Sharing our Stories © Vincent English.
As you walk through a village deserted, you can see the land before you and how it has changed yet stayed the same. How the people have left yet still remain. The rivers, streams, stepping
stones, potato ridges, stone and sod ditches, memories, hopes and dreams still seem intact. What is it about this place that draws thousands of people every year? What do they see? Does it look just like another pile of stones that have been scattered over
one hundred storm enraged winters or does it look as the people have just left, emigrated or simply just moved on to newer, bigger, better built housing with tax free windows.
Window tax was a charge introduced in Ireland in 1696 where the occupier
of every inhabited dwelling was charged a flat rate of 2s per year per window. Protests began in 1850 which led to its abolition in 1851. This tax brought about the iconic half door on traditional Irish cottages, where it was a way of adding a window and not
having to pay the extra charge as well as keeping your live stock in our out, depending on time of day. It is where the term ‘daylight robbery’ is thought to derive.
DesertedVillage’ as it is known far and wide wasn’t always deserted so wasn’t always referred to by this name, it is known locally as Slievemore pronounced Shlay-More (Irish: Sliabh Mór/Big
Mountain) which is made up of 3 separate villages. Tuar Riabhach, is the central village with Tuar to the west and Faiche to the east. The earliest maps available which identify this area and the layout of houses were the maps by William Bald,
compiled in 1809 and printed in 1830. These maps are considered to be the finest example of cartography carried out in Ireland prior to the 6” Ordinance Survey maps which followed. Apart from the detailed layout of the buildings and monuments, it also
contains countless local place names which could have easily been overlooked and lost forever. When studying these maps all the other villages of Achill are built along the shore lines,
close to beaches, rivers and secluded bays which would suggest that there were two lifestyles existing side by side in Achill at that time. This was known as booleying, where an entire village would pack up their belongings and move their cattle to higher
pasture land in the spring months. It is known locally and in living memory that the cattle were moved in the month of May and were immediately better off, for the grazing at Slievemore, as it contained something that the cattle thrived on. Within weeks of
moving, the thin scrawny dry cattle would soon fill out and start producing milk again. This area also provided better, more fertile soil for the growing of crops which is clearly evident to this day with the remnants of lazy beds that fill the fields and
contours of the lower slopes of Slievemore that surround the ruined stone houses. Once the crops were sowed and the cattle fattened the entire village would pack up their belongings and return to their coastal homes for the summer and return again in autumn
to harvest the crops and rejuvenate the cattle.
The entire village at first glance or without looking for the detail, looks like a line of cottages all built with locally sourced stone circa. early 19th century, when in fact it is
a village like any other on Achill. The nearby village of Dooagh is closely linked to this ancient settlement as most of the land is currently in the possession of the people of Dooagh, so I will use it as a contrast and similarity. If you were to wander
through Dooagh as it is today, you will see the older cottages all with their gables facing north but in between these early habitats there are newer houses built on the site of previous dwellings, some keeping the traditional look, others more modern bungalows
with very different building techniques, adding boundary walls, gardens, hedges and moving with the times all the while retaining the village community. Slievemore was no different, each house has different features, different building techniques and built
at very different times. The older type cottage is built haphazardly, undressed stone, small huts with one door and no windows, built on the footprint of a previously more rounded structure. The more modern house is extremely well constructed, with almost
dressed stone, two doors and a west facing window, with better internal features of their time. The village is built on the lower slopes of Slievemore and stretches over 3km east to west. Within 50 metres of each house is a running fresh water stream that
cascades down the mountain from springs high above, providing fresh water for cleaning, cooking and drinking. With the support of available records, books published, local accounts, photographs, folklore and logic based on what is visible, I will explain in
as much detail as possible what life was like for a typical Achill Islander prior to the village being totally abandoned.
Following extensive archaeological excavations in the area by Achill Archaeological field school, it is confirmed that Achill has
a long history of human settlement that dates back to the Stone Age. It is possible there was habitation prior to this but nothing has been found as the types of dwellings used at that time would be of wooden construction and long since disappeared. Further
excavations have revealed Bronze Age settlements all within close proximity of Slievemore.
It is unknown when the entire settlement became deserted as a permanent residence as to
date no historical records have been recovered. What is known, AchillIsland was owned by Sir Richard O Donnell of Newport House in 1830.
In that same year an outbreak of famine and cholera swept the west coast of Ireland, particularly Mayo. The following
year Edward Nangle who was then aged 31, along with his wife Elizabeth, the Rector of Dumes, near Bantry and the Reverend. James Freke, were asked by evangelical friends to accompany the steamer Nottingham from Dublin to Westport with a cargo of Indian meal
and to report on conditions along the Mayo coast.
At Westport, Nangle met with and immediately befriended the Rector of Newport, Reverend William Baker Stoney and on Stoney’s direction, Nangle visited Achill, staying overnight at Pollranny. The
next day he crossed at low tide and travelled on horseback around the island.
Reverend Stoney had more of a hold on Dugort than he may or may not have mentioned as there is little
reference about it anywhere. In 1828 Reverend William B. Stoney was listed as an occupier in Dugort, although not resident there he certainly was farming the land or had it leased out to local farmers. On the tithe returns of that year he is listed as farming
55acres of arable land and pasture as well as 140 acres of bog and mountain land paying a total of 7shillings and 10pence tithe taxes.
Tithe payment or Tithe Tax was an obligation on those working the land to pay 10% of the value of certain types of
agricultural produce for the upkeep of the clergy and maintenance of the assets of the Church of England, irrespective of an individual's religious adherence.
Moved by the temporal and spiritual destitution of the people, Nangle returned to Newport
to discuss his findings with Stoney and the plan commenced for the Achill Mission. Sir Richard O’Donnell provided land at Dugort on a long lease with a nominal rent and Nangle moved to secure support for his mission plans from his old school-friend Robert
Daly, Rector of Powerscourt. O’Donell and Nangle became friends. Like Nangle, O’Donnell had developed a fierce dislike to all things Catholic and is on record as having said that he would not leave a catholic between KnocknablaBridge and the River
of Newport. The 130 acres Nangle was interested in renting was already being farmed and made up the third village of Slievemore, Faiche on the eastern end. In ‘The Rise and Fall of a Missionary Community’ by Mealla Ní Ghiobúin,
it states, ‘the tenants were determined to maintain their hold on the land’. O Donnell advised Nangle that he would have to convince the tenants to give up their hold on their lands. The names of the tenants who had interests in land in Dugort
or Doogurth as it was listed in the Tithe Applotment Books 1823-37 were: Hubert Barrett, John Gavin, Owen O Malley, Thomas McNamara and Rev. W.B. Stoney.
Whatever deal was struck
or arrangement made but in 1831, Nangle was successful in acquiring these lands under the Mission Estate. It was in this village of Faiche or Dugort West as it was renamed, that the first school in Achill was built by the protestant missionary, the ruins of
which are still visible to this day.
The best way to describe the village of Slievemore in the 19th and early 20th century is by first-hand account of eye witnesses who were there.
Wilde (Father of Oscar Wilde) described Achill in 1836:
“There are several villages in Achill, particularly those of Keene (Keem) and Keele, where the huts of the inhabitants are all circular or oval, and built for
the most part of round, water-washed stones, collected from the beach, and arranged without lime or any other cement, exactly as we have reason to believe that the habitations of the ancient Firbolgs were constructed.
During the spring the
entire population of several of the villages we allude to in Achill close their winter dwellings, tie their infant children on their backs, carry with them their loys (spades) and some carry potatoes, with a few pots and cooking-utensils—drive their
cattle before them, and migrate into the hills, where they find fresh pastures for their flocks; and there they build rude huts and summer-houses of sods and wattles, called booleys, and then cultivate and sow with corn a few fertile spots in the neighbouring
valleys. They thus remain for about two months of the spring and early summer, till the corn is sown; their stock of provisions being exhausted, and the pasture consumed by their cattle, they return to the shore, and eke out a miserable, precarious existence
by fishing. No further care is ever taken of the crops: indeed they seldom ever visit them, but return, in autumn, in a manner similar to the spring migration, to reap the corn, and afford sustenance to their half-starved cattle. With these people it need
scarcely be wondered that there is annually a partial famine.”
Wilde states: “there they build rude huts and summer-houses of sods and wattles, called booleys” It is obvious the houses of Slievemore are anything
but “rude huts of sods and wattles”. Such houses would long have disappeared over time and nothing remains but possibly a hearth.
In the mid 1840’s an American author and philanthropist, Mrs Asenath Nicholson visited Achill and wrote
about what she witnessed. She arranged for a guide to take her to Keem, leaving The Mission Colony in Dugort. She writes;
“He took me through an ancient village, with no roads but foot-paths; and the village being large, we were long in making
our way through. As we passed on, the whole hamlet was in motion; those not in the way managed to put themselves there. The kind salutations, the desire to know everything about America, and the fear that I was hungry, almost overpowered me. One old woman,
who with her fingers told me she was three score and fifteen, whose teeth were all sound, and her cheeks yet red, approached, put her hand upon my stomach, made a sorrowing face, and said in Irish, "She is hungry; the stranger is hungry." We were so delayed
that we feared we should be limited in time, and we hurried on a couple of miles to another village of the same description, though not so much inhabited, being used by the inhabitants of the first as a kind of country-seat, common stock of all who assemble
their cattle and sheep, to drive them upon the mountain for pasturage, to fatten them at a favourable season of the year. There were but a few now in it; but walking by a number of deserted huts, we came to one where sat an old woman and her two married daughters,
by the sunny side of the hut. Asking the old lady her age, she put up her fingers, and counted five score; she asked for a penny, then prayed for me in Irish, and I asked her if she wished to live any longer? "As long as God wishes me," was the answer. "Do
you expect to go to heaven?" "By God's grace I do." What could be more consistent, if she understood the import?”
Both accounts are very distinctive and clearly describe the area in detail. As if life on Achill wasn’t hard enough at
that time, the poor people of the already impoverished island were about the enter into The Great Famine where they would have to fight for their survival. There is little available account of the hardship they endured, however Aseneth Nicholson did return
in 1851 and wrote of her findings in ‘Annals of the Famine in Ireland’, in a chapter entitle ‘AchillIsland, during the famine’.
“I passed the Christmas and New Year's-day in Achill. Mr. Nangle I heard preach again, and as he figured considerably in the first volume of my work, it may be said here that he refused any reconciliation, though good opportunity presented; and
when he was expostulated with by a superintendent of his schools, who informed him that I had visited numbers of them, and put clothes upon some of the most destitute, he coolly replied, "If she can do any good I am glad of it."
He had eleven
schools scattered through that region, reading the scriptures, and learning Irish; but all through these parts might be seen the fallacy of distributing a little over a great surface. The scanty allowance given to children once a day, and much of this bad
food, kept them in lingering want, and many died at last. Mr. Nangle had many men working in his bog, and so scantily were they paid—sometimes but three-pence and three-pence-halfpenny a day—that some at least would have died but for the charity
of Mrs. Savage. These men had families to feed, and must work till Saturday, then go nine miles into the colony to procure the Indian meal for the five days' work. This he truly called giving his men "employ."
Another sad evil prevalent in
nearly all the relief-shops was damaged Indian meal. And here without any personality, leaving the application where it belongs, having a knowledge of the nature of this article, it is placed on record, that the unground corn that was sent from America, and
bought by the Government of England, and carried round the coast and then ground in the mills, which did not take off the hull, much of it having been damaged on the water, became wholly unfit for use, and was a most dangerous article for any stomach. Many
of the shops I found where this material was foaming and sputtering in kettles over the fire, as if a handful of soda had been flung in, and sending forth an odour really unpleasant; and when any expostulation was made, the answer was, "They're quite glad
to get it," or, "We use such as is put into our hands—the government must see to that." Such meal, a good American farmer would not give to his swine unless for physic, and when the half-starved poor, who had been kept all their life on potatoes, took
this sour, mouldy, harsh food, dysentery must be the result”.
In 1881, the Irish Land Commission was founded to establish fair rents. In 1885 the Ashbourne Land Act transformed the commission’s main function from fixing rents to breaking
up estates and facilitating tenant purchase of their holdings. Between 1885 and 1920 the commission oversaw the transfer of 13,500,000 acres.
In 1891 The Congested District Board was established. These districts along the Atlantic coast, were 'Congested'
not because half a million people lived there, but because too many of them were trying to scratch from bog or stony-mountain-land, a living which was at best precarious and sometimes non-existent.
The C.D.B. had a four-fold purpose:
(1) To promote
local industries by subsidies and technical instruction;
(2) To amalgamate uneconomic holdings by land purchase;
(3) To assist migration from impoverished areas to the newly amalgamated holdings;
(4) To improve the quality of agriculture
in the congested areas (goldenlangan.com 2015).
One of the big draw-backs of this board was that it lacked the power of compulsory purchase of landlord estates, and it was only with the coming of the Free State in 1922 that such powers were granted
to the Land Commission.
To take such steps as it might think proper in aiding and developing agriculture, in forestry, in the breeding of livestock and poultry, in weaving, in spinning, in fishing and industries subservient to fishing including the
construction of piers and harbours and in aiding and developing other suitable industries. The Board was authorised to proceed in the execution of these duties either directly or indirectly, and by the application of funds by means of gifts or loans. Decisions
made by the Board were to be final and unquestionable even by DublinCastle. All along the coasts of Donegal, Mayo and Galway active steps were taken to provide fishermen with boats and suitable lines and nets, and also with curing stations for cod and ling.
However, most of the coast of Mayo and Sligo, consisting of cliffs and long beaches of shingle or strand, were found to be unsuitable for the development of fishing on a large scale.
When the land commission divided the land in Dooagh, it was nothing more than bog, so the people set about fertilizing their respective stripes with seaweed from the shore as well as animal waste and whatever else was available to them to break down the
bog and turn it into something that would yield a crop to feed their families. They spent all the day light hours turning the scraw, draining and cultivating each stripe. From what I have learned in my research, the people returned to Slievemore to grow their
crops and harvest the hay as well as cutting their turf. It is known that the oldest and youngest generations stayed in Slievemore during the spring and summer months and returned to Dooagh for the winter in the better built homes on their newly striped out
land. The old people still had their connection with the village they were born into while the newer generation were building newer bigger cottages closer to the new roads and new piers.
A writer known as John Harris visited Achill and wrote in detail
of his findings, this is his description of Dooagh in 1906.
“The majority of rude huts or cabins composing Dooagh lie in a cluster on the right bank of a bubbling trout stream, near its entrance over the rocks into the sea. They seemed at
some time, very long ago, to have been promiscuously thrown out of a gigantic pepper-box on the strand, so extraordinary higgledy-piggeldy placed as they are they. Being all of similar singular style of architecture and size, it is not easy to find one’s
way about amongst them.
The poorest people of Dooagh live here, and abjectly poor some of them are. One old woman, for instance, of probably ninety at least, lay a huddled-up mass of rags on one side of the hearth on the floor. Neighbours had
given her a few pieces of turf for the fire. Rheumatatic swellings the size of lemons on each wrist shewed how the poor soul for years had suffered and become incapable. On a rickety table a few bits of crockery, broken and cracked, without a vestige of food,
were eloquent of destitution. Inn her windowless and black, smoke-dried loneliness, without an animal or bird of any kind, the old soul was dependant upon the visits of her neighbours for a drink of water or a few potatoes. In an incessant torrent of mumbling
accents she called down blessings from heaven and all the saints upon her visitors who tried to impart a little temporary amelioration into her life. This old woman is known as a “bad case”, a description the neighbours have no scruple in using
before her face, and she is in receipt of the magnificent sum of one shilling a week from the parish. We paid her many surprise visits, and hardly ever saw any food in the shanty which a respectable Berkshire pig would not turn his nose up at.
this “bad case” is not singular. An old man in rags, and a similar hovel, close by, living quite alone, when presented with some clothing, used a form of blessing of a novel character that of Shadrah. Meshach and Abednego. The unexpected magnificent
gift must have upset him! The present of an old waistcoat to another native produced the softly repeated expression of evidently genuine delight, “By gum! By gum!”
The readiness to bless upon any little gift being received is not
an unpleasant trait in the character of the Achill Islanders. Generally common forms are, “The Lord spare thee, give thee long life, and send thee safe in all thy journeys,”
One evening at Dooagh we went to some out-of-the-way
cabins to distribute tea and clothes to a few of the poorest people, and in particular called upon one old, solitary man whom we knew was not too much loaded down with this world’s goods. We found the door of his shanty closed on the outside with latch
and padlock, and naturally supposed the occupier was from home. So we took the padlock off the clasp, it not being locked, and opened the door in order to place the little present inside. To our surprise he was in bed and was extremely gratified
with the gift we brought, and on our leaving he called out after us to be sure to lock the door on the outside. The old gentleman depended on passers by to lock him in at night and let him out in the morning.
The hovels or cabins are built
of rough beach stones, chipped it may be a little on the exterior and the roofs are made of sods, locally called scraws, which, when in position, are dried by blocking up the chimney, or oftener the hole in the roof, and door, and lighting a turf fire inside.
These roofs can never be said to be water tight. Many cabins are devoid of windows, and naturally the floor is as mother earth made it, a luxury being a sprinkle of sea sand. The average inside measurement is about 30 by 15 feet, and the height to the beams
is 6 feet or less. At one end is the spot on the floor where the turf fire is always kept alight, and the other is a night-abiding place for a mixed collection of animal and bird life, that is, in the cabin of those comparatively wealthy enough to possess
them. At one side of the dwelling, on a table or rack, are the few eating utensils, opposite which is the bed (only one), usually covered with home-made blankets. A small loft is sometimes constructed above the heads of the cattle for storing fodder and any
tools the family may fortunately possess, and where at night cocks and hens find pleasant roosting. A small potato patch, or none, around their miserable huts, with the few pounds won by the bread-winners’ harvesting in Scotland or the North of England,
constitute in the majority of cases the whole means of subsistence. And when the bread winner dies, the family, generally in such cases a large one, is solely dependant upon the charity of the neighbouring huts, which is, however, as I know, singularly and
instructively generous. From one small hut of rude beach stones, with turf (“sod”) roof, kept down by hay bands or ropes with slung stones, I have repeatedly seen issue in early morning a dozen geese, several hens, a cow and a calf, a horse and
colt, one or two pigs, two or more toddling youngsters, one or two youths or maidens and the father and mother. All had passed the night in a single by no means large room, without window, with a closed shut door, and containing one bed. The animals are then
ushered off by the various members of the family to their respective walks on the bog, and the night droppings are brought out by the shovelful by the father or eldest boy or girl and deposited on the heap close to the door.
are too poor to have more than fowls or geese; others, again, have only pigs; some are so poor as to pocess no live stock at all, and so on.
Small hand corn-grinding mills or querns are still to be seen in some of the cabins, but they are now
merely mementoes of the days when the oats and rye was ground at home and made into bread. Nowadays, wheat flour is bought and bread made. This “soda-bread” as it is called, is made, without an excess of the carbonate of soda, is exceedingly palatable.
The fire is built up of pieces of turf on the floor, and is never allowed to go out, a pleasant red glow being soon obtained by arranging the pieces in a pyramidal slanting position stooping down and gently blowing with the mouth.
door is usually built facing the east. Some of the slightly better huts have two doors, one also facing due west. Te doors seldom face seaward, for the prevailing wind is south-west, and Achill is all the year round a very windy place”.
description could easily be describing any of the houses at Slievemore, its inhabitants and the way of life. The daily routine was spent outdoors and only came in doors to eat and sleep. During these years of land agitation, the villages of Achill underwent
massive changes. There is little or no reference to any villages along the shorelines and beaches, which would suggest they were not governed by land law and were excluded from paying rents.
Paul Henry and his wife, Grace, travelled to Achill in the
summer of 1910. He was so immediately captivated by the beauty of Achill, he famously tore up his return ticket to London, on the rocks at Gubalennaun in Dooagh. The couple stayed on and off for the next nine years and the experience fed Paul Henry’s
art for almost three decades. Walking west through the deserted village you can instantly recognise at least 3 of Henry’s paintings, during this time he also developed his interest
in peoples portraits as they went about their daily lives, his most famous being, launching of the curragh. The following account is taken from Paul Henry's autobiography 'An Irish Portrait'.
“My first winter in Achill, I had wandered away towards
a place called 'Crumphaun' and was going in the direction of Slievemore; I was going nowhere in particular, justwandering in search of anything that might turn up, and I found myself in a part of the island where I had never been before. I walked
on and came upon a strange village which struck me as having great possibilities for a drawing. There were no people or animals in sight, not even a cow or a sheep. I found that the rough track led to a little huddle of houses which seemed to
be deserted. A little farther on I saw one or two more strange cottages but they also seemed uninhabited.
I wandered up and down the bohereen; I went to the houses one by one to find them all bolted and barred and still no sign of a human being.
I visited every house with the same result; it was as if a plague had swept everybody away, although there were signs that the houses had been occupied comparatively recently. It was more deserted, more forlorn than any place I had ever seen. And then realisation
came to me - I was in a 'Booley'. A 'Booley' is an old Irish name for a summer dwelling like the 'Saeter' in the Alps, where the people took their cattle in the summer months for a change of pasture. I was in Old Slievemore about a mile from Keel, but as I
sat there I was centuries away in my mind. The silence was profound. I could hear far away the muffled boom of the sea thundering on the rocks of Gubelennaun, no other sound, except perhaps my quick breathing because I was excited and entranced with this glimpse
into a world hundreds of years old. It was strange, and apart from its loneliness, bizarre; it was troglodyte in its uncouthness, but it had an intimacy, a friendliness, a familiarity, it was the ancestral home of the tribe”.
From the few records available, it would appear that the vilage of Dooagh was originally constructed as the booley village on the shore line. Following the devision of the bogland in Dooagh on the north side of the road by the Irish Land Commission,
people began to build bigger 2 roomed houses with 2 windows and later adding another room and window at the bottom of their respective stripes. These houses are instantly recognisable today as the traditional Achill Cottage. The land and houses at Slievemore
were continued to be used into the late 1940’s although after this time nobody stayed over night. This turn around took place at some point in the 30 years from 1883 – 1913. There was one house used as a fulltime residence up to the 1950’s,
by a family known as Callaghan’s who were the last known full time residents of Tuar.
One thing is for sure that the people who lived in the village at the foot of slievemore were a community united, they knew the meaning of the word ‘Meithal’
(Meh-hal), they used it daily. They helped each other, they helped their community, they worked the land and they worked hard. Another important feature of these cabins or houses of that time was the ‘Cearchall’ (Car-a-chul) which was a beam
that spanned the room and hanging from it was the food and important items to support the family within. It was an important feature within the house. The same word would later be used to describe the main support within the family, be it a son, daughter,
uncle or aunt. He or she is our ‘Cearchall’.
So maybe when you see this village again, you will not see a village desserted, but a once thriving community who’s decendats still live among us today, for these are not abandoned or deserted
houses, but still in private ownership of the families of the people who lived there. “Our ancestral homes”