Conflict and the Colony


Patricia Byrne's new book personalises an epic story whose legacy is still palpable on Achill Island

Áine Ryan

ON a winter’s night in 1835, 21-year-old Bridget Lavelle was summoned to her family home on Achill Island because her eldest sister ‘had been seized with a sudden illness’. That was according to her mother who had turned up at the home of Edward Nangle, Protestant evangelist, and founder of the Achill Mission Colony.
Because of ongoing tensions with the Catholic clergy, Edward Nangle was immediately suspicious ‘since the new rabble-rouser parish priest, Father Connolly, had been in the village during the day hearing confessions’ and, undoubtedly, had a hand in this quest to remove the Nangle family’s young maid from her new-found home.
However, Bridget – who had already ‘openly declared herself a Protestant’ – trusted her mother saying that she couldn’t ‘put on such a show of grief if the story were untrue’.
On arrival at the cabin, she found her sister ‘by the fire and in perfect health’, as the tall figure of Father Connolly appeared from the shadows.
“So, my lady, we have you at last.”
It transpired that the new parish priest had refused to hear the confessions of the family until they removed their daughter from the Achill Mission and returned her to her own religion.
Caught in an increasingly chasmic bitterness between two worlds, Bridget gave the following deposition to a magistrate some weeks later.
She testified that ‘she was living peaceably and happily as a servant in the house of Rev Edward Nangle, Protestant Minister in Achill, where she enjoyed the fullest liberty of conscience, being permitted to go to whatever place of worship she pleased, That she became truly convinced that the Roman Catholic religion is false, and that the Protestant religion is the true, ancient faith. That in consequence of becoming a Protestant she was exposed to much persecution’.
Ultimately, Bridget Lavelle escaped her parents clutches and with the help of Nangle moved to Co Dublin, where she went into service as a maid again. Rumours back on the island that she left because ‘she had misconducted herself and had given birth to an illegitimate child in Dublin’ compounded her loneliness and distress as her estrangement from her family continued.
“Dear Father and Mother, don’t you know it is not the case, and why do you let it torment you,” she wrote, to no avail.
“An unhappy marriage, poor health and an early death followed. Bridget Lavelle’s was a fractured life, a microcosm of the distress caused by the collision of opposing dogmas and an innocent victim of sectarian warfare,” author Patricia Byrne writes.   
This vignette in ‘The Preacher and the Prelate: The Achill Mission Colony and the Battle for Souls in Famine Ireland’, more than personalises an epic story whose legacy is still palpable to this day on the country’s largest island.
Patricia Byrne’s latest book, based on the history of the island, asks: “Did Edward Nangle and the Achill Mission Colony save hundreds from certain death, or did they shamefully exploit a vulnerable people for religious conversion?”
Fundamentally, this epic tale of famine and evangelisation, sectarianism and medieval imperialism, evictions and decimation, souperism and cultural clashes reveals universal themes while telling a fascinating story of one man’s passion – Nangle was probably bi-polar and fanatical in his mania driven by his belief in a second Protestant Reformation –  and its impact on a remote community. The themes explored and unfurled bedevil many other areas of the world today.
Religious zeal
IN July 1831the Reverend Edward Nangle sailed through stormy water  with a group of Protestant evangelists on the SS Nottingham to bring supplies to people on the western seaboard who were suffering from famine. Below deck was his pregnant wife, Eliza, convulsed by sea-sickness; their one-year-old daughter, Frances, had been left behind in Dublin in the care of family members.
Within three years Nangle would have moved to the island, the Achill Mission Colony already under construction. When completed it would comprise a school, orphanage, post office, hotel, dispensary, corn mill, farm, as well as cottages and a church. The Colony may have been short-lived but it would leave an indelible mark on the cultural history of the island.
The battle for souls was perfectly set with Nangle’s main nemesis, the Archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale, known as the ‘Lion of the West’ because of his strong political views regarding Catholic Emancipation and the desperate conditions in which his flock lived.    
Beneath the dramatic backdrop of the Minaun cliffs on the island was the favourite amphitheatre pulpit for the bishop – with its views of the Colony in the distance. During one of these sermons, he called on his congregation ‘to make a solemn promise this day not to have anything to do with the Achill Mission people’.
“You must erect in this very spot a monument which, whenever you see it, will remind me of your promise to me this day. There is no place outside of hell which more enrages the Almighty than the Protestant colony …. I shall not dirty my mouth with the names of some people who are sending their children to the colony school. I hope they shall give up doing so.”

About the author

Mayo-born Patricia Byrne’s earlier book, ‘The Veiled Woman of Achill’ tells another dramatic story which still reverberates on the island. An integral part of the island’s rich folklore, the tale of James Lynchehaun and landowner, Agnes McDonnell, is said to have inspired John Millington Synge’s, ‘The Playboy of the Western World’.
‘The Preacher And The Prelate: The Achill Mission Colony and the Battle for Souls in Famine Ireland,’ by Patricia Byrne, is published by Merrion Press (€14.99).