Thursday 13 December 2018

What Lies Beneath: Cottage, Achill Island by Alexander Williams

  • Cottage, Achill Island by Alexander Williams, Oil on canvas. Courtesy Quinnipiac University

Cottage, Achill Island by Alexander Williams
Cottage, Achill Island by Alexander Williams

Niall MacMonagle

In Padraic Colum's An Old Woman of the Roads the longing for a little house, "a house of my own,/ Out of the wind's and the rain's way" is a feeling still intensely felt by 20- and 30-somethings in 21st Century Ireland.

Home means a future - and Alexander Williams's painting of this ruined cottage on Achill Island, Slievemore in the background, once rang to the sound of family life. A family once lived in this thatched, one-room dwelling - until The Great Famine silenced everything.

History tells a complex story of starvation, eviction, evangelism, death, emigration. Ireland's largest island experienced all. By 1847 its population had risen to 7,000, 5,000 of whom received relief through Edward Nangle's mission to convert them to Protestantism in exchange for food - earning for Nangle (as Niamh O'Sullivan puts it in the splendid exhibition catalogue) "the sobriquet 'souper' and 'black Protestant'.

Post-Famine Achill's population was 4,000. President Higgins painted a vivid picture of the enormity of An Gorta Mor at the opening and said that he often asks himself "what it was like for the Irish fleeing from the Famine".

Looking at Williams's painting we can only imagine too the broken lives in that broken, empty house. And it explains, perhaps, why Ireland had 1.8m American visitors last year.

Monaghan-born Alexander Williams (1846-1930) grew up in Drogheda, joined the family hat business but a keen ornithologist, turned to taxidermy and painting. Self-taught, landscapes and seascapes his speciality, he exhibited at the RHA aged 24 and every year for the following 60 years until his death.

He first visited Achill in 1873, a journey that took three days and wrote home that he "intended to make it peculiarly my own, and devote myself to making its wonderful scenery known".

In 1899 Williams leased a ruined cottage on three acres on Achill and with labourers' help built a house and garden that is now a tourist attraction. Achill's wonderful scenery is evident here but Ireland's terribly sad past is foregrounded and both are worth remembering and contemplating during the St Patrick's Day hoo-hah.

Coming Home: Art & The Great Hunger at Dublin Castle until June 30 and then tours to Skibbereen and Derry

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