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A story of triumph and tragedy


A story of triumph and tragedy

Willie McHugh

“The first train to Achill it carried dead cargo
The prophecy said the last one would too”

BRIAN Rua O’Cearbhain, the 17th-century prophet of Erris, predicted ‘carts on iron wheels’ would carry dead bodies into Achill on their first and last journey. In 1894, the first train on the Achill railway line carried the bodies of 32 young people who died in a drowning tragedy in Clew Bay. They were on a boat going to meet a steamer that would have taken them to Scotland for seasonal work picking potatoes.
O’Cearbhain’s woeful portending was fulfilled in 1937 when the bodies of ten young people from the island were carried on the last train to Achill. They were part of a tattie-hoking (potato-picking) gang who lost their lives when the bothy or cowshed they slept in caught fire in Kirkintilloch, a few miles north of Glasgow in the early hours of a September morning.
In Achill the story of emigration links most chapters of the island’s narrative. “I keep the back seats for all the suitcases,” CIE bus conductor Michael Lynch remarked to Irish Times columnist John Healy when the Charlestown native inquired about the workforce exodus from the island in the mid-1960s.
On the approach road beyond Tonragee the hoarding informs visitors of Achill’s twinning over a decade ago with Cleveland. The linkage was first forged the 1880s, when islanders emigrated there, and the trend continued up to the 1960s. Most converged on an area known as ‘The Angle’ where an already organised Achill network made it easier for new arrivals to find work and accommodation. Over a quarter of the Irish population in Cleveland claim Achill ancestry.
Tourism is the mainstay of the island now. And while there might be nine million bicycles in Beijing, Achill isn’t faring too bad either. The disused railway line from Westport now routes the Great Western Greenway, a walking and cycling trail linking the two places and now brings up to 300 visitors to Achill daily since it opened.
They’ve been playing football on the island since the club was founded in 1942 and they’ve won county titles in almost every decade since. But the ravages of emigration kept taking its toll and none more so than in the latest recession. They struggled betimes to field a team towards the back end of last year after they exited the championship and lost their intermediate status.
Survival was what engaged the thoughts of those charged with looking after football on the island most as 2014 unfolded.
Now on the crease of the year in Achill Sound on the Atlantic edge beneath the shadow of Curraun Mountain the current crop of Achill footballers are preparing for a county final.
On the island’s roads in villages like Keel, Dooega, Dooagh, Bunnacurry and Slievemore, the green and white flags flutter in the evening breeze. Success beckons and an island community awaits.

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