magistrate to take refuge in the sheriff’s prison, which was the only place where his safety could be secured. When the mob had quietened down, and the streets were practically deserted, Burke and Catherine slipped out of the town, and over a few days made their way to Achill. There they were gladly given sanctuary by the Reverend Edward Nangle and his family. They were later joined by three other former Catholic priests.

Oasis of civilisation

The Rev Edward Walter Nangle, a man of fierce energy in the service of God, with a born detestation of Roman Catholics, suffered from bouts of nervous exhaustion and collapse. While recovering from one such attack in 1830 he had a powerful vision: he would build nothing less than an exemplary Christian colony in the most deprived and remote location possible at the time, and that was to be Achill Island. It would be an oasis of civilisation in the ‘midst of superstition and squalor’.

He could see it clearly before him: ‘neat, orderly houses, with vegetable gardens and whitewashed walls, a community conducting itself with piety, sobriety and industry; scriptural schools buzzing with the laughter of children; the people learning the Bible, the source of all truth, in their native tongue, and a people transformed beyond all recognition’.

Incredibly he succeeded, at least for a period. He was given land by the island’s principal landlord, Sir Richard O’Donnell, and in a very short time he, and pioneer Protestants who loved a challange, worked round the clock reclaiming land and making roads. They built attractive houses, two schools, a church, a dispensary, a pier and a hotel which soon attracted tourists to enjoy the spectacular scenery of the island. It was a dramatic ‘shaking of the dry bones’ as the Patricia Byrne tells us, in her excellent account of the venture.*

Later the colony would attract serious criticism for its ’souperism’ and extreme Protestant values; nevertheless, for a period it became a refuge for the destitute, and for dissident Catholics; and for families who wanted a good education for their children, and food in the bellies.

‘Polluting influence’

The poor priests did not work out so well. Nangle later admitted that one of them, John O’Brien, ‘proved to be, as many of the priests are, a person of dissolute habits’. While a Solomon Frost ‘could not entirely free himself of the polluting influence of Maynooth’.

He brought the priests on a fund-raising drive to England to show what a good job he was doing, that even Catholic priests wanted to join him. He brought one ex priest with him to Liverpool ’but the priest took flight and took off to America.’ Nevertheless, converted priests, public recantations by converts, the offer of more land for expansion, and a thriving community - to all appearances these were a powerful validation of Edward Nangle’s vision and success on the island of Achill.

Next week: Archbishop John MacHale, ‘the Lion of the West’ woke up to the fact that ‘the enemy’ had slipped into the back of his archdiocese.…

NOTES : *The Preacher and Prelate - The Achill Mission Colony and the Battle for Souls in Famine Ireland, published by Merrion Press, on sale €14.99.

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