6. Discussion and Conclusion

Unsurprisingly, marine landscapes – including the foreshore and ocean itself – were central to the lives of 18th to 20th century inhabitants of Achill Island. Access to and control of marine resources was essential, not only for supplementing an otherwise plant- and dairy-based diet with protein from fish and shell-fish, but in providing other resources – particularly seaweed – that allowed a soil unsuitable for agriculture without amelioration to be improved and used for crops. Off-island social and economic networks, particularly those accessed through the practice of seasonal migration, imbued the bays and sea surrounding Achill with additional layers of meaning.

The pervasive popular views of rural Irish communities as savage and uncivilised and their inhabitants as lazy was used as justification for Improvement and other social, political and government undertakings aimed at making the rural Irish more identifiably British. The continuation of communal practices such as rundale may have signified resilience, made possible by a voluntary and selective engagement in larger labour markets by seasonal labourers, but it may also be considered resistance on the part of the islanders in the face of increasing pressures from outside influences as well as from increasing rents. Islanders' reliance on the sea was capitalised upon both by landowners, through the requirement of payment for access to seaweed and possibly to other coastal resources, and by the British government through the requirement of fees and registration for the ownership and use of boats on or near the island, even those not explicitly involved in the capitalist economy. Despite - and perhaps in response to - efforts at challenging, changing, or controlling islanders' daily lives and cultural practice, islanders selectively engaged with specific aspects of emergent capitalism and increasing government control and were ultimately successful in maintaining landholdings and continuing communal practice where they chose to do so. The maintenance of communal practice in any aspect of life may have been self-perpetuating, as the social nature of the work may have made it more enjoyable. In particular, 'the gathering of seaweed has been described as “a customary social event rather than a casual activity in nineteenth-century Achill”' (McNally 1973, 73, in Horning and Brannon 2005, 22).

In fact, it appears that a reliance on the sea may actually have increased in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as seasonal migration from Achill became routine practice, expected of a certain portion of the population (Dunn 2008). Additionally, residents of Slievemore, situated inland in the north-western portion of the island, abandoned that village for Dooagh, situated directly on the southern coast of the western portion of the island.

Figure 7
Figure 7: Curraghs and the fishing community at Dooagh village on Achill, c. 1890 (Image credit: Robert French, Lawrence Collection, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland. Further permission is required for reuse.)

Photographs of boats at Dooagh (Figure 7) indicate that they were present in plenty in the early twentieth century, despite conflict over vessel form, registration and use, as well as contest of the maritime landscape between island residents and government officials. The Achill yawl, more closely aligned with British expectations and requirements, became more popular than the more traditional curragh where piers and commercial traffic were more prevalent; yet the Achill curragh survived and continued to be both constructed and utilised despite the fact that they were not, unlike the yawl, subsidised by the government and were, in some cases, confiscated (Meide and Sikes 2014).

Regulation and control of access to Achill's aquatic landscape, including the foreshore, coast and the ocean itself, related to a sometimes explicit effort to control the movement and activities of Achill's residents. Regulating and charging fees for collection of seaweed, access to the coast and its resources and the construction and/or use of boats discouraged traditional practice and reliance upon local resources, instead encouraging increased dependency upon trade and global markets. Achill islanders relied on various strategies in efforts to maintain cultural practice including the communal care of and responsibility for crops, livestock, boats and, apparently, one another.