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Bridging the past and present

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PERSONAL CHEQUE John Grey Vesey Porter was a Fermanagh landowner who helped finance the first bridge connecting Achill to the mainland.

Anton McNulty

On August 31, 1887, Land League leader Michael Davitt received a hero’s welcome when he travelled to Achill to officially open the first bridge to connect the island to the mainland.
Large crowds welcomed the Straide native, who was a hero in the eyes of the local population for his role in working for tenants’ rights. To cheers, Davitt stated that the bridge would be ‘spoken of in ages to come with credit to the people of this island and their self-reliant character’.
While the bridge has been forever associated with Michael Davitt, there is one man who history has forgotten. To the majority of people living on Achill Island, the name of John Grey Vesey Porter holds no relevance. But without the lobbying and financial backing of this Protestant landowner from Co Fermanagh, that first bridge may never been built.
James Kilbane, a member of the Michael Davitt Bridge Committee, which plans to celebrate 130 years of the bridge’s opening next week, believes that Porter’s name has been unfairly omitted from the bridge’s history books.
“He does not get any credit at all,” Kilbane told The Mayo News. “There is no reference to him being at the opening of the bridge, and if he was not there that was an injustice. He has also been forgotten about in local history, and that is also an injustice, in light of what he did for the island,” he said.

Personal cheque
Kilbane explained that he first heard of Porter after reading about him in 1999, and that it was only after he looked into him more that he realised how pivotal Porter was to the construction of the bridge. The project was costed at £4,500 when it was first approved in 1883, but that figure quickly rose to £6,000, placing the envisioned bridge in jeopardy.
“There would [still] have been a bridge, but not the swing bridge that was eventually put in place. It was proposed that it would be a footbridge, but Porter wanted a proper bridge. At a critical stage in the bridge’s development, he came forward with a personal cheque for £4,000. It was with the understanding that the money would be paid back to him over time, but we don’t know if it ever was. He gave the money in good faith for the good of the island.”

Treacherous crossing
Achill in the 19th century was a remote, isolated, economically deprived place. Many of the island’s 6,000 or so dwellers were living in desperate poverty. While only 200 yards separate the island from the mainland at its narrowest point, Achill Sound, the current is one of the strongest in Europe. Crossing by ferry was considered treacherous.
John Grey Vesey Porter was born in Co Fermanagh in 1818 and was the grandson of John Porter, Lord Bishop of Clogher, who for a time served as Bishop of Killala. JGV Porter came from a wealthy family and inherited the 11,000-acre Belleisle estate in Lisbellaw, Co Fermanagh.
It is not known when he visited Achill, but it is believed he stayed in Dugort, the centre of the Achill Mission founded by the controversial Reverend Edward Nangle.
At the time, the risks of crossing the Sound had led to calls for a permanent bridge. Although he was a complete outsider and had no vested interest in the scheme, Porter was to the fore in the campaign.
Why he campaigned so vigorously for a bridge is unclear, but it is understood he lost a mare while attempting to cross the Sound. He is also quoted as saying that he wished to ‘join forever the finest island off the west coast to the mainland of Ireland’.
“I think he had personal reasons for doing it,” explained James Kilbane. “He came from a religious background – his father was a rector – and I think he must have felt a moral obligation to help.”
Under Porter’s direction, a plan was prepared by Mr Glover, the Mayo County Surveyor, and subsequently approved by Mr J Price, a civil engineer in Dublin. Porter personally approached the Board of Trade in London to obtain official authorisation, but two years were lost before the Grand Jury of Mayo approved the setting up of an administrative body to support the financing of the project in July 1883.
The Barony of Burishoole was to contribute €1,000 to the £4,500 project, while Mr Porter would advance a further £1,000.
The Achill Bridge and Viaduct Committee was formed. It included both the local Roman Catholic community and those living in the Protestant settlement in Dugort. While Porter’s name has long been forgotten, his generosity was gratefully appreciated at the time, and his name was regularly referenced in articles written about the bridge at the time.
In February 1884, a list of contributors was published in the Connaught Telegraph. This showed Mr Porter as contributing £50 and another person called Miss Porter also contributing £50. Other contributors included the Duke of Bedford (£25), Mr WH Rathbone MP (£25), local landlord, Captain Pike (£10) and the Achill Monks (£5).

Colourful character
As well as being a wealthy landowner, Porter was a colourful character who was involved in a number of ventures and was not afraid to speak his mind. He founded The Lisbellaw Gazette and Co Fermanagh Advertiser in January 1879, which continued to be published until May 1903. The newspaper was primarily a vehicle for expressing Porter’s own set of ideals, revealing his deep sympathy for tenant farmers, and his support for the re-establishment of an Irish parliament, but with loyalty to the British Crown. The paper was also caustically critical of the Orange Order and some of the landlords and prominent local people.
Porter knew Michael Davitt and was involved in politics, running unsuccessfully to become a member of Parliament. Though he received support from independent farmers, his alienation by the Orange Order and landlord interests scuppered any chances of success.
In 1893, at the age of 47, he married Elizabeth Jane Hall, who was about 18. The marriage was childless and ended in divorce when Hall had an affair with Captain Leonard Poynter. On finding out about the infidelity, Porter and members of his staff horsewhipped the captain. His  actions landed him in court after Capt Poynter sued for battery.
With Victorian Ireland eager for salacious gossip, the courtroom was packed. For almost a week, those gathered were regaled with juicy details of the affair between Hall and Capt Poynter. In the end, the jury found for Capt Poynter, but awarded him just a farthing in damages.
John Grey Vesey Porter died in October 1903. Without an heir, he was succeeded by his nephew. The estate remained in the Porter family until 1991, when Miss Lavinia Baird sold Belleisle to the 5th Duke of Abercorn. It is now a fully functional tourist attraction in Fermanagh.

Island transformed
Construction on the bridge started in 1886, and consisted of a steel bowstring girder construction with a span of 120 feet pivoting on a central pier. The roadway was eight feet in width and was sufficient for the horse-drawn long cars that introduced a ‘new age of genteel tourism to Achill’.
The bridge transformed the island. Within a few years, a number of hotels had sprung up, and within a decade the railway at arrived. At the time of the construction, the village of Achill Sound consisted of little more than an RIC station. It has since grown to be the main area of economic activity for the parish.
James Kilbane believes that Achill’s transformation was thanks to the efforts of Porter and that his contribution should be recognised.
“Nobody is talking about changing the name of the bridge, but John Porter’s name should not be forgotten. His vision, courage and personal money were crucial in the bridge becoming a reality.”

To mark the 130th anniversary of the Michael Davitt Bridge, a number of events are planned for Sunday, September 3, including a parade through the village and boats passing  through the sound with the bridge open.

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