4. Civilizing Influences

Perhaps the most well-known and certainly the best recorded foreign influence on Achill, the Achill Mission was established by the Reverend Edward Nangle in 1831 at Dugort, near the northern coast of the island (Whelan 1987; McDonald 1997; Ní Ghiobúin 2001). Nangle was explicit in his goals, namely to convert Catholic islanders to Anglican Protestantism and, in the process, to make them more recognisably British in language, culture and social organisation as well as in religion (Nangle 1839). The Achill Mission itself illustrated the ideals of the British Georgian style, with symmetrically ordered pathways and architecture (Figure 4). Nangle's views, including both humanitarian concerns and frequent anti-Catholic rhetoric, have been preserved in his monthly newspaper, the Achill Missionary Herald, produced on Achill's first printing press. The Herald provides decades of commentary on life on the island, though from a very specific geographic, cultural and political vantage.

Figure 4
Figure 4: The Achill Mission at Dugort, between 1880 and 1900 (Image credit: Robert French, Lawrence Collection, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland. Further permission is required for reuse.)

Nangle's views were rooted not only in his position as a proselytiser, but in the broader movement of Improvement, which also likely heavily influenced the perspectives of other visitors to Achill. Growing in popularity and enacted particularly throughout England in the latter part of the 18th century, Improvement grew from Enlightenment concepts of the individual, scientific reason and the implementation of ideal, or 'improved', methods in nearly every aspect of life including transportation, agriculture, housing, urban and rural planning, architecture, education and incarceration (Tarlow 2007, 13). Concomitant with the growth of capitalism, Improvement prioritised capital, privacy and labour and situated agriculture as a commercial venture, no longer to be undertaken for subsistence alone (Dalglish 2003; Tarlow 2007). The 'values of capitalism' were 'promoted as an avenue of moral redemption for a backward people' (Forsythe 2007a, 221) and common landholdings were divided, separated by field boundaries in regular patterns. Houses were constructed associated with these newly dispersed individual holdings, isolated from others (Dalglish 2003) and intensive efforts made to reclaim bog and expand agricultural areas (Horning 2007; Forsythe 2007a; 2007b). Nangle's mission settlement reflects these ideals in its plan and construction, but the extension of the rational, ordered and well-demarcated division of holdings to rural households, usually spaced far apart from one another in a rural landscape, was a far cry from the primarily undifferentiated fields and closely spaced houses in the 19th-century villages of Achill.

One of Nangle's methods of conversion was to offer employment – otherwise at times entirely unavailable on the island – along with formal education and food to converts (Ní Ghiobúin 2001). Through schooling and constant influence, Nangle hoped to persuade islanders to adopt more recognisably 'civilised' practices, including a patriarchal division of gender roles. Other visitors to the island, and particularly those who were associated with the ongoing work of the Achill Mission, continued to assert Improvement ideals into the 20th century:

'The truth must be told and it amounts to this – that the young men of the island allow the womenfolk to do practically all the agricultural labour in the worst months of the year; that, having brought their earnings from England, they remain idlers until the time arrives for the next harvest departure and that upon their own land they do not expend one tithe of the energy which they must give to the English and Scotch farmers' (The Times 30 September 1903, 8).

In fact, many of these men, particularly young men, may have been tending livestock in pastures away from the village. Land tenure practices, too, made efforts at improving rented land unattractive to tenants: any improvements made by tenants, even at their own expense, would increase the rent due to landowners in the future. Instead of labouring to improve their rented landholdings, much of the population, including many women, young adults and children as well, travelled from all – or nearly all – of Achill's villages to participate in migrant labour. It is likely that these accounts and the perceptions of these contemporary authors were distorted by expectations of gender roles (Nangle 1839; Cosgrove 1995; Foley 1997; Logan 1997), including that women should not undertake heavy manual or agricultural labour such as cutting and hauling turf, collecting seaweed, or maintaining and harvesting crops.

Another primary method of 'civilising' islanders was exercising control of Achill's coasts and the islanders' access to maritime resources. The First Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of the Irish Fisheries of 1836 (hereafter Fisheries Inquiry) highlighted British dissatisfaction with boat-building methods throughout Ireland and recommended government intervention in order to maximise profit, again emphasising and prioritising Improvement ideals over traditional practice.

In fact, the authors of the Fisheries Inquiry asserted that the Irish were inherently incapable of making or maintaining proper boats and that this incompetence was so great that it actually endangered fisheries profits and constituted mismanagement of the marine environment (Meide and Sikes 2014). In other parts of the British Empire, discord between British ideals of resource exploitation and native or traditional practice was used as validation of implementation of British Improvement schemes in its colonies, usually in the interest of capitalising on available resources (Horning 2010). Following Meide and Sikes (2014), Achill's maritime landscape, including the foreshore and coastline, was interpreted by Nangle and other British and American visitors as wild and 'unimproved' (Mrozowski 1999, 154; Canny 2001, 133; Johnson 2007, 15-16), despite its constant use by Achill's residents. In accordance with Improvement ideals and further justifying both the assertion of governmental control and proselytising missions, regulations were enacted to encourage the construction and use of British boat-types through subsidies, while vernacular vessels were regulated through government registration.

Finally, Britain established coastguard stations beginning in the 1830s in an effort to control access to and use of the maritime landscape, including six stations on Achill and Achill Beg. The coastguard was charged with implementing maritime policies, such as the new requirement for registration of private boats, as well as storage and protection of grain imported for relief during the mid-19th century famine; unsurprisingly, the coastguard appears to have had a close working relationship with the Achill Mission (Nangle 1847b, 32; Seddall 1884, 12, 53, 84, 89, 111, 155, 272). Like the mission, coastguard stations were designed to be imposing, situated on high ground and emblematic of constant surveillance as well as reifying socio-political hierarchies inherent in the divisions between government bodies, landlords and tenants. At least one coastguard station on Achill was situated among existing curragh pens, an exceptionally explicit statement of scrutiny and control (Figure 5). Coastguard officers avoided socialising with islanders particularly so that they could maintain impartiality and responsibility for enforcing the regulations with which they were charged, frequently resulting in conflicts over wreck salvaging rights and boat regulation (Nangle 1860b, 233; Seddall 1884, 12, 84, 89, 111, 116; Hoskyn 1893, 401; McDonald 1997, 145, 261; Beaumont 2005, 35-37; Meide and Turner 2007, 27; Michael O'Conor, pers. comm. 2005).

Figure 5
Figure 5: Position of the Keel Coastguard boathouse amid the pre-existing curragh pens of Portnaluinge (Image credit: Chuck Meide, Sam Turner and Kevin Cullen)

Amazingly and perhaps infamously, the coastguard continued their duties persistently even during the Famine. At this time, all boats were to be registered, a process requiring both a fee and likely an understanding of English and literacy possibly beyond that possessed by islanders. In 1847, 13 fishing curraghs, along with their equipment and that day's catch, were confiscated by a coastguard steamer for 'non-compliance with a regulation which requires that all boats should be registered and numbered' (Nangle 1847c, 68); it is unclear whether islanders knew about this law. This occurred in 1847, a year that has been called 'Black '47' (Kinealy 1997, 92–117) and which may have been the worst year of the Famine. As noted by Meide and Sikes (2014), though oral histories and secondary accounts of the Famine on Achill indicate that islanders starved in spite of rich maritime food sources because they were induced to sell their boats in order to buy food and seed potatoes (Mac Cullagh 1992, 108), Achill's documentary resources instead imply that the islanders' plight was also brought about – or worsened – by boat confiscations resulting from the British government's deliberate changes to maritime policy. Nangle reported that the loss of the 13 boats impacted at least 26 families (Meide and Sikes 2011), indicating that each boat was shared by two families; using an average size of seven individuals within a family on Achill (Purdy 1862, 45; Stone 1906, 340), around 180 individuals from these 26 families would have been directly affected by the loss resulting from that single incident. However, it is possible, if not likely, that maritime resources may have been further distributed among families within communities, since islanders appear to have organised communal access to the maritime landscape and the fish it provided through kinship ties and cooperative agreements, much as they organised communal access to terrestrial resources and agricultural labour.