A Day in the Life: Kevin Toolis


Name: Kevin Toolis
Age: 60
Lives: Dookinella, Achill Island
Occupation: Writer, bardic poet, film maker

I’ve been coming to Achill every since I was a child and people always said to me that May and June are the best months, but because of either being at school or university, I never got to be here during that time until this year.
And it was absolutely spectacular. You feel bad for the visitors who have come during July because it has rained every other day!
Earlier this year I was running a band called Wonders in the Wake and we actually did the last live gig in Ireland before lockdown, which took place in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast on March 14/15 and then we were due to play on St Patrick’s Day in the Kilkenny Trad Fest.
The Wonders of the Wake is a celebration of the Irish wake in music, but also in poetry and song. We actually had 50 women keening from a Belfast choir with us and it was the first time keening had been heard in Ireland for about 100 years.
But all public performances were shut down due to Covid-19 and that was the end of one my careers, because I don’t know when it is coming back! But I’ve been in Achill since and keeping busy.
We took six loads of turf from the bog and that is a fair amount of turf to be saved by hand. It was a lesson in itself.
I think for any west of Ireland man, there is something elemental about going to the bog. People have been doing it for the last four or five thousand years and no matter how fancy you might be, when you’re bending down to pick up turf, your back is the same as everyone else’s.
I grew up in Edinburgh but my parents are from Achill. Dad is from Dookinella and Mam is from Bellinasally.
In Achill there is always something to be done to repair the damage of nature, whether that be fixing a fence or something with drains. Our house in Dookinella is very exposed to the elements so it takes a lot of maintenance. So when you drive down to Achill and you see a man painting a huge fence with the smallest paintbrush imaginable, that is me!
But today I am literally on the final proofs on a new book which I wrote here during lockdown called Nice Rules to Conquer Death. It’s a distillation of all the wisdom of the Irish wake, put into nine rules. It’s a kind of guide, because a lot of people outside of Ireland would never have been to a wake, never been to a funeral or touched or seen a corpse in their life. What the book does is really try to distill that wisdom of the Irish wake, the contact, the openness, in a way that even if you’re as far away as the Silicon Valley, it would still help you to cope better with death.
I’ve also started a walking tour, called The Colony Tour, which brings you around the historic buildings on the Achill Mission. I do it at 11am and 2pm every Sunday and it’s only a light to moderate walk. I find it every interesting, bringing that to life for people.
I’ve always been very interested in Edward Nangle, an Irish Protestant born in Meath in 1800, and founder of the Achill Mission. He raised millions in donations, in today’s money, to build his Achill Colony in Dugort and convert, as he says, the heathen native Irish away from the errors of Popery.
He was a very controversial figure, a sectarian ultra Protestant and a raging anti-Catholic preacher. Part of The Colony Tour is to give everyone – local people and visitors – a much clearer picture of who Nangle was in history and what he was trying to do, and why ultimately the act of his mission failed because it didn’t convert most of the islanders.
I think with this distance of history, you can now look at Nangle through the eyes of the people of his time and look at all the good things that he did, but also remembering all the bad things too.
I spent about two decades covering the Troubles in my work as a journalist and I was interviewing people in the IRA and these Loyalists guys who were murdering other people. You’re looking at them wondering how many people have they killed just because of different political and religious views. But the Peace Process brought an end to that and made you think that hopefully you can forge a society where everyone benefits.
I’ve also seen it go the opposite way like in the Middle East. I was once reporting on a famine in Sudan for The Guardian and I was in the middle of a real famine, a fight for survival between the strong and the poor. I saw people fight for their lives, people get sick because the water and the whole landmass is polluted, people starving to death. I can remember there literally being a billion bluebottle flies, so many you’re afraid to open your mouth.
Achill Island went through many famines in the 1800s, and something like a third of the population starved to death, including most of the people in my mother’s village. So I have a bit of a connection there.
So that’s part of why I think The Colony Tour is a huge economic asset in Irish history, where we could see where the struggle was fought out, and also trying to reassure people that it’s something we should preserve.
I think we should look back at this history and not dwell on it, but understand it and move forward to forge a better future and not make the same mistakes of the past, rather than let it fall into ruin like some of it has.
I’m also involved in a series of dramas with TG4 and some of it is going to be filmed in Achill, which might take place in September.
But at the moment I’m not doing as much documentary work as I would like due to Covid-19, I’m  just enjoying life on the island.

In conversation with Ger Flanagan.

Quickfire questions

If money was no object, what would you do everyday?
Produce my very  funny Trump! musical that I wrote but no-one seems to want to put on stage. Or make a drama series about the Troubles

Most unusual thing you have eaten?
Ostrich omelette with Zebra salami.

Favourite place you have visited?
The Namib desert in Namibia in southern west Africa, a vast landscape unchanged for thousands of years where, unlike Achill,  it only rains once in every ten years. I worked there as a young reporter on a newspaper critical of the apartheid regime.

What makes you nervous?
Checkpoints, men with guns, being near kidnappers.

Name three celebrities you would invite to your Zoom party?
Wolfe Tone, Frederick Douglas and Edward Nangle.

Best advice you ever got?
Many have eyes but cannot see.

Three things always in your fridge?
Milk, lemons, freshly ground coffee.

Most prized possession?
I am very fond of the steel tape measure of my father Sonny Toolis, now long dead, but which we still use to create and cut things in Dookinella.

First hero?
Gwen Lister, my first newspaper editor in Namibia. She smoked 60 cigarettes a day, wore four inch red heels because she was about five foot nothing and put the fear of God into the security forces of the South African apartheid regime. If you want to change the world start tonight with some paper, a pen, something to say and courage.

Sum up the coronavirus in three words?
Our old-new world

Last book you read?
Recapturing a Homeric Legacy – a book about the Venetus A Manuscript of The Iliad that dates from the 10th century and has happily been kept safe in the Marciana, the library of the Venetian Republic on St Mark’s Square in Venice for the last 600 years.

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