The 'Wretched Poor' and the Sea: Contest and exploitation of Achill Island's historic maritime landscape

Shannon Dunn1 and Chuck Meide2

1. United States Department of Agriculture - Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS), 2614 NW 43rd Street, Gainesville, Florida 32606 USA. Email:
2. Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP), 81 Lighthouse Avenue St Augustine, Florida 32080 USA. Email:

Cite this as: Dunn, S. and Meide, C. 2014 The 'Wretched Poor' and the Sea: Contest and exploitation of Achill Island's historic maritime landscape, Internet Archaeology 37.


Curraghs and the fishing community at Dooagh village on Achill, c. 1890

The daily lives of Achill Island's inhabitants were heavily influenced by their relationships with the ocean, its resources and the seasons. Ireland's largest island, situated along its predominantly rural western coast, Achill remains in many ways idyllic and pastoral, descriptors used in the modern and recent historic era to draw tourists but also used in previous centuries to denigrate the culture and lifeways of the islands' inhabitants. Achill Island's maritime landscape, including its shoreline and coastal resources, was one of contest during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The island and its surrounding waters formed an active landscape within which the island's population resisted government control by maintaining, as much as possible and in some cases against government order, their preferred relationships with the ocean and its resources. Methods developed by the islanders for boatbuilding, natural resource exploitation, agriculture, labour, and travel related directly to the maritime landscape; these practices also relied on familial and extra-familial groups that provided community cohesion and a support network that allowed for cultural resilience. Achill's residents structured agricultural, labour and maritime practices according to seasonal cycles and traditional practice, often not in the manner preferred by landlords and government bodies charged with improving rural living standards. Archaeological, archival and ethnographic evidence shows that the islanders' practices, uniquely adapted to the maritime and terrestrial conditions of Achill, were in many ways better suited both to their daily lives and their surrounding environment than those imposed by external agents.

The authors encourage the reader to explore the interactive map of Achill for a tour and visuals of the island to put this article into context.

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