Starving Achill families renounced the Catholic faith for food handouts
Tom Gillespie recounts the rivalry between Catholic and Protestant leaders for the conversion of Achill islanders during the Famine years
A CHURCH of Ireland minister established a Protestant mission on Achill Island during the famine years to entice Catholics to convert to Protestantism in return for food handouts.
For 18 years Rev. Edward Nangle ran the Achill Mission Colony with the aim of bringing Protestantism to the native Irish Christians who were impoverished in large part due to the colonial policies of the Protestant ascendancy.
Edward Nangle opened a Christian school on the island where children were taught reading, writing, agricultural skills and Christianity as part of a missionary colony.
His presence on the island led to some press coverage and parliamentary debates. The island itself was developed, with a pier built at Dugort, a courthouse at Achill Sound and a road network between numerous key locations on the island.
A plaque hanging in St. Thomas' Church, Dugort, dedicated to Edward Nangle and erected by friends after his death, reads: ‘He devoted his life from the year 1834 to the welfare of the people of Achill among whom he lived for many years’.
Edward Nangle, according to Wikipedia, was born into a family from Athboy, Co. Meath, in 1799. Although by tradition, the family was Roman Catholic, Nangle was raised in the Protestant faith since his mother, Catherine Nangle, was a practising Protestant. Nangle's mother died when he was only nine years old and shortly afterwards his father sent him to Cavan Royal School.
After secondary education, Nangle completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in Trinity College, graduating in 1823.
Although contemplating a career in medicine, Nangle decided to enter the ministry. In his biographer's words, he looked ‘forward to ordination as a means of securing an eligible social position’.
It is believed that Nangle's decision to enter the ministry was the first step in what became his 'conversion experience'. As required for his theological education, he read the Bible and through this, 'the Holy Spirit enlightened the young student and he experienced true conversion'.
In the summer of 1824, he was ordained deacon for the curacy of Athboy. He failed as a curate at first in Athboy and then in Monkstown, where he stayed for less than three weeks. He finally settled in Arva, a small town near Cavan town, for the following two years.
Edward Nangle was described as a 'tall, thin, pale man who spoke in gentle tones, coming across as serious and intense'.
After beginning his ministry in Arva, Edward was affected by the Second Reformation religious revival in Cavan among the tenants of Lord Farnham, the landlord of a 30,000 acre estate. Hundreds of tenants were arriving at Farnham's home, converting from Catholicism. He suffered a nervous breakdown and during his convalescence he underwent a conversion experience and decided to dedicate himself to Protestant evangelicalism.
In July 1831, Edward Nangle paid his first visit to Achill Island. He sailed there on the relief ship Nottingham after famine and cholera swept through Mayo and Sligo. After spending a night at Achill Sound, he travelled around the island on horseback.
Describing his initial encounter with the island, Nangle wrote: “The deep silence of desolation was unbroken, except by the monotonous rippling of the tide as it ebbed or flowed, or the wild scream of the curlew disturbed by some casual intruder on its privacy.”
Apparently moved by what he perceived as the spiritual and temporal destitution he witnessed among the people living on the island, Nangle decided to establish the Achill Mission Colony.
In the following three years, Nangle bought land on the island and negotiated a 31-year leasing contract with Sir Richard O’Donnell, the landlord of the Burrishoole estate, which comprised most of Achill. The Nangle family settled in Dugort on July 30, 1834. They were soon joined by Nangle's assistant, Joseph Duncan, two Scripture readers and Dr. Neason Adams and his wife, Isabella.
On December 23, 1834, Nangle opened the Achill Mission's first school. Some 43 children attended on the first day, and it was the first free school to open on the island. Within a couple of months there were schools in Dugort, Slievemore, Cashel and Keel, catering for 410 children.
In December 1835, a printing press was established at the Mission Colony headquarters at Dugort. On July 31, 1837, Nangle printed the first edition of the Achill Herald. This was a monthly Protestant newspaper and within two years, its circulation exceeded 3,000. The newspaper was published continuously each month from 1837 to 1868 when it merged with other Protestant publications.
Four years after he took up residence on Achill, Edward Nangle wrote: “The missionary settlement has since grown into a village - the sides of a once barren mountain are now adorned with cultivated fields and gardens, and the stillness of desolation which once reigned is now broken by the hum of the school and the sound of the church-going bell.”
An orphanage was established in 1838, and in the summer of that year, Archbishop Trency visited the island for the first time.
In 1839, the Slievemore Hotel was built, and a year later hotels were built at Achill Sound and in Newport. By 1840, a traveller could leave Dublin in the mail on a Thursday evening, sleep in Newport on Friday, reach Achill Sound on Saturday, and worship in St. Thomas's Church, Dugort, on Sunday morning.
By the early 1840s, the Achill Mission Colony included two-storey slated houses, a printing press, an orphanage, a hospital, a post office, a dispensary, a corn mill and farm buildings, surrounded by fields reclaimed from the wet mountain slopes.
In 1842, the colony accommodated 56 families comprising 365 individuals. Only 11 of these families (one-fifth of the total) were originally Protestant - the remaining 45 families were originally Catholic.
During the Famine, in the spring of 1847, Nangle and the colony employed 2,192 labourers and fed 600 children a day. In July 1847, it was suggested that 5,000 out of Achill's total population of 7,000 were receiving practical support from the mission, which had planted 21 tons of blight-free foreign potatoes.
Allegations of 'souperism' - offering material benefits in return for religious conversion - were made against Nangle in the famine years as food was provided to children in the colony schools and conversions increased.
Thomas Plunkett, the Protestant Archbishop of Tuam, arrived at the island in the autumn of 1848 to find that there were over 2,000 children attending the mission schools.
The same year, more than 3,000 were working for the mission, clearing land and building roads and walls. In November 1848, the barque William Kennedy, freighted with 220 tons of Indian meal, arrived in Achill from Philadelphia. It had enough supplies to feed 2,000 people and cost £2,200, paid for out of the mission funds.
In September 1849, 400 children were confirmed at the Achill Mission. Only 28 of these were children of Protestants - the remaining 372 were converts, the majority of children in the Achill Mission schools.
In 1848, a site was obtained for a new church in Dugort. It opened on March 18, 1855.
The Catholic Church opposed Nangle and the Achill Mission Colony from the start. At the first Sunday school, a devout Catholic is reported to have stood near the gate with a rod threatening to beat each of the attending children. Additionally, one of the scripture readers was reportedly assaulted by two men, thrown to the ground and his clothes torn.
Nangle was warned of a secret plan to attack the colony, kill those living there, burn the buildings and put an end to the Achill Mission. No attack took place but it is believed that the preparations made deterred the assailants.
In the summer of 1835, John MacHale made his first visit to Achill as Catholic Archbishop of Tuam. Followed by a crowd holding banners with the words, ‘Down the Schematics’, the archbishop led a procession of 13 priests. A succession of the priests addressed the crowd and denounced the colony, pronouncing a curse on all who dared associate themselves with the nearby Protestant settlement.
In 1835, after the mission opened schools in Dugort, Cashel, Keel and Slievemore, the local parish priest responded by opening three competing schools. Nangle had an immediate grievance against the master of Dugort national school because he had reportedly ‘with a knife in his hand threatened to take the head of one of the children attending a school under (mission) patronage.’
In 1836, John MacHale again visited Achill. This time speaking to a large crowd outdoors, he said: “I call upon you to make a solemn promise this day not to have anything to do with the Achill Mission people. There is no place outside of Hell which more enrages the Almighty than the Protestant colony.
“I shall not dirty my mouth with the names of some of the people who are sending their children to the colony school. I hope they will give up doing so.”
In 1837, MacHale made another visit, this time stirring up the populace against what he called ‘these venomous fanatics’, referring to those involved with the Achill Mission Colony. Not long after his visit, a schoolmaster and scripture reader from the Mission Colony were beaten on Clare Island and were forced to take refuge in the lighthouse before they could escape the island on a coastguard vessel.
On January 2, 1839, Francis Reynolds, a coastguard officer who was denounced by name at Catholic services on several successive Sundays, died as a result of being hit on the head in a house in Keel. John and Bridget Lavelle were cleared of his murder at a trial in Castlebar in spring 1839. The two main witnesses in the case were schooled in their evidence by a local Catholic priest who was aggressive to the mission.
Nangle accused the Crown of holding a ‘mock’ trial and as a direct consequence of these and other incidents, a new courthouse was built at Achill Sound.
A significant development occurred in 1851 when the Achill Mission purchased a considerable amount of land from the Encumbered Estates Court and became the largest landlord on Achill Island. Shortly afterwards Edward Nangle was transferred to the parish of Skreen, Co. Sligo.
In 1851, MacHale decided to buy 1,200 acres of island land from Sir Richard O’Donnell. Shortly afterwards, the foundations were laid for a Franciscan monastery, a school for the local children, a glebe house for two priests and a model farm to provide education in modern systems of agriculture. In MacHale's own words, he planned to counteract ‘the mischievous speculators, who, more than 20 years ago, bought a farm in Achill and planted themselves there to drive a lucrative trade on English credulity’.
In the process of building the new monastery complex, Archbishop MacHale's workmen were accused of stealing stones from Nangle's land. On Wednesday, October 7, of the same year, the police arrested a man charged with theft in relation to a heap of stones. After the workmen continued to steal stones from Nangle's land, a court case proceeded. But Daniel Cruise, the judge, dismissed the court case on the grounds that ‘both sides were equally to blame’.
In 1852, Nangle left Achill after 18 years working on the island. Shortly afterwards he married, for the second time, Sarah Fetherstonhaugh.
From the early 1860s, Edward Nangle began a legal battle with Joseph Napier, one of the trustees of the Achill mission committee. The case started as a minor disagreement over the election of committee members, but it escalated into a major court case that dragged on for years, draining the resources of the Achill estate.
Edward Nangle returned to Achill briefly in 1879, writing: “As I have now completed my 80th year, and am very infirm, I am unable to work for our dear people in Achill as I did for upwards of 40 years of my life.”
In 1881, he moved to Dublin and died on Sunday, September 9, 1883, at the age of 84, at his home, 23 Morehampton Road, with his second wife, Sarah, by his side. Nangle is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery, Monkstown.
Immediately following Nangle's death, the opposing views of the members of the Protestant community in Ireland were evident. The Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette - an organ of the Church of Ireland - labelled Nangle as ‘an Evangelical of the old school’ while also passing judgment on the Achill Herald, professing that it was ‘strangely deficient in Church teaching’.
The negative critique of the Gazette continued into another article reviewing Nangle's biography: “Everyone has their own idea of heroism, and practices hero-worship after their own fashion. We are free to confess that the late Rev. Edward Nangle was not a hero to our mind.”
In contrast, the Church Advocate, which had amalgamated with the Achill Herald, stated that: “Few clergymen of the Church of Ireland were better known or more highly valued in his day, as he was a man of much intellectual power, a clear expositor of sound scripture, and a powerful writer.”