Fr Kevin Hegarty
In Anton McNulty’s interview with Kevin Toolis in last week’s paper, the film producer mentioned that his next project will be about Edward Nangle who established a protestant colony on Achill in the 19th century. Who is he and why is he remembered today when the lives of most clergymen of his era are consigned to the anonymous dust of history?
In 1831 Nangle sailed with a group of protestant evangelicals on a ship, the SS Nottingham to bring supplies to people on the western seaboard who were suffering famine. Told by the rector of Newport, WB Stoney of the ‘intense destitution ’ on Achill they called in there.
Nangle found there the purpose that animated the rest of his life. Despite the vicissitudes he endured on the island, Achill for him was always “the happy valley, in spite of all our trials, I know no place like it.”
It is ironic, given his association with aggressive anti-Catholicism, that the Church of Rome was in his spiritual DNA. He was the child of a mixed religious marriage. Born in Dublin in 1800, he was the son of Walter, a catholic and Elizabeth, a protestant.
Brought up a protestant, he was ordained a Church of Ireland priest in 1824. After two short unsuccessful curacies in Athboy and Monkstown, he served in Arva in Cavan for a couple of years. Here he suffered a nervous breakdown and was still recuperating when he joined the evangelical expedition to the West of Ireland.
An adherent of what is called by historians, “the Second Reformation”, he became part of a movement that developed during the 1820s to convert Irish catholics to protestantism. Followers of this movement asserted that catholics needed to be rescued from the errors of Rome and enlightened by the bible.
Nangle believed that Achill was fertile territory for the implementation of this vision. His religious convictions included a social dimension. A people emancipated from the tyranny of poverty, provided with schools and medical facilities and trained in modern farming methods, would be unlikely to remain in thrall to Romish superstitions.
In today’s parlance, he was an able networker. He attracted enthusiastic support from Irish and English evangelicals. By 1834 he had leased a tract of land at Dugort where he established schools, a church, a small hospital, an orphanage and several dwellings. A hotel was eventually added. Acutely aware of keeping the protestant world throughout the British empire informed of his progress, he started a monthly newspaper, The Achill Missionary Herald and Western Witness, which was published for 40 years.
He attracted converts, especially during the Great Famine (1845-49) when decay stalked the Achill landscape. It is alleged that many catholics were compelled or felt obliged to renounce their religious allegiance in order to be given food at the soup kitchens. At this remove, in the absence of documentary evidence it is difficult to discern the validity of the allegations. What is undoubtedly true however, is that Nangle and his fellow evangelicals believed that the famine was divine retribution for the unwillingness of Irish catholics to embrace protestantism. Poor theology breeds misunderstanding.
Inevitably Nangle’s mission attracted the ire of catholic leaders. The catholic Archbishop of Tuam was John MacHale, a fiery and indomitable cleric nicknamed by his friend Daniel O’Connell as the ‘Lion of the Fold of Judah’. Denouncing Nangle and his supporters as ‘venomous fanatics’, he led a campaign to defeat the Achill mission threat. For two decades Achill was a religious battle-ground between competing visions of Christianity. Theological vulgarities on both sides polluted the pristine Achill air.
In the fight for spiritual superiority there was no room for the gentleness and tolerance of Jesus Christ. William Butler Yeats’s words are tailor-made:
“We had fed the heart on fantasies, the heart’s grown brutal from the fare, more substance in our enmities than in our love.”
From the 1850s onwards the Achill mission was in decline. Nangle was appointed rector in Skreen in County Sligo in 1852, though he retained an interest in his foundation to his death in 1883. Many catholics who converted during the famine returned to their original allegiance. Other converts, finding the Achill atmosphere uncongenial emigrated. An evaluation of Nangle’s career has to include elements of darkness and light. He contributed to religious intolerance in 19th century Ireland, yet he played a positive role in the social and educational development of Achill.
Today in Achill, as in Ireland, the religious asperities of the past have been eased by ecumenism and softened by secularisation. In September 2011, the catholic and protestant spiritual successors of MacHale and Nangle held a joint service in memory of the people buried in unmarked graves on the island and to honour all who died in Achill during the 19th century, particularly during the Great Famine.