Achill’s champion, Eva
By Des Kenny
THE IRISH cultural landscape towards the end of the 19th century was in a state of powerful transformation. While the period directly following the Act of Union in 1800 may have represented the best era of civil government in British/Irish history, it also saw Ireland being stripped of its political capital leaving it open to the economic failure that resulted in the Great Famine.
Stunned and demoralised after what has been called the greatest human disaster of the 19th century, The Great Famine, it took a decade or two for the country to find its cultural feet but as Dublin had little or no leadership to offer, there was a small but significant move away from the Anglo-Irish culture that had dominated the social landscape of the landed classes, and a growing interest emerged slowly at first but soon gathering momentum in the indigenous Irish culture, culminating in the foundation of the Irish Republican Irish Brotherhood, the Gaelic Athletic Association, and the Gaelic League.
History records the deeds of the major players in these organisations which led to Ireland gaining her independence, but their membership also included whole section of Irish society, some of whom barely rate a footnote in the ‘official’ histories of the period, but who, beneath the radar, played significant roles in the lead up to Easter Week 1916, the Rising itself, and the War of Independence that followed and the setting up of the nascent Irish Free State.
In normal circumstances, the lives and achievements of these people would have been lost to us but due to the deep interest of committed local historians, some of these have escaped total oblivion.
One such person who has been rescued from anonymity, thanks to the boundless energy and extensive research by just such a Galway historian, Mary J Murphy, is that extraordinary woman Eva O’Flaherty, one of the founders of Scoil Acla on Achill island in 1910, and whose life and achievements are now presented to us in Murphy’s just published book Achill’s Eva O’Flaherty Forgotten Island Heroine (1874 - 1963).
From the first word, the author’s enthusiasm for her subject is evident, so much so that the reader is almost bowled over with a myriad of facts and names as the world of Eva O’Flaherty and her milieu is described in detail.
It is a world where everybody knows everybody else, a close community with an intense commitment to Irish culture and language, a society that is also imbued with a strong social consciousness and an awareness of the deep deprivations suffered by the lower classes as they struggled to survive in the harsh economic climate they lived in.
Initially the reader is struck by the apparent eccentricity that prevailed in Eva’s milieu when introduced to characters such as Claud Chevasse and the formidable Anita McMahon. In fact, the reader could be forgiven for thinking this milieu lived something of a madcap, carefree, existence travelling all over the country to fulfil social engagement after social engagement.
Underneath this apparent madness, however, there was some serious work being done in trying to improve the quality of life of the poverty struck peasantry.
Perhaps their greatest achievement was the creation of a cottage industry on Achill which gave good employment at a solid wage. Because of this, the young women of the island were no longer forced to go to Scotland every summer to earn the necessary money to pay the rent and keep food on the table.
Achill’s Eva O’Flaherty Forgotten Island Heroine (1874 - 1963) pays a fitting and long overdue tribute to the magnificent achievement under extremely difficult circumstances of Eva O’Flaherty in giving an island community back their sense of human dignity as well as greatly improving their quality of life and in doing so documents an important episode in the social history of the west of Ireland.