A vicious battle for souls on Achill
Non-Fiction: The Preacher and the Prelate, Patricia Byrne, Merrion Press, paperback, 272 pages, €14.99
This gripping book tells the true story of the feverish clergyman who came to the island on a mission to convert the islanders and ended up sparking a sectarian cage fight.
In 1831, a young clergyman, Edward Nangle, landed on Achill Island on a mission to rescue the 6,000 wretched inhabitants from hunger, illiteracy and the "filthy and blasphemous absurdities" of their Catholic faith. Nangle is the preacher of Patricia Byrne's gripping true story of sectarian conflict ignited by the so-called Second Reformation. The prelate of the title is John McHale. A resurgent Roman Church emboldened by the granting of Catholic Emancipation decided to fight firebrand with firebrand, and appointed the Rottweiler McHale as Bishop of Tuam. "Anybody but him!" the prime minister implored the Pope, but both sides were locked in for a vicious cage fight.
The Second Reformation began with a feverish new-found zeal among hardline Protestants in Britain and Ireland to evangelise native peoples around the world, and by the 1830s the movement's missionary outposts stretched from enfeebled China to enslaved Africa to the infertile foothills of weather-beaten Achill off the Mayo coast. Edward Nangle saw the need for a missionary outpost much closer to home, although Achill was worlds apart from the life he'd known at Trinity College Dublin.
Untroubled by self-doubt, Nangle saw himself as a new Martin Luther, picking up on Luther's big idea of engaging with the people in their native tongue. He took his immediate lead from the "neat formula" of Cavan landowner John Maxwell-Barry, who had brought thousands of Catholics into the Protestant fold in the 1820s. The author outlines the formula as: "Break the hold of Catholicism on the tenants, promote evangelical education with good moral living, and improved estate efficiency would follow. It was a win-win for landlord and tenant."
So Nangle arrived on Achill brandishing a carrot and stick. The carrot was that converts to Protestantism and good moral living would be rewarded with proper schooling, funds to build sturdy slate-roofed homes, the protection of the mission, and deliverance from the evil of papish superstition. The stick was Nangle himself. He was no Martin Luther.
Having made his points about the failings of the Catholic Church, Luther's instincts were towards moderation, conciliation and compromise. Nangle despised moderation and conciliation as shows of weakness.
His default mode was confrontation and he took delight in ridiculing the most deeply-held beliefs of the people he was trying to win over, taunting them, for instance, that consuming the communion wafer made them barbaric cannibals. Most of the voices of reason and mediation in Byrne's powerful account come from women, whose proper place all too often was to stand by their man, right or wrong. Where these wives, mothers, insiders and intrigued outsiders could sometimes spy an olive branch, Nangle would only see rods for the backs of the recusant papists. His separatist Second Reformation mission turned Achill into a Victorian remake of a Cromwellian Plantation.
Word travelled quickly that the island had become a Petri dish for the implantation of a foreign culture, and before long the island began attracting outside attention. Today it would be classed a conflict zone like Somalia or Yemen, and the place would be crawling with news-camera crews and celebrity disaster-zone tourists.
That comparison isn't as far fetched as it may seem. Achill did become a conflict zone, and the celebrities who reported from the hotspot included the intrepid globetrotter Jane Franklin and the aristocratic French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, who left in a state of dejection, writing: "If you want to know what the spirit of conquest and religious hatred, combined with all the abuses of aristocracy without any of its advantages, can produce, come to Ireland."
Byrne doesn't say it directly, but de Tocqueville could have been describing Nangle in person. The driving force behind the Achill Mission was a tyrannical fanatic in the mode of Oliver Cromwell. The author suggests he was bipolar, but of the many words that she and others employ to describe him, the one that best finds the target is "unhinged".
He believed that he was living through the end of days. He petitioned against a British government Bill to fund a Catholic seminary at Maynooth in 1845, citing his "grief and alarm". The Great Famine struck that same year.
Byrne writes: "He [Nangle] had warned that the passing of such a wicked measure would most certainly draw down God's judgment and his warning had proved correct with the emergence of the potato blight. Edward now felt vindicated in his prediction, seeing divine vengeance, 'the finger of God', in the rotting potato crop."
Nangle's behaviour during the Great Famine is part of the living history of Achill to this very day. His accusers charge him with taking cynical advantage of the devastation all around him, forcing desperate starving people to sell their souls, and the souls of their children, for bread and soup. His defenders point out the undeniable truth that the mission's soup kitchens saved hundreds of lives.
Nor does the Catholic Church emerge covered in glory. One young girl called Bridget Lavelle, who had embraced the mission, was lured home on a lie that her sister was dying. "So my lady, we have you at last," said the parish priest as the trap was sprung.
"The priest had come down heavy on the family, refusing to hear their confessions until they had removed their daughter from the Achill Mission," writes Byrne.
When the girl fled to Dublin to stay true to her new faith, she learned to her horror that the priests on Achill had put about the false rumour she'd left because she'd become pregnant.
This is a dramatic tale crammed with incident, including an early murder that set the tone for decades of sectarian struggle to come. Parts could be lifted from today's newspapers, including book-cooking charity scandals, uncaring vulture funds, routine evictions and endemic homelessness.
Told with pace and panache, The Preacher And The Prelate is an extraordinary and important read.