Outrage on Achill
OVER a century later and this dramatic story still reverberates through the boggy boreens and battered shorelines of Achill Island. It remains an integral part of the rich folklore and history of the Mayo island. Now a new book, ‘The Veiled Woman of Achill’, by Patricia Byrne, contributes further to this epic tale that has ensured the name of James Lynchehaun still invokes a sense of mystery and heroism, notoriety and subterfuge way beyond the shores of this western island.
On the fateful night of October 6, 1894, a fire raged at Valley House, the stately home of Achill landowner, Agnes MacDonnell. As was usual practise, the servants had gone home, leaving Ms MacDonnell alone in the house. She was asleep in bed when a frantic knock at her front door awoke her. Hours later she would lie in a neighbour’s house, with serious injuries to her head and burns on her legs. The red-headed beauty would survive but was never seen in public again without a veil covering her disfigured face.
Two weeks later, RIC forces from all over the county were deployed to search for islander James Lynchehaun, who for a time had worked as a land-agent for Ms MacDonnell. But he escaped while being transported, handcuffed, from Dugort to Castlebar.
“There were whispers that Lynchehaun’s own family may have had a hand in the getaway. It was rumoured that after the car carrying the prisoner left Achill Sound and was headed towards Polranny, a relative of Lynchehaun’s rode a horse close to the car as it approached his father’s house,” writes Patricia Byrne.
She uses The Mayo News as one of her many sources and quotes a correspondent who asks in the aftermath of his escape: “Why was a prisoner charged with the most atrocious crime despatched in the dark night in the lonely Corraun Mountains in the charge of just two constables upon an outside car? The public are entitled to an explanation.”
Thus began the many folkloric stories about James Lynchehaun. He would later be captured; make yet another daring escape, this time from Maryborough Prison; avoid extradition from the US in a famous, ground-breaking court case; and, having adopted an alias, visit Achill as a tourist in 1907.
OF COURSE, ‘The Veiled Woman of Achill’ is more than a thriller set in the wilds of rural Ireland at the turn of the 20th century.
This dramatic narrative is underscored by turbulent times in the colonial history of Ireland, as the shackles of medieval landlordism are loosened and self-determination and cultural revival hover on the horizon.
This is a story about complex community ties and a guerrilla campaign and culture that repeatedly left those in power scratching their heads powerlessly.
The author cleverly weaves a sub-text that exposes the privations and inequalities endured by a peasant population, long exposed to exploitation and emigration.
On the face of it the Clew Bay drowning tragedy of June 15, 1894, had nothing to do with the vicious assault that occurred on Achill island six months later. Neither had the evangelical proselytising of the Reverend Edward Nangle; the founder of the Achill Colony was already dead for over a decade, although his legacy of Souperism would still leave deep scars among neighbours and families. Moreover, it was 13 years later, in 1907, when John Millington Synge’s play, ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, caused riots in the national theatre.
Its central character, Christy Mahon, was partly inspired by the Lyncehaun story.
But all of these events and issues, along with the agrarian war led by Michael Davitt, are enmeshed in this compelling tale, which has all the ingredients of a classical tragedy, framed within the wild intimacy of an isolated community.
Mayo-born, Patricia Byrne has been a regular contributor to historical journal, Cathair na Mart. Her great-grand uncle, Brother Paul Carney, who was based at a friary on Achill at the time, chronicled the events. ‘The Veiled Woman of Achill – Island Outrage and a Playboy Drama’ (€12.99) will be published on April 26, by Collins Press.