Surviving the Famine on Achill Island

Book Review by Rob Butler


Patricia Byrne, The Preacher and the Prelate: The Achill Mission Colony and the Battle for Souls in Famine Ireland, Merrion Press, 2018, 244pp

ISBN: 978-1-785-37172-1

RRP: €14.99

While the main title and the portraits on the back cover would seem to indicate a story about two individuals, the subject covered in this fascinating account is better indicated by the sub-title of the book The Achill Mission Colony and the Battle for Souls in Famine Ireland. Its Limerick author has had a long fascination with the island of Achill and has spent numerous visits there.

Well-researched, the story traces the establishment of a Mission Colony on this island adjacent to the coast of Co Mayo by an evangelical Protestant pastor, Edward Nangle, in the nineteenth century and its operation in the time of the Great Famine. His strident evangelisation was founded on the establishment of educational facilities and welfare for the families of the children enrolled but Nangle was of bitter sectarian views and required the recipients to undergo public recantation of what he viewed as the evils of Roman Catholicism. The book contains many harrowing tales of death and starvation and, while making sad reading, is an insight into the situation throughout Ireland at the time. The allegations of ‘souperism’ levelled at those who were seduced into joining the Mission varied from the typical shunning and verbal abuse to the assurance by one Catholic priest that acceptance of the Mission’s charity as a means of survival with superficial conversion to its philosophies was not a sin. On the other hand, there were many who chose instead to die from starvation and exposure rather than convert. Nangle’s lack of compassion was regularly criticised in reports of inspections by (Protestant) visitors. Not surprisingly, he was opposed by the hierarchy of the Roman Church and, in this regard, had a strong and wily opponent in the Archbishop of Tuam, John McHale.

The book provides a cameo of life of the poor Irish tenant farming families in those times and even those who recanted and were given tenancy and accommodation in the Mission land found that the promises made to them were not realised. Nangle pursued a plan to become the major landowner in Achill by taking advantage of the Encumbered Estates legislation and, by the end of 1852, this had been achieved. This introduced a new phase in the Mission operation whereby the evangelical purpose became conflicted with the land operations and there was considerable criticism relating to the confusion of the financial aspects of the Mission. The introduction of the 1881 Land Act, with its provision of protection of tenants, diminished the powers of the landlords and soon brought about the demise of the Achill Mission.

Achill is today still a very unspoiled and beautiful part of Ireland but there are many relics of the bad times in the nineteenth century still in evidence in the ruins of a deserted village. Having personally visited Achill several times, it is not difficult to appreciate the enthusiasm of this author in her love of the place and her interest in relating this part of its history. She excels with a beautifully written conclusion in the three-page epilogue at the end of the book.

Rob Butler gets his daily exercise by turning the pages of books