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Sharing Our Stories – memories of the past in Achill

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FINAL FAREWELL The Lavelles of Keel West, Achill pictured in 1950 during the last visit home of John P Lavelle. From left: Pat, Alice, John P and Michael (the Cop) Lavelle. The picture and story behind it features in 'Sharing Our Stories'.  (Pic courtesy of Mary Elizabeth McNamara.)

Edwin McGreal

Facebook does not always have a good reputation, but for Vincent English of the Achill Heritage Centre, it was central in getting his first book off the ground.
‘Sharing Our Stories, Volume One – Connecting The Dots’ was released in the summer and is already selling well.
It is described as a ‘collection of Achill stories, poems, history, folklore and old sayings from long ago’.
Vincent English had the idea of ‘Sharing Our Stories’ in his head for many years, wanting to gather a collection of local tales from down through the years.
He set up the Achill Heritage Centre in the old post office in Bunnacurry in 2016 after having gathered ‘a shed full of stuff’. He had said for years that someone should set up a heritage centre before deciding there was no point waiting for someone else to do it, and he took it upon himself.
He was invited over to the US in 2017 to exhibit some of the historical collection he had gathered. He subsequently set up the Achill Diaspora Facebook page, which now has almost 4,000 followers.
People of Achill descent from all over the world joined and started sharing their own stories of their connections to Achill.
“People were posting pictures and stories, and a book was almost writing itself,” Mr English told The Mayo News.
So he put out a call for people to write something for the first volume of ‘Sharing Our Stories’ and got a great reaction. Historical pieces and family recollections flooded in, along with a raft of pictures.
Lockdown was a blessing, he adds, allowing him more time to pull it all together.
Some tremendous stories and pictures populate the book.
Among the many wonderful images is a poignant picture taken 70 years ago that tells in microcosm Achill’s story of emigration.
It’s a picture of four elderly siblings, the Lavelles of Keel West, on the occasion of John P Lavelle’s visit to his Achill home from Cleveland, Ohio, where he had emigrated.
It would be his last visit to Achill, and the realisation of that is writ large across the expression of his sister Alice.
In the book, Vincent English writes that well-known Dooagh man John ‘Twin’ McNamara saw John P Lavelle walked the 200 metres to the bus stop backwards, fixing his stare on home as he left it behind forever.
John Twin later recounted this story to Terry Hassett, who wrote a story about it, called ‘Lavelle’s Last Look’.
Interestingly, John P’s great-granddaughter Rose Lavelle was a star member of the US Fifa Women’s World Cup-winning team in 2019, scoring a decisive goal in the final. A further example of how Achill has a reach far and wide.
Vincent English is also deep in plans for moving the Achill Heritage Centre to the site of the old monastery in Bunnacurry and hopes to complete the move there next year. There are also ongoing plans for a walk around the site of the old monastery.
As if that’s not enough, he’s already working on the second volume of ‘Sharing Our Stories’ and is undertaking exhaustive research on the Clew Bay Drowning Tragedy. That’s the tragedy that occurred in 1894 in Clew Bay when a boat carrying Achill people to Westport Quay and onwards for seasonal work in Scotland capsized.
He’s looking to explore the individual stories behind all of the passengers on board and has already unearthed some fascinating tales.
English’s interest in the incident is particularly personal for him. His great-grandparents were both on the boat, but did not know each other.
Bridget Ruddy from Currane was struggling in the water and had her hand up looking for help. Patrick O’Malley from Dooagh pulled her from the water. It was an incredible first meeting. They travelled onwards to Scotland and were married the next year.
The rest is history, and 126 years later, their descendant is doing their history and that of thousands of other justice.

‘Sharing Our Stories, Volume One – Connecting The Dots’ can be bought in Achill Sound Post Office; Castle Book Shop, Castlebar; McLoughlin’s, Westport; or online at achillheritagecentre.com/shop. Anyone who would like to submit a story or photograph for Volume 2 can send it to achillpeople@gmail.com.