‘Rather than die, the people submitted’

Week V

The Great Famine hit Achill Island hard; but at its height the Protestant Mission was feeding practically the whole population of the island.

The Great Famine hit Achill Island hard; but at its height the Protestant Mission was feeding practically the whole population of the island.

The Great Famine of 1845 - 49 hit Achill Island particularly hard. Given the poor quality of its soil there was little or no alternative to the potato crop which failed throughout those years. Once the severity of the calamity became apparent, and that help from the government was begrudging and insufficient, there was a sensible coming together of Protestant and Catholic clergy to try to calm and feed the people.

The Rev Edward Nangle had little doubt that the famine was a justified punishment from God for ‘Ireland’s sins.’ He was particularly incensed by the British government’s support for the Catholic seminary at Maynooth. This endowment, he warned, was a direct cause of the famine, and will be followed by ‘plague, pestilence and blood’.

However the bitter defiance and rigid dogmatism of Nangle was balanced by the genuine altruism and idealism of his friend and fellow missionary Dr Neason Adams. Dr Adams had given up a lucrative medical practice in Dublin to join Nangle, and to treat the sick and the poor of Achill for more than 20 years without pay. Both Dr Adams and his wife Isabella, were admired and respected by all factions on the island.

Centre for food

The accusations persist that the Rev Nangle initially distributed aid to the islanders in accordance with his founding principles of the Mission which was to convert the inhabitants to the Protestant faith. Children were the more obvious target of his zeal. Naturally parents encouraged their children to avail of the education that the Mission schools offered which provided and the two meals a day. By the spring of 1847 the two Mission schools were feeding 600 children a day. When the Protestant Archbishop of Tuam, Thomas Plunket, visited Achill the following autumn, there were more than 2,000 children attending the Mission schools. A year later he confirmed 400 children in the presence of an immense congregation.

As the Great Famine dragged on, and the people became more desperate, and completely reliant on the Mission for relief, Nangle (who lost his place on the Famine Relief Committee probably because of his dogmatism ), abandoned his principle of food for conversion, and distributed aid freely.

By 1848 there were more than 3,000 people working at the Mission, clearing land, building roads and walls; while the total number of people being fed daily were 5,000, practically the entire population of the island. The Mission also planted 21 tons of blight-free foreign potatoes. The colony was the recognised centre for food distribution on the island.

In November 1848 the barque William Kennedy, arrived from Philadelphia with 220 tons of Indian meal. It was enough to feed 2,000 people, and cost £2,200 paid out of mission funds.

‘No other refuge’

There is little doubt that Nangle and his mission saved Achill during the Great Famine. Without them thousands would have starved. Despite the derogatory label of ‘souper’ that was levelled with great vehemence at families who changed their faith to feed themselves during this terrible time, at least one Catholic priest saw the reality of the situation. In a letter expressing his gratitude for a donation from the relief fund set up by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Daniel Murray, Achill priest Fr Michael Gallagher explained how poverty had compelled the greatest number of the population ‘to send their children to Nangle’s proselytising villainous schools ….for they have no other refuge. They are dying of hunger, and rather than die they have submitted’. The priest, unusually for the time, understood that in order to survive the people had no choice.

Next week: Fancy a seaweed bath? It was a main attraction Paul McGuinley tells us some interesting Salthill stories.

Sources: I am leaning on Patricia Byrne’s best selling The Preacher and the Prelate - The Achill Mission Colony and the battle for souls in Famine Ireland (on sale €14.99 ), and I am very grateful for an excellent article on the Achill Mission in History Ireland, published in autumn 2000, by Niall R Branach.

Re caption last week: Eleanor Mannion suggested that the word ‘Errive’ (which I thought could be ‘Erris’ ), could also be the Erriff River which winds its way alongside the N59 between Leeanne and Westport. I think she is right. Thank you.

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