Even though it was in the furthermost parish of Archbishop MacHale’s large Tuam archdiocese, once he realised the permanency and the extent of the Protestant settlement on Achill Island (built and directed by the fervent Rev Edward Nangle in the 1830s ),* the archbishop was consumed with fury. He waged a belated but rather terrifying campaign to have it scorned and ignored by the island’s 6,000 residents.
He appeared before a large crowd in the wild outdoors, wearing his mitre, wielding a crozier, and in full liturgical costume, threatening hell and damnation if anyone had any dealings with the mission. He sent a succession of hostile parish priests to counter Nangle’s initiatives. Mission staff and converts were frequently threatened with physical violence.
The mission, with its neat houses, cultivated farmland, its modern dispensary, two schools, and a hotel, must have appeared as an oasis in the impoverished landscape of its time. It attracted disaffected Catholic priests, the curious, and in some cases converts. Bridget Lavelle, a young woman who reached out to grasp a better life, worked as a children’s maid in the busy Nangle house.** Although brought up a Catholic, she declared herself a Protestant, and happily read her Bible.
One evening her mother called and urged Bridget to come with her immediately as her sister was gravely ill. But when she arrived home she saw her sister sitting by the fire in perfect health. Then the tall figure of Fr Connolly appeared: ’So, my lady, we have you at last.’ The priest had come down heavy on the family. He refused to hear their confessions until Bridget was brought back to her Catholic faith. For a time she was forcibly restrained in her parent’s house.
Parents never responded
Bridget, however, had been genuinely attracted to the Protestant church. She was happy working for the mission. She managed to get word of her plight to the Rev Nangle, who arranged to meet her in Newport. There Bridget pleaded for legal protection to worship God in accordance with the dictates of her conscience. Nangle arranged for her to work for a Protestant family in County Dublin; but she became lonely and homesick. She missed her familiar surroundings.
Rumours were put about that she had become pregnant, and had run away to Dublin to give birth to a child. She wrote to her parents denying any such rumour, and pleading with them to understand. She sent them a pound from her hard earned wages. They never responded.
Patricia Byrne, in her compelling book the Preacher and the Prelate *** tells us that sadly Bridget’s fate was an unhappy marriage, poor health, and an early death. The story of Bridget’s fractured life, was ‘a microcosm of the distress caused by the collision of opposing dogmas. She was an innocent victim of sectarian warfare.’
Perhaps a more serious episode concerned the killing of Francis Reynolds, the chief coastguard officer on Achill. Francis, a Protestant, had married Margaret, a Roman Catholic, and had lived happily together for six years. He became friendly with the Rev Nangle, and approved of the mission and the work it was doing. But in recent times relations between the community and the mission had deteriorated to such an extent, that Reynolds had felt it necessary to provide protection for the people living there. His wife heard the priest say he would banish Nangle from the island.
This was a worrying development. The British authorities were concerned. Reynolds was questioned by the House of Lords Select Committee on the state of affairs on Achill. He agreed that following the arrival of the mission he saw great improvement in the cultivation of land, and having new schools. Reynolds said the people were very fond of Nangle when he first came, but after Archbishop MacHale’s visit the priests gave orders to shout after Protestants whenever the people saw them. Reynolds agreed that the atmosphere had now changed.
This, however, did not go down well with the people on the island. The lead up to Reynold’s killing was the consequence of a ship wreck, the William and George, driven on to the rocks at Keel on November 25 1836. Captain Reynolds and his boatmen rescued the brig’s six crew, and some of the cargo consisting of soft sugar and delft. However, many of the islanders believed they were entitled to shipwrecked goods, In a violent mêlée, Reynolds was hit over the head by Pat Lavelle and his wife. Some weeks later he died from his wounds.
At the trial, held in Castlebar the following year, Mr and Mrs Pat Lavelle were acquitted.
Next week: Rev Nangle and his mission come in for some severe criticism.
NOTES: * Although he came from a mixed religious family (his army officer father also Edward, was Catholic, and four of his half-brothers were raised Catholic ), Nangle developed a hatred of Roman Catholicism despite, or perhaps because of, his family background.
**Walter Nangle married Elizabeth Warner, and had 11 children together. However, only three sons and three daughters survived into adulthood (Essay on Edward Nangle from Dictionary of Irish Biography, by Tom Kelley and Linde Lunney ).
*** Published by Merrion Press, on sale at €14.95.