Achill Island is situated off of the western coast of Ireland, in predominantly rural County Mayo. Achill is Ireland's largest island, measuring 20km (15 miles) east to west and 18km (11 miles) north to south (Figure 1) and is situated between Clew and Blacksod Bays. The island is separated from Corraun Peninsula on the mainland by Achill Sound, a narrow tidal inlet. The swing bridge spanning this inlet, the only terrestrial access to the island, was constructed in 1888 (McDonald 1997).
The island's coast varies from sandy and rocky beaches with easy pedestrian access to high, steep cliffs; few substantial inland water bodies are present, though fresh water was and is accessible from springs and small streams scattered throughout the island's ubiquitous bog. Over 90km (56 miles) of coastline provided resources essential to life on Achill in both the historic and modern periods. By the 18th century, fish and shell-fish provided protein in a diet otherwise generally reliant on potatoes and a small amount of grain. To be useful for agriculture, the poor soils, generally bog, required extensive additives, seaweed being a significant component. Timber and goods from shipwrecks that washed ashore were salvaged (Joyce 1910, 128; Meide 2006a). The role of the ocean, the coastline and the foreshore in the daily lives of islanders was multiple and varied.
In the popular press of the 19th and 20th centuries, western Ireland, and County Mayo and Achill Island in particular, was 'synonymous with all that is suggestive of the extremity of poverty and ignorance combined' (The Times 27 August 1851, 5). The Penal Laws, enacted in the 17th and 18th centuries, had a lasting impact on the populace of Ireland. The laws were designed to reinforce the status of the Anglican Church of England as the established church of the United Kingdom. These laws limited the freedom of Catholics and some Protestants to practice their respective religions, escalating tensions between practitioners of different faiths. Catholics, in particular, were circumscribed and were not allowed to serve in parliament or in any government office, practice law, or serve in certain capacities in the armed forces (Wall 2001, 177). Much of the landowning class was Anglican, with primarily Catholic tenants, due in part to restrictions on land ownership and land purchase in the Penal Laws (Harris 1980, 90). In 19th-century Achill, as in other places throughout Ireland, after centuries of British rule and the impact of the Penal Laws still lingering (McDonald 1998; Wall 2001), Irish-speaking native populations comprised a tenant class reliant on English-speaking landlords. British attitudes toward Achill's Irish-speaking native population were commonly disdainful, in one instance local tenants were described as having 'all the virtues and vices of semi-barbarians' (Otway 1839, 426).