An old photograph of Achill.

Mayo history: Cottage industries proposed for Achill Island in 1892


By Tom Gillespie

ON April 27, 1892, the newly-formed Congested Districts Board dispatched a number of inspectors to report on the local conditions in areas along Ireland's Atlantic seaboard. Major Robert Ruttledge-Fair prepared a report on the district of Achill.

The report covered the district's four Electoral Divisions of Achill (1,417 population), Corraun (1,602), Dooega (1,698) and Slievemore (510).

In particular, Major Ruttledge-Fair undertook a survey of the piers in the district.

He reported that on the north of Achill there is only one pier, which was built by the Board of Work in 1880-81, a proportion of the expenditure being defrayed by the Earl of Cavan.

This pier is made almost entirely of solid concrete. It has stood well and is now vested in the Grand Jury of the county. The site selected is unfortunately very much exposed, and the pier affords no shelter in stormy weather. It is therefore not much used by fishing boats.

Another pier has been suggested at Doogort, about four miles west of Lord Cavan's pier. There are a considerable number of families in the locality and the proposed site has been well chosen, having regard to the difficulty of obtaining sheltered places anywhere on the coast. On the south side of the district, piers or slips have been made at Kildavnet, Dooega and Keel.

The pier at Kildavnet, built many years ago by the Grand Jury, a substantial structure, is still in good repair. A boat-slip (a very useful little work) made last year under the Relief of Distress Act already requires some slight repairs.

The small pier built at Dooega in 1886 by the Piers and Roads Commission has been washed away. £1,200 was expended by the same Commission at Keel in making a harbour for fishing boats.

The place chosen is perhaps the most sheltered on the north side of Achill, and if sufficient funds had been provided the project in all probability would have been successful.

The present state of this harbour may be briefly described as follows: All solid concrete work built on a rocky foundation has stood the force of many severe storms without the slightest apparent damage. The inner works, which seem to have been made of slight stones and faced with concrete, are now little better than a heap of ruins.

At Dooagh, a village two miles further west, a landing place for currachs was made by cutting away the solid rock. This landing place might be much improved, but it could never be used by large boats.

There are several small piers on the east side of Achill, most of which are useful for landing goods brought from Westport by sailing boats. That at Bunacurry is the most useful, and I hear fish are sometimes landed there. The road leading to this pier is in very bad repair.

In spring, he said, a good deal of work is carried out very energetically to enable the migratory labourers to leave for England and Scotland. But at other periods of the year the people do not exert themselves to improve their holdings, very little work being done in winter.

There is no kelp-burning carried on in the district. A little kelp was formerly made on one of the north-east headlands (Ridge Point), but for some years the price was so low that the people abandoned the industry for migratory labour and emigration. It has never since been revived though the price now given for kelp is fairly remunerative. Some £15 is paid annually to the Achill Mission Trustees for seaweed on Inishbiggle Island (which forms part of the Achill Electoral Division) by the people of the adjoining district of Ballycroy. No other seaweed is sold.

A considerable number of families were assisted to emigrate in 1883-84 by the Tuke Fund Committee. Most of these families resided in the north-eastern corner of the Island, and an improvement in the general circumstance of the people in this part of Achill is plainly to be seen. In the remaining portion of the district the number of families leaving was so small that little appreciable effect could be expected.

I see no reason why cottage industries, which flourish in Donegal, should not fare equally well in Achill. An effort might be made next winter to teach the women a better system of knitting and supply them with materials in the same manner as has been so successfully carried out in County Donegal.

Skilled instructors would have to be employed, and a Local Committee could, I have no doubt, be easily formed to supervise the necessary details. There are several buildings now vacant which I hear could be obtained at a mere nominal cost for such a purpose.

The extension of the railway system to Achill ought, in addition to the many other benefits which it will confer, largely to assist in the development of fishing - an industry which would, with proper encouragement, afford ample means of subsistence to many families who are now struggling under adverse circumstances. To enable fishing to be thoroughly developed, it will be necessary to provide places of refuge or shelters for boats. The entire coast of Achill is singularly deficient in this respect, and doubtless to this cause must be mainly attributed the neglect of the islanders to make use of this important means of improving their condition.

The following places seem most suitable to me for these refuges or shelters - on the south, the small harbour at Keel already commenced by the Piers and Roads Commission in 1886; Camport in Dooega Bay, and Achillbeg. On the north shore:- a pier built at Doogort would be very useful. At the same time it is right to mention that the construction of any of these works must necessarily entail a large expenditure of money, but without them I fail to see how fishing can be safely carried on.