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When the French woman landed on Achill Island

Second Reading

 ‘Three Months in Ireland’, by travel writer Marie-Anne de Bovet, offered late 19th-century readers a rare glimpse of rural island life in Ireland

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

What was life like on Achill in the late 19th century? A book first published in 1891 gives a fascinating insight into the customs of the Catholic community on the island. The author, Madame Marie-Anne de Bovet was a French travel writer and novelist who, in 1890, spent three months exploring Ireland. Her book entitled ‘Three Months in Ireland’ contains a full chapter on Achill. It is embellished with wonderful illustrations.
Her journey to the island began in Westport where she hired a pony and carriage. She liked Westport, its river and mall, comparing it to a Belgian town. She resisted climbing Croagh Patrick, however, confessing that ‘my laziness found great delight in viewing this noble peak from below’.
After a scenic, though somewhat wet journey on torturous roads, she reached Achill. She described the people as ‘handsome and well built’. “The women were dressed in shawls and petticoats decorated with various shades of red,” she said, adding that she found it a ‘picturesque sight’ to see them ‘thus dressed going to Mass, mounted two or three together on one horse, bareback, or perhaps the father rides on horseback with the wife behind him on a very primitive straw saddle, while the children follow on a donkey’.
Their main occupations were fishing and farming. The sea was rich in salmon, herring, lobster and shell fish, but their boats were inadequate to take full advantage of this abundance. The only boats on the island ‘are a few wrecked half-rigged things, in which the boldest fishermen venture out a short distance to cast their nets, the others catch crabs and shellfish among the rocks at low water’.
They lived mainly on porridge, potatoes and salted herrings in homes she described as ‘hovels’. Bacon was a luxury, while what she calls ‘butchers’ meat’ only appeared at weddings and entertainments.
Ducks and geese were reared by some families. Most houses kept a pig to be sold to pay the landlord’s rent. A further supplement to family income was the migration of its able bodied members for two months every summer to work on English and Scottish harvests. “Only the old men remain behind, with the mothers and a few fishermen,” she reported.
Recently Kevin Toolis, in his thought-provoking and beautifully written book, ‘My Father’s Wake’ testified to the importance and validity of the wake in Achill life. Madame de Bovet provided a detailed description of the custom on the island in the 19th century:
“It lasts from twenty four hours to four days, according to the temperature of the season, and the fortune of the deceased. The body, carefully washed and wrapped in a shroud, decorated with black ribbons in the case of a married person, with white ones in that of unmarried people, and with flowers for children, is laid with face uncovered, upon a table, lightly sprinkled with salt and surrounded with lighted candles.
“As soon as the prayers for the dead have been said by the priest the people come in and take their places and the whiskey begins to circulate…. While the women and family weep in a corner, the men smoke and drink around the fire, joking and laughing, discussing the fairs and crops, talking politics or indulging in rustic buffoonery.
“The youth of both sexes give themselves up in dark corners to diversions that might be in place at a dance. From time to time, a band of revellers enter and give a rude dramatic representation of some fantastic religious story.”
She noted that the Catholic clergy were trying to curb excesses at wakes, and were having some success. She commented, some what regretfully, that ‘decency is gaining ground to the detriment of local colour’.
Matchmaking was also a regular feature of island life. There were often lengthy negotiations about a dowry before a wedding could be arranged. Madame de Bovet reported: “They calculate how many sheep and goats are equivalent to the twenty golden guineas which the girl has inherited from her uncle, if the suitor contributes a cow he requires its equivalent in pigs, a feather bed is considered against a flock of geese.”
Madame de Bovet concluded her account of Achill by saying that a stay there provides balm for the mind and body. Much has changed since her visit, but that remains the same.