Mass remembers ‘soup for convertees’ during Famine
WOUNDS caused by an ‘aggressive drive’ to evangelise the Catholics of Achill Island, Co Mayo, by handing out soup to the starving, will finally be healed more than one-and-ahalf centuries later.
There were brawls, bitter words and conflict when Rev Edward Nangle started his controversial Achill Mission in the early 1800s at the start of a period of great deprivation due to the onset of famine.
The mission, which lasted from 1831 before petering out in 1886, provided food for the poor but blazing rows flared over what became known as ‘souperism’ — the practice of providing food only to those willing to convert. Parishioners even came to blows and the then-Archbishops of Tuam Power Le Poer Trench and his successor Thomas Plunkett of the Church of Ireland and Catholic Archbishop John McHale, as well as their clergy, regularly waded verbally into the issue.
Archbishop McHale, known later to his flock as ‘The Lion of the Fold’, even went so far in the letters pages of the time to refer to the newcomers as “venomous fanatics”. Even though the mission, with its well-managed corn mill, grain store and hardware store, has long disappeared from the landscape, there are still reverberations to this very day.
The phrase, ‘they took the soup’, is still occasionally heard as a derogatory term amongst islanders. But a ceremony on Saturday next in the four churchyards and graveyards of the old Mission at St Thomas, Dugort, should help heal the few remaining hurts that linger over the issue. Both the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary, and the newly consecrated Church of Ireland Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, Very Rev Patrick Rooke, will preside and speak at the ceremony.
Church of Ireland Rector, Reverend Val Rogers, yesterday said: “We will remember all of Achill’s dead, whatever their denomination and whether their bones lie in Catholic or Protestant ground. “We will focus above all on the dilemmas, sufferings, efforts and decisions of Achill’s poor from 1831 when the mission began, through the Great Famine, to the mission’s end in 1886.”
Rev Rogers added: “There were hurt and angry feelings about both groups for many years and a mix of anger and admiration about Nangle’s methods.” A spokesman for Archbishop Neary confirmed he will be in attendance and will speak at Saturday’s ceremony at St Thomas’s, the principal church of the mission. Apart from church services and door-to-door calling, the evangelisation included a robust paper, the ‘Achill Missionary Herald and Western Witness’, which lasted for more than 30 years.
The paper was a key to convert and ‘save’ local people from what were considered ‘Roman Catholic errors, ignorance and neglect’. Saturday’s ceremony will thank God that “affection between our leaders and peoples have replaced that period’s acrimony”.